J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tribeca ’18: Stockholm

Ostensibly, it is a term used to condone questionable decisions, but the term “Stockholm Syndrome” definitely carries highly negative connotations. In general parlance, it implies the victim was either too weak or too stupid to resist the brainwashing or seduction of their captors. However, the circumstances of the historical incident that coined the term were considerably different. At least, that is how the somewhat fictionalized chronicle of the Normalmstorg Kreditbanken hostage crisis unfolds in Robert Budreau’s Stockholm, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

He presents himself as an American singing cowboy, but the hostage-taker’s real identity will be the source of some controversy during the stand-off. Regardless, his love for Bob Dylan is genuine enough (the film opens with “New Morning,” a good one that isn’t over-played). Oddly enough, Kaj Hansson (as he is first assumed to be) is not so shocked when the alarm is tripped. In fact, it is a necessary precondition for him to start presenting his demands, which includes the release of his bank-robbing best pal Gunnar Sorensson.

It turns out Sorensson is rather surprised by the scheme, but he plays along—and maybe plays both sides against each other when the cops offer him a deal to act as a “mediator.” Bank officer Bianca Lind is more perceptive than Hansson (or whoever). She can tell he has more enthusiasm than brains. He is in over his head, but the increasingly infuriated cops are probably a greater threat to her safety. Together with the two other hostages, who also start to see things her way, Lind tries to help plot an exit strategy for Hansson and Sorensson.

For many viewers, the big surprise here is the portrayal of Lind (and to a lesser extent her two fellow hostages). Frankly, they are not victims at all (yes, they were menaced a bit during the initial hostage-taking, but they quickly get over it). There is no question Lind is the smartest person in the room—and she choses to help her serenading captor, making her own voluntary decision. As a result, this film is bound to be controversial, especially in Sweden, considering it portrays the sainted Olof Palme as a craven political beast.

The other happy revelation is just how good Noomi Rapace is as Lind. Let’s be honest, her post-Millennium Trilogy work has been iffy (we’re talking about films like Bright, Unlocked, and What Happened to Monday? here). Maybe going back to Sweden was healthy for her, because she is totally riveting as Lind, but in a way that is both cerebral and humane.

Rapace also develops some intriguingly ambiguous chemistry with Ethan Hawke as the nice guy hostage-taker. Arguably, Hawke is a tad old for the “impetuous kid” role (his historical analog was thirty-two at the time of the standoff), but he might be one of the few thesps working today who can credibly convey the character’s flamboyance and his naivete. Of course, Mark Strong is money in the bank as the intense, borderline sociopathic Sorensson. Terms like “heroes,” “villains,” and “anti-heroes” definitely get a little murky in a film like this, but Christopher Heyerdahl (a distant relation of the explorer) makes quite a memorably severe antagonist as police chief Mattsson.

“Stockholm Syndrome” is a term that gets haphazardly thrown around, but this film makes viewers question its usage, even starting in the first instance. It is a tight, energetic period thriller, helmed with a fair amount of flair by Budreau (who also directed Hawke in the hip Chet Baker bio-pic, Born to Be Blue). Highly recommended, Stockholm screens again this Monday (4/23) and the following Sunday (4/29), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Tribeca ’18: You Shall Not Sleep

Method actors can be pretentious and annoying, but Alma Böhm’s method is downright dangerous. She has her actors stay up for days straight, in order to strip away their self-conscious selves and unleash their pure instinct—or something like that. Needless to say, this is a bad idea in a horror movie kind of way. Staging their performance in abandoned mental hospital further compounds the danger in Gustavo Hernández’s You Shall Not Sleep (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Bianca has also been fascinated by Böhm’s work, so she can’t no when offered a part in her latest theatrical happening, even though she is well aware of the infamous ending to her last attempt at sleep-deprivation theater (apparently, 108 hours is a significant red line for participants). However, she is rather put out to learn she still has to compete for the role, against her pretty but less talented friend Dora.

The good news is she is much more susceptible to Böhm’s method than Dora. That is also the bad news. Before long, Bianca is seeing shadowy figures out of the corner of her eye and having flashbacks from the POV of her character, a wronged patient who very nearly killed her baby when she set the hospital on fire.

Pretty soon, we are just as lost as Bianca in the various temporal shift and reality warps. Yet, there always seems to be a method to Hernández’s madness, so to speak. Frankly, YSNS is probably a horror movie by default (it would certainly be terrifying to live through equivalent experiences), but it has nearly as much in common with mind-benders like Inception. Still, it is hard to argue with the implication of a haunted and crumbling lunatic asylum.

The Uruguayan Hernández shows a masterful control of atmosphere, tension, and general mise-en-scene throughout it all. This is definitely a moody movie. He also gets some great performances from his cast, particularly Spanish actress Belén Rueda, who goes from being the woman-in-jeopardy in Julia’s Eyes, to being the one putting women in jeopardy, as Böhm. She is chillingly driven, sharing a kinship with Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man. It is also scary to see how worn-down and hollowed-out Eva De Dominici gets as the tragically sensitive Bianca, while Susana Hornos really sneaks up on viewers as the dramatically less intuitive Dora.

You have to give Hernández credit for making a haunted asylum film that can never be mistaken for a clone of Grave Encounters or Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. Indeed, there is quite a bit of fresh and originally creepy stuff to be found here. Highly recommended for unpedantic genre fans, You Shall Not Sleep screens again tonight (4/20), tomorrow night (4/21) and next Saturday (4/28), as part of this year’s Tribeca.

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Ramen Heads: You’re Supposed to Slurp

Osamu Tomita is a lot like Jiro Ono, but he dreams of ramen instead of sushi. Ramen is so much his thing, Tomita visits other ramen restaurants on his day off. It is mostly just to eat, rather than for purposes of industrial espionage. For the fourth year in a row, his ramen has been recognized as Japan’s best, so his competitors are more likely to steal from him, rather than vice versa. Yet, he boldly welcomes viewers into his kitchen to watch him prepare the next day’s broth and noodles in Koki Shigeno’s documentary Ramen Heads (trailer here), which opens today in Chicago.

Ramen is probably the most quintessentially Japanese meal. Originally, it was cheap but filling food the large class of struggling post-war laborers could afford, but it has evolved into a culinary art form. Yet, all the real ramen restaurants are small neighborhood establishments. To the uninitiated, Tomita’s place in Matsudo, Chiba looks like clean, unassuming establishment, but there are always long lines in the morning to buy timed-entry tickets for a table.

We see Tomita mix his broth, knead his noodles, and boil his bamboo shoots (none of those are euphemisms). Perhaps astute ramen chefs will pick up a step or two from what Tomita shows, but his secrets are safe with us. In fact, we feel like we more than sufficiently get it after a while. Fortunately, Shigeno eventually opens the film up a little, introducing us to some other notable ramen chefs and giving us a sly animated history of ramen. Frankly, Shigeno could have spent more time with the other ramen masters, because some of them must have stories to tell, especially seventy-two-year-old Katsuji Matsouka, who will nonchalantly sling 800-1,600 bowls of ramen each day at his Tsukiji Market stall.

Shigeno, a well-established director of Japanese TV food programming, gives viewers an insider’s perspective, which is obviously intended for hard-core ramen heads. However, he captures some of the vibe and every day details of Japanese ramen eating. This would be a good film to stream before visiting the country as a tourist, even if you have no intention of eating at Tomita’s shop.

Regardless, it is always refreshing to see someone like Tomita, who has a passion they are happy to share. Frankly, Ramen Heads is more accessible and energetic than the weirdly over-hyped Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but not nearly as fun as Mirai Kinishi’s Kampai! For the Love of Sake. Recommended for foodies and armchair travelers, Ramen Heads opens today (4/20) at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago (and also screens 4/22 and 4/28 as part of Udine’s Far East Film Festival).

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

CineFesta Italia ’18: Cinderella the Cat

There are no fairy godmothers in Naples. Prince Charming is the “King” of the underworld—and he’s no prince. Fortunately, Mia is a resourceful young girl, but not for long. She is about to come of age and inherit her murdered father’s fortune in Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, Alessandro Rak & Dario Sansone’s mature animated fable, Cinderella the Cat (trailer here), which screens during CineFesta Italia 2018 in Santa Fe.

Vittorio Basile’s plan to revitalize the Naples seaport district is so visionary, only he understands it. His grand QE2-like cruise ship headquarters and its pseudo-artificial intelligence only hints at the potential grandeur of the project. Unfortunately, Basile falls for the wrong woman, torch-singer Angelica Carannante, who is conspiring with her lover, gangster Salvatore Lo Giusto to kill Basile as soon as the rings are exchanged. They will have to keep his young daughter Mia around until she is old enough to sign over her inheritance, but that does not mean her wicked step-sisters (and drag queen step-brother) have to be nice to her.

Young Mia had a rather touching relationship with her bodyguard Primo Gemito (sort of like the Man on Fire movies), but alas, he is the first person Carannante fires. However, he will make a dramatic return to the now shabby-looking ship as an undercover cop. Frankly, the rusty vessel is a good place to nose around, because it often records significant moments and projects the holographic playback at times that are either extremely opportune or inopportune, depending on one’s perspective.

This is not a Cinderella for kids, but it is wonderfully stylish and rather inventive. With its retro-futuristic fairy tale setting and holographic imagery, it feels something like a cross between the under-appreciated Italian science fiction classic, Morel’s Invention and maybe Streets of Fire, or who knows what. Plus, as an added bonus, there are several contemporary pop-big band musical numbers that are quite jaunty.

Yes, there are four, count them four, credited directors on Cenerentola, but the look and tone are always consistent. Along with three additional co-screenwriters, they create some unusually sharply drawn characters. Their villains are particularly strong, especially the glamorous femme fatale Carannante. Arguably, the traumatized Mia is the least developed, but everyone around her more than compensates.

There is a cat who occasionally slinks in and out, but the title is figurative. However, there is a talking crow, who has a significant role to play. Frankly, this Cinderella is probably too adult for GKIDS to handle (more so even than Chico & Rita or Mind Game), which is a shame, because they might be the only distributor who can handle animation this sophisticated.

Regardless, animation fans will be impressed by the originality and ambition of this noir fairy tale. Again, it should be fully understood this is not a kid’s cartoon. It is meant for grown-ups with discerning taste, who still enjoy a little mayhem. Very highly recommended, Cinderella the Cat screens this Saturday (4/21) at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, as part of this year’s CineFesta Italia.

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Kazuo Miyagawa at Japan Society: The Devil’s Temple

If it were so easy to “sever the bondage of earthly desires,” than everyone would be doing it, right? Thanks to the Buddha’s teachings, a high priest from Kyoto managed to do exactly that—at least for a while. However, a disgraced noble turned outlaw was easy pickings for a demonic temptress. If she can also corrupt the priest, it would represent the metaphysical victory of evil over good. Although essentially a four-character chamber play, the stakes are unusually high throughout Kenji Misumi’s The Devil’s Temple, which screens during the Japan Society’s retrospective, Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

After the loss of his fortune and the dissolution of his clan, Mumyo no Taro became rather wayward. His long-suffering wife Kaede has tracked him down to the ruined temple, where he has been living in sin with his shameless mistress, Aizen. Kaede expected he would obediently return to her out of shame, but instead, the illicit lovers brazenly carry on in the main chamber, while she camps out in an anteroom.

Kaede hopes salvation arrives when a traveling high priest stops to rest at the temple. He hopes to talk Mumyo back onto the straight and narrow. However, he also gently calls out Kaede for the perverse pride she takes in her martyrdom. Unfortunately, Aizen is more dangerous than he initially assumes, but he will start to get the picture when he realizes she is his destructive former lover. Of course, she is determined to drag him back down into the carnal depths, whereas he hopes to lead Kaede and Mumyo toward righteousness through his example of resistance.

Even though there are no genre elements per se in Temple, the suggestively demonic nature of Aizen is profoundly unsettling. Frankly, Hawthorne could have easily related to both its vibe and marquee conflict, yet the character and flavor of the film are distinctly Buddhist. It is also a dramatic example of how evocative sets and general mise-en-scene can help foster a mood of foreboding. Plus, Miyagawa’s lensing is surprisingly dynamic for a more-or-less one-set four-hander. When the action strays the temple, he gives it a disorienting, nightmarish look.

Showing tremendous range, Michiyo Aratama is scorchingly seductive and flamboyantly evil as Aizen, the femme fatale to beat all femme fatales. This is light years away from her heart-rending performances in The Human Condition and Kwaidan, but it might leave an even deeper impression. The legendary Hideko Takamine (looking rather ghostly herself here) is also extraordinarily nuanced and rather ambiguous as the wronged Kaede. Shintaro Katsu (Ichi-san) is a bit of a blowhard stock character as Mumyo, but Kei Sato makes the humble priest quite a distinctively cerebral hero.

This is a terrific work of Buddhist cinema that treats big-picture spiritual concepts with scrupulous seriousness. There are not a lot of films structured around temptations of the flesh, so that makes Temple quite memorable, especially since it is Aratama providing the temptation. Very highly recommended, The Devil’s Temple screens this Saturday (4/21) at Japan Society, as part of Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Kazuo Miyagawa at Japan Society: Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold

Shintaro Katsu had quite a run with the Zatoichi franchise: twenty-six feature films from 1962 to 1989. For the final film he directed someone else in the role, but there were also four non-consecutive seasons of the 1974-1979 TV series. Tora-san still has him beat in terms of longevity (48 films, from 1969 to 1995), but Zatoichi definitely has a much higher body count. This time around, Katsu’s Zatoichi also gets to play Robin Hood. It is considered one of the more visually stylish entries in the popular series, so it is quite fitting Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold screens during the Japan Society’s retrospective, Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

Zatoichi (often just plain Ichi) is coming to town, so you know there will be trouble. In this case, his motives are pure. He has come to pay his respects to a yakuza he mistakenly cut down. Apparently, mistakes like this can happen when you are a blind swordsman, even if you have Zatoichi’s remarkable skills. Unfortunately, while contemplating mortality, he sits down on a stolen chest of gold. That would be the villagers’ tax payment, which agents of the Intendant have stolen, so the corrupt official can double collect.

To be frank, Zatoichi maybe should have wondered what that wicker chest was doing in the middle of a field and why were people suddenly attacking him for it. Regardless, the villagers will somewhat logically suspect him of aiding and abetting the theft, so he will have too clear his name by finding their gold. Fortunately, he will have some help from Chuji, a rebel-bandit holed up in the mountains and Chiyo, the sister of the dead man Zatoichi laments.

The opening sequence is definitely one for the Miyagawa highlight reel. Bathing the foreground in darkness, Miyagawa creates a kabuki-like vibe for the sword fight, through judicious use of focused, golden light, approximating the chiaroscuro effect in Flemish masters. In fact, there is quite a bit of visual panache throughout the film. Shôhei Miyauchi’s fight choreography is also widely hailed as the roughest and toughest thus far (we’re six films into twenty-six at this point). Indeed, it definitely should hold up for Chanbara fans. One thing that might jump out at genteel viewers is the ugly contempt for the blind expressed by the villains, but that makes their anticipated comeuppance even sweeter.

Obviously, Katsu has a good idea of what he is doing as Zatoichi by this point. Machiko Hasegawa also has some amusing scenes with him and her femme fatale presence is definitely intriguing, but Ikehiro lets her disappear for far too long. However, Tomisaburo Wakayama (future star of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise) really fills up the screen as the Intendant’s unrepentantly villainous Samurai enforcer, Jushiro.

Chest of Gold must be a fun movie, since they made twenty more Zatoichis (not including reboots). It definitely delivers the hack-and-slash, but the way Miyagawa lensed the action represents some true artistry. Highly recommended as a fan-pleasing, expectation-beating, formula-stretching Chanbara film, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold screens this Friday (4/20) at Japan Society, as part of Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

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Mercury 13: The Other First-Generation Astronauts

The great Clare Boothe Luce championed them in Life at a time when that magazine really meant something, but it was to no avail. They privately trained for the American space program, passing many of the same physical and psychological tests, but the fix was in to keep them out. Although the thirteen women never trained as a unit like the original Mercury 7 astronauts, they still developed their own group identity. Their careers and legacy are chronicled in David Sington & Heather Walsh’s documentary Mercury 13 (trailer here), which premieres this Friday on Netflix.

Each of the Mercury 13 were accomplished aviators. In fact, many of them were veterans of the Women Airforce Service Pilots organization, who ferried combat planes from the factory to wherever the military needed them, except the actual combat zones. You could argue this made them something very much like test pilots, but NASA rigidly used test pilot experience as a prerequisite to disqualify the Mercury 13, even though such duties were not open to them.

When telling the story of the 13, Jacqueline Cochran emerges as the Chuck Yeager figure. Having achieved national stature as an aviator, Cochran convinced NASA flight doctor and life science expert Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to start a pilot program for prospective women astronauts at his private clinic. However, she later undercut the program at a critical moment.

Several of the surviving 13 lament what a great propaganda loss it was when the Soviet launched the first woman into space with Valentina Tereshkova in 1963. Frankly, she was more of a sporting figure than a real pilot or scientist, so any of the 13 would have made far more credible astronauts. There is no question they were qualified pilots and when it comes to space travel, being smaller of stature is a plus. However, there is a nagging hypothetical nobody dares to explore. Suppose a woman astronaut had died in the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The 13 were surely prepared to accept such risks, but you have to wonder if the reaction of the flawed 1967 media could have really set back the space program.

Regardless, the 13 deserved more respect from their male colleagues and NASA would have been much smarter if they had found high profile roles for them to play in the program, but not a lot of observers accuse NASA of being overly intelligent anymore. This is a fascinating story, but even at a highly-manageable seventy-eight minutes, Mercury 13 is conspicuously padded in places. If you enjoy footage of gliders, we have good news for you.

Even though Sington, Walsh, and most of their interview subjects direct plenty of criticism towards NASA, they are still obviously big believers in space exploration. After all, they are arguing for greater and wider participation, rather than less. That is why it is so frustrating to watch a space doc like this (or In the Shadow of the Moon, which Sington also directed, or Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, which Walsh co-produced) knowing we have allowed our own space flight capabilities atrophy into nothing. Recommended for providing a unique perspective on the Space Race, Mercury 13 starts streaming this Friday (4/20) on Netflix.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

#Screamers: The Horror of Viral Videos

Can you imagine the endless debates among the producers whether or not to include the hashtag in the title? They must have been excruciating. Tom Brennan and Chris Grabow have that sort of argument all the time at Gigaler.com. They are sort of like YouTube for viral videos, but supposedly more curated. It hardly sounds like a revolutionary business model and their tight cash flows bears out our skepticism. However, they believe some creepy jump-scare videos might be the opportunity they have waiting for in Dean Matthew Ronalds’ #Screamers (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

We really get to know Brennan and Grabow thanks to the corporate film their marketing guy Griffin is shooting. The in-house doc paints a rosy picture of a start-up on the rise, but we later learn the company’s financial position is much more precarious. The so-called “screamer” videos were just what they needed. Basically, an otherworldly goth girl distracts the viewer, setting them up for a jolt when the Screamer comes lunging at them from out of the corner. Traffic is booming, but they need exclusivity, so they (or rather Abbi, their best coder) tracks down the makers. The metadata leads them Rochester, NY, where the makers might be engaging in an elaborate but distasteful hoax, involving a local woman gone missing and Francis Tumblety, an American suspect in the Jack the Ripper case.

Frankly, it is sort of strange Tumblety’s Ripper connections have not inspired more horror movies. Yet, Ronalds and co-screenwriter Malloy only skim the surface of his eccentric weirdness. Instead, they vexingly devote almost the entire first two acts to establishing the interpersonal dynamics of Gigaler. Brennan is the obnoxious glad-hander, Grabow is nebbish and passive aggressive, while Abbi is the shy computer nerd (in this wacky alternate universe). We so get all that. What we want is more creepy stuff involving Tumblety and more backstory for the mysteriously missing Tara Rogers.

Indeed, it is frustrating how little time Ronalds and Malloy devote to legit horror movie business, because they actually created some intriguing mythology. Still, there is no question, as Brennan and Grabow, Malloy and Chris Bannow feel like annoying hipster tech partners, who are just itching to sell out their customers, like Facebook. All the Gigaler scenes feel totally believable and true to life, but that also means they aren’t a lot of fun.

There is just too much click-and-eyeball talk in #Screamers and not enough Rippers and missing persons. When the film finally gets down to business, it rushes through the third act, rather than trying to build extended tension. It is the sort of film that makes you want to do your own reshoots and re-editing. So frustrating, #Screamers releases today on VOD platforms.

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Deep Blue Sea 2: Deeper, Bluer, Hungrier

Among fish, sharks are considered comparatively intelligent and sociable. However, bull sharks are such mean killing machines,even a touchy-feely shark conservationist like Misty Calhoun won’t go near them. So why would pharma billionaire Carl Durant make them his smart drug guinea pigs, like Bradley Cooper in Limitless? Maybe it has something to do with his reckless megalomania. Regardless, people are about to become fish food in Darin Scott’s direct-to-DVD sequel, Deep Blue Sea 2 (trailer here), which releases today.

It has been a while since the original Deep Blue Sea released in 1999, so you may have either forgotten it, or been faithfully pining for a sequel. In either case, you can feel free to dive into DBS2, because there are no returning characters. We just get another batch of smart sharks. As we know, sharks are Calhoun’s specialty. That is why Durant wants to recruit her for the project, even though her value-added seems minimal. At least she can tell just by looking Bella, the queen bee bull shark is mega-pregnant.

Of course, Calhoun is appalled by Durant’s scheme, as any rational person would be. Even his shark herder (or whatever) Trent Slater is pretty disgusted with his boss. Frankly, Durant was always arrogant, but he has become alarmingly erratic since he started dosing himself with the experimental cocktail. However, things really get ugly when the facility starts to flood—and Bella gives birth to a gaggle of piranha-like babies.

So yeah, killer sharks. Its definitely meathead stuff, but the execution is more competent than we would expect. Michael Beach is flamboyantly nutty as Durant and his motivating fear of an artificial intelligence-induced singularity is an interesting touch. Danielle Savre also makes Calhoun a pleasingly forceful protag. However, the rest of the ensemble bring little energy to their stock characters. Frankly, many of them look like they are just waiting around to get eaten.

Hopefully, The Meg will be better than this. However, as direct-to-DVD sequels go, this is much more watchable than most, but whether it is worth the nineteen-year wait is a question only you can answer for yourself. Probably decent hangover viewing material, Deep Blue Sea 2 releases today on DVD, exactly where it belongs.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Ghost Stories: Scary Stuff, with Martin Freeman

Ghostly yarns are meant to be told, person to person, as indeed happens here. In this case, they are prompted by a skeptic’s investigation (it still counts) that is rooted in a dare (which makes it even better). “The brain sees what it wants to see” is the motto of our intrepid paranormal investigator, but all bets are off during Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman’s pseudo-anthology film, Ghost Stories (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Prof. Phillip Goodman fancies himself a British Amazing Randi, but despite his TV show, he is not nearly as famous (or respected). His role model actually happens to be Charles Cameron, a famous TV debunker from the 1970s, who has disappeared from public sight in recent years. At first, Goodman is thrilled when the mysterious old man reaches out to him, but the camper-dwelling Cameron is surprisingly hostile when he pays a visit. Openly contemptuous of the logical materialism he and Goodman offered people in place of supernatural mystery, Cameron gives his follower three case files that you could say shook his lack of faith in the beyond. He challenges Goodman to investigate and explain them, thereby launching the film’s anthology structure, except there is rather a bit more to the wrap-around segments, as we will eventually learn.

The initial “proper” story focuses on an emotionally-broken night watchman, who reports being haunted on the job by a little girl. The second relates a pre-teen’s terrifying vehicular mishap along a remote stretch of road (a bit like Bryan Bertino’s The Monster, but more demonic), while the final tale relates the very personal and tragic hauntings experienced by City investment banker Mike Priddle. However, things are not precisely as they seem, but telling would be a shame.

Ghost Stories is based on Dyson & Nyman’s long-running play, which must have featured some inventive staging, judging from the film version. Even American horror fans who learn its secrets from the film would probably enjoy seeing it unfold on the boards. In large measure, this is because the framing narrative is so inventive—so much so, it eventually takes precedence over the constituent stories.

Co-writer-co-director Nyman is absolutely terrific as Prof. Goodman. He is a real character, with real flaws—and not just a device to introduce the next haunting. Martin Freeman similarly makes Priddle seem very real, but he also helps facilitate some big surprises (again telling would be telling). Yet, perhaps the rawest, most wrenching work comes from Paul Whitehouse (much better known in the UK), who really kills it as Tony Matthews, the literally and figuratively haunted night guard.

To put Ghost Stories into context, many critics and fans have invoked the name of Amicus, the Hammer-like studio that specialized in anthologies (like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which featured Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and British jazz musician Tubby Hayes). However, you can also taste some of the flavoring of the decidedly existential British horror exemplified by Ben Wheatley and Gareth Tunley, but that rather makes sense, since producers Robin Gutch and Claire Jones performed like duties on films such as Kill List, Berberian Sound Studio, A Field in England, and Sightseers.

Arguably, you can see two traditions of British horror coming together in Ghost Stories, which is really cool. There is also real acting and stuff going on. The results are deliciously sly and sinister. Very highly recommended for horror fans, Ghost Stories opens this Friday (4/20) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Clouzot’s Le Corbeau

In the 1940’s, it took considerable effort to write poison pen letters. It was literally a matter of pen and ink. These days, it can be done so much easier through social media. Always controversial as a production of the German-owned, Vichy-aligned Continental Films during the (second) French Occupation, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau feels timelier than ever. Freshly 4K-restored, it opens this Friday at Film Forum (trailer here).

Le Corbeau (The Raven) makes the provincial townsfolk so uncomfortable, because he or she is often correct in the accusations leveled against the apparently not so innocent villagers. For instance, Le Corbeau’s favorite target, Dr. Rémy Germain was indeed having an affair with the young wife of his colleague, grey-bearded psychiatrist Dr. Michel Vorzet. However, his main contention that Germain is an overzealous back-alley abortionist is most likely exaggerated. Nevertheless, he and Laura Vorzet find it prudent to put their affair on hold—at least temporarily.

Despite all the unwanted attention focused on Dr. Germain, he finds Denise Saillens, his landlord’s promiscuous sister is more than willing to take Vorzet’s place. He is not completely uninterested, but he has more than enough trouble without her attention seeking behavior. To clear his name, he will rather awkwardly team up with Dr. Vorzet, an expert in poison pen letter writers, after one of the Raven’s letters directly prompts a fatal suicide.

Le Corbeau is an absolutely fascinating film to analyze, both for what is on the screen and what was happening behind the scenes. Since it was produced by Continental Films, Clouzot and his two leads, Pierre Fresnay and Ginette Leclerc were banned from French film production and faced legal difficulties (including imprisonment in the case of Fresnay and Leclerc) after liberation. However, some critics read into it a subtle indictment of anonymous denunciations as well as a potent portrayal of the climate of paranoia that was true to life under occupation. Regardless, both the resistance and the establishment condemned the film, for either besmirching the French national character or traditional Catholic morality. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

Of course, it is easy to hear the Raven’s bitter moralizing voice in the social media cyber-lynchings of our times, such as the one that recently resulted in the death of adult film star August Ames. It is probably safe to predict there will not be a porn parody of Le Corbeau anytime soon, and certainly not with the participation of her harassers.  Social Justice Warrior intolerance has replaced Catholic prudery, but the psychology of their cold-blooded cruelty is strikingly similar.

Regardless, as Germain, Fresnay might be one of the most anti-heroic anti-heroes in motion picture history. At best, he is an adulterer and his professional bedside manner is distinctly frosty. Yet, as we come to know him and his backstory, Fresnay steadily stokes the audience’s sympathies. Pierre Larquey is just as terrific as the old but still sharp Dr. Vorzet. Modern viewers might find Leclerc a tad melodramatic as Mme. Saillens, but Liliane Maigné is wonderfully sly but sensitive as her scheming niece, Rolande.

Perhaps what most defines Le Corbeau is the ugly mob justice unleashed on the obvious (and therefore most likely innocent) suspect, Marie Corbin, Laura Vorzet’s rigidly judgmental sister. Again, this was probably not the messaging Vichy was looking for, but it would have been just as inconvenient for the épuration score-settling. Indeed, the Raven is an ornery beast, but it is wickedly clever. It also well-deserves its reputation as an early film noir forerunner, thanks to cinematographer Nicolas Hayer’s dramatically expressive use of shadow. Very highly recommended, Le Corbeau opens this Friday (5/20), at Film Forum.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Kazuo Miyagawa at Japan Society: A Certain Killer

Shiozawa is a sushi chef, so it makes sense he is good with a blade. That also helps in his other line of work. Most civilians think he is the proprietor of a neighborhood sushi and sake restaurant, but he also fulfills contracts for Yakuza families. He is cautious and exacting. When he takes an assignment, he is like money in the bank. However, this job might be different, because it involves accomplices. There is a chance he could get killed, but nothing can possible blow his cool in Kazuo Mori’s A Certain Killer, which screens during the Japan Society’s latest film series, Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

No luxury hotels for Shiozawa. Instead, he rents a grubby room in a flop house next to a cemetery (talk about appropriate). Eventually, a pretty party girl named Keiko joins him and a dour looking Yakuza named Maeda soon follows. How did he meet them and what are they doing in this de-populated post-industrial neighborhood? The flashbacks will explain all.

Essentially, Keiko was a good deed Shiozawa is still being punished for. He paid for her diner tab, sparing her the indignity of trading sex for a bowl of soup and then saved her from her abusive pimp. However, she followed him home and started worming her way into his life. Maeda also has complicated history with the hitman. Initially, he tries to hire Shiozawa’s services for a hit sanctioned by his boss, but he soon starts getting ideas of his own.

A Certain Killer is one of those films that leaves you baffled that it doesn’t have more of an international reputation. Seriously, how is it not a staple of best noir lists? This is a lithe and deadly little film that swaggers through the urban jungle like a shark swimming in the ocean. Raizo Ichikawa was known for historicals, but Shiozawa could very well be the role of his career. He has the world-weary look of nothingness, but he conveys steely grit beneath his bland, disinterested surface. There is a bit of Le Samouraï Alain Delon in him, but he is very much a disillusioned middle-aged cat.

On the other side of the spectrum, Yumiko Nogawa is all kinds of trouble as Keiko. She projects a flirty, candy-colored coquetry, but oh my, is she ever a femme fatale. Mikio Narita also holds up his end as the tightly wound Maeda. Put them all together and there is bound to be trouble.

Certain Killer has all the elements in place, including the twists and narrative flashbacks of Yasuzo Masumura’s screenplay that predates so many Tarantino clones in the 1990s. However, the X-factor is Miyagawa’s distinctive cinematography, which includes a number of striking wide God’s-eye shots, reducing the characters to tiny scale (like the rats that they often are).

Seriously, why aren’t Scorsese and Tarantino constantly yammering about how we have to see A Certain Killer. Apparently, its up to us, so consider yourself duly lectured. Honestly, this is a terrific hitman thriller so take advantage of the opportunity to see it when A Certain Killer screens this Tuesday (4/17) at Japan Society, as part of Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

SFFILM ’18: The White Girl

This unnamed teenager is a lot like Japanese singer-songwriter Yui’s character in Taiyou no Uta (Midnight Sun) and whoever in the lame American remake. She too is allergic to the sun’s ultraviolet rays—or so she has always been told. However, she is not a singer, but perhaps her mother was—and maybe still is—or not. She is an outsider in Pearl Village, Hong Kong’s last surviving fishing hamlet, but in some ways that helps her appreciate what it represents in Jenny Suen & (co-director) Christopher Doyle’s The White Girl (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival.

All her life, the “White Girl” has hid beneath floppy hats, sunglasses, and protective clothing, because her controlling fisherman father assured her she must. Given her resulting pale skin and shy manner, the villagers dubbed her “White Girl” or even “Ghost” and have become convinced she can contaminate their nets with bad mojo with a hard stare. Her only friend is Ho Zai, a scampish little boy living with an eccentric Buddhist monk, at least until Sakamoto, an emotionally damaged Japanese expat fleeing his troubles, starts squatting in the decrepit colonial mansion overlooking the bay.

For the most part, the White Girl and Sakamoto are drawn to each other, because they sense the shared empathy and comradery of a fellow wounded spirit. However, there is also an element of creepy sexual attraction that Sakamoto scrupulously represses. Yet, she will still lose much of her innocence for other reasons, as she comes to doubt the validity of everything her father ever told her. Meanwhile, the resourceful Ho Zai uncovers evidence of the mayor’s plan to sell out the village to a consortium of Mainland investors.

White Girl is a more focused and conventional film than Doyle’s Hong Kong Trilogy, which Suen produced, but it is still much more concerned with mood and vibe than crass plot points. Without doubt, we can see its aesthetic kinship with some of the classic Wong Kar-wai films he shot. It is a quiet, lulling film, but fortunately Angela Yuen and Joe Odagiri can emote though the humid languor as the girl and the squatter. Jeff Yiu is also unusually charismatic for a young thesp as Ho Zai, while Rayna Lee adds some unlikely sympathetic glamor as the village school teacher, Miss Wong. However, Leung Kin-ping probably scores the most points for dramatics with his poignant turn as the girl’s clueless father.

Honestly, nobody would have accused Suen & Doyle of selling out if they had cranked up the narrative a little. Clearly, they believe meandering is part of the journey. Of course, the symbolism of the hyper-connected Mainland developers out to obliterate Pearl Village’s way of life is tough to miss, but that doesn’t mean the message isn’t still needed. Regardless, the mostly attractive and uniformly expressive ensemble redeems the stylistic excesses. Recommended as an evocative and elegiac coming of age film, The White Girl screens again this Monday (4/16), as part of this year’s SFFILM.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

Kazuo Miyagawa at Japan Society: The Rickshaw Man

They call Matsugoro an outlaw, but he sure puts in an honest day’s work. The reformed rickshaw driver (or puller) has a dodgy past, but that is understandable given the meanness of his formative years. He is now a productive citizen, aside from some occasional drunken brawling and general rowdiness. He will even file off some those rough edges when he becomes a surrogate father to a grieving young boy in Hiroshi Inagaki’s The Rickshaw Man, which was shot by accomplished cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa and therefore logically screens during the Japan Society’s new retrospective, Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.

As the film opens, Matsugoro (Matsu-san) still likes his drink, but the community tolerates a bit of trouble-making from him, because he is a decent chap and he always tries to make things right afterward. However, his life changes drastically when he shuttles the injured Toshio Yoshioka and his alarmed mother Yoshiko to the doctor. Of course, Matsu-san refuses all compensation, so Toshio’s father, a junior government official, invites the good-hearted rogue for dinner and drinks. Everyone is charmed by Matsugoro, so when Yoshioka-san dies from a freak illness, he starts looking out for Toshio and Yoshiko. The widowed mother is particularly hopeful Matsugoro can toughen up Toshio and guide him into manhood.

Despite Matsugoro’s colorful background, Rickshaw is essentially a domestic drama, which has always been one of Japanese cinema’s competitive advantages. In this case, Matsu-san’s story is particularly poignant, because no matter how much he sacrifices for mother and son, class and social distinctions dictate he can never be a full member of their family or even considered an equal. That conspicuous fact might be one reason why Rickshaw, a consistently chaste and apolitical film, was censored by the wartime Imperial government.

If you need to layer more poignancy atop Rickshaw, take note Mother Yoshiko was played by stage thesp Keiko Sonoi, who perished in Hiroshima while performing there in a touring production. She is exquisitely delicate and haunting, while Tsumasaburo Bando is terrific as the gruff and gregarious Matsu-san. Rough and crude on the outside, but secretly sentimental and sensitive, he kind of hints at what it would have been like if Ken Takakura ever played Tora-san.

It is also easy to see why Rickshaw was selected for the Miyagawa series, even though Inagaki’s 1958 color remake with Toshiro Mifune and Hideko Takamine is better known. He frames and superimposes some surprisingly expressionist images, at times even approaching the surreal. Perhaps most memorably, Miyagawa makes hay out of the spokes in Matsu-san’s rickshaw wheels and dazzles with some nifty transition shots. Clearly, it is a film that is ripe for rediscovery. Highly recommended, The Rickshaw Man screens tomorrow night (4/14) at the Japan Society, as part of their Miyagawa tribute.

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Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare

It is fitting this movie is inspired by drunken college students’ favorite naughty game, because many future players are sure to reference it. Truth: did you pay good money to see it in a theater? Dare: re-enact one of the death scenes with a straight face. It turns out Olivia would have been much better off building houses over spring break than partying with friends in Mexico, but we could have guessed that for ourselves. Regardless, she is stuck playing an evil game in Jeff Wadlow’s Blumhouse-produced Truth or Dare (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Somehow, Olivia’s flighty BFF Markie Cameron can always get her to do what she wants. It turns out guilt is a major reason why. Evidently, Olivia knows a secret about a childhood tragedy that she hopes to take to her grave. She also carries a wicked torch for Cameron’s boring boyfriend Lucas. These are exactly the sort of weaknesses the demon Calax enjoys exploiting. Thanks to Carter, a sleazy operator Olivia meets in a bar, she and her friends get lured into a sinister game of truth or dare.

Their decision to follow him into an ominous-looking abandoned mission in search of booze goes beyond any rational understanding, but they do it anyway. They also agree to play Truth or Dare, because it is so festive in there. Not that they have a choice. One of the peculiar rules of this game states: “if you’re asked you’re in.” Things get weird, but nothing gets seriously demonic until they return to college (where they apparently never have to study or write papers). Soon, Calax approaches them in visions, demanding truth or dare at the most inopportune times. Players that refuse get possessed and meet an ugly end. Secrets will be exposed, fraying friendships, but because Carter’s friends played with the “two truths and a dare” rules, Olivia’s pals cannot avoid Calax’s homicidal and suicidal dares indefinitely. So, can Trump build a wall to keep the demons out? And get Mexico to pay for it?

Any time a horror movie shares a title with a Madonna flick, it is just bad news. Reportedly, T or D is itself the product of a dare. Blumhouse started with the mere title and Wadlow talked his way into directing it with an extemporized elevator pitch. It all must make Roger Corman proud, but the slapdash development process definitely shows on the screen.

The truth is, you will laugh a lot during T or D, but it is the wrong kind of laughter. It is not even a question of laughing at the film rather than with it. You’re laughing at yourself for being a grown adult, sitting through this ridiculousness.

It is too bad because Lucy Hale (who will be news to anyone who doesn’t watch Freeform, the ABC teenager channel) definitely seems to have some potential as Olivia. Unfortunately, she is surrounded by morons and clichés. The only notable exceptions are Hayden Szeto and Tom Choi, as their gay friend Brad (still in the closet with his family) and his conservative cop father. They have some nice scenes together, so it is too bad they aren’t in a more respectable, thought-out movie.

Yes, truth or dare, that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Final Destination knock-offs or rise up against a sea of dubious franchises, yet they will never end, even by opposing them. In fact, I’m ashamed to say I would probably watch Truth or Dare 2, because this first round is such an unruly spectacle of a train wreck. Not recommended (like it matters), Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare opens today (4/13) pretty much everywhere with a screen, including the AMC Empire in New York.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

An Ordinary Man: Ben Kingsley Plays the War Criminal

Arguably, Ratko Mladic was a terrible general, but he still won the war. In terms of military tactics, his strategic sense was highly dubious, but he was lethally efficient when it came to genocide. Unfortunately, the West still has no stock remedy for ethnic cleansing, so it often ends up codifying the results, as it did with the Dayton Accords. “The General” is transparently based on Mladic and he sleeps just fine at night. Time might be finally running out for the fugitive war criminal, but do not expect any apologies in Brad Silberling’s An Ordinary Man (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

There is no question The General is modeled on Mladic, right down to the daughter who tragically committed suicide out of shame for her father’s atrocities. He still lives rather comfortably in safe houses, thanks to a network of former comrades, but he must conduct himself in a more secretive manner. Of course, convincing him of that will be easier said than done.

As luck would have it, The General finds something to keep him distracted. That would be Tanja, the previous tenant’s cleaning lady. She has the misfortune of barging in on The General, who promptly humiliates her, both out of paranoia and for fun. Yet, she accepts a full-time servant position, because she recognizes the ethnic cleanser and generally subscribe to his world-view.

Ordinary Man is a very unsettling film, because it takes you into The General’s unrepentant, fanatical head-space, without delivering any decisive moral comeuppance to assure us that all is right with the world after all. To make things even more discomfiting, Sir Ben Kingsley plays The General with seductively sinister élan. It is easy to see how he could convince average people to commit horrific crimes. Although Hera Hilmar is rather naïve and innocent looking as Tanja, she is such an impressionable empty vessel, it is also rather chilling to see her getting filled up with hate.

For the record, Silberling is the same director who helmed Casper, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Land of the Lost. It is nice to know he has a dark side too—and is Ordinary Man ever dark. The Belgrade locations definitely heighten the ominous vibe. However, these characters and the environment they inhabit are so amoral, it is hard to get what Silberling might have hoped audiences would have taken away from the film.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the power and accomplishment of Kingsley work (which would be interesting to watch paired up with Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, in case anyone is planning a Kingsley retrospective). Recommended for sophisticated viewers already well-grounded in 1990s and early 2000s Balkan history, An Ordinary Man opens tomorrow (4/13) in New York, at the Village East.

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SFFILM ’18: Manhunt

Seriously, why didn’t Tenjin Pharmaceuticals just stick to making impotency pills? Instead, they decided to develop a super-soldier drug, because apparently, they have never seen any of the Universal Soldier or Bourne movies. The Japanese firm kept it a secret from their American-educated, Chinese lawyer Du Qiu, but they frame him for murder anyway when he tries to resign as corporate council. Fortunately, the mouthpiece kept in shape, because he is in for a lot of running and fighting in John Woo’s Manhunt (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Considering how many cases Du Qiu won for Tanjin, you would think he would be more fluent in Japanese, but whatever. At least he is an old movie buff, a fact that helped endear him to Rain, a moody and sensitive assassin some months earlier. That chance encounter will be important later. First, Du Qiu chooses the wrong woman to go home with after Tanjin’s gala party announcing Chairman’s Yoshihiro Sakai’s official designation of his son Hiroshi as his successor.

Rather inconveniently, Du Qiu comes to next to the dead body of Kiko Tanaka. Even more discouraging, the initial investigating officer is the blatantly corrupt Mamoru Ito, who forces Du Qiu to escape by shooting a darned unlucky colleague. However, it turns out Du Qiu really has a knack for being a fugitive. Nevertheless, the honest but cynical Det. Satoshi Yamura deliberately lets him slip away many times, because the plot points are just as obvious to him as they are to us. Thanks to all the blind eyes Yamura and his new partner Hyakuta turn, Du Qiu starts to get some answers from Mayumi, the grieving fiancée of Tenjin’s former research director. At this point, Rain and her ambiguous partner Dawn re-enter the picture, to fulfill the contract on his head.

Manhunt is based on Jukô Nishimura novel that presumably made a lot more sense when it was adapted in 1976 with Ken Takakura. Certainly, the earlier film must have had more linguistic cohesion, whereas long stretches of Woo’s version feature Japanese and Chinese characters speaking English with odd syntax, in disembodied sounding voices. There is not much logic to the narrative either. Basically, Tenjin commits random acts of evil, which has to be bad for their bottom line—after all they have to keep two La Femme Nikita-style contract-killers on permanent retainer.

Yes, the screenplay is a mess, but it is still jolly fun to watch Masaharu Fukuyama snarl and brood as the world-weary Det. Yamura. He also develops some rather engaging chemistry with Nanami Sakuraba’s Hyakuuta, who happens to resemble his dearly departed wife, because everyone has to have a tragic backstory in this film. Korean superstar Ha Ji-won and Angeles Woo (daughter of the director) vamp it up nicely as Rain and Dawn. However, as Du Qiu, Zhang Hanyu always looks bored, even when he is running for his life and slipping out for an assignation with the soon-to-be late Tanaka (played by Tao Okamoto from The Wolverine and Batman v. Superman).

Frankly, Manhunt does not have the style or the high gloss of Woo’s best work. However, there is no denying the final action climax is a satisfying maelstrom of blazing guns, smashing batons, and drug-crazed test subjects. This is a minor Woo film, but it is still an idiosyncratic guilty pleasure. Recommended for anyone in the mood for cartoon violence with no real nutritional value, Manhunt screens tomorrow (4/13), as part of this year’s SFFILM.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum

Technically, it is not fake news. CNN Travel called this abandoned Korean mental hospital one of the “7 freakiest places on Earth,” but they never explicitly claimed it is actually haunted (notable for Korean film fans, Battleship Island also made the list). There is no question the place is creepy, so it rather makes sense for a paranormal investigating web series to film an episode there. Horror fans know they are probably filming their final show in Jung Bum-sik’s Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

The title pretty much says it all: Gonjiam is an asylum that is haunted—especially room 402. Reportedly, people have died trying to open this mysterious locked chamber. Naturally, that is what the producer of Horror Times has planned for their ill-conceived grand finale. Determined to reach one million viewers, the Horror Times boys have a couple of planned scares to throw at their four “lucky guests” chosen from a pool of fans. Not surprisingly, they selected three cute girls and a socially awkward guy. However, the two on-camera hosts will be screaming like little babies when things get real.

Basically, Gonjiam does exactly what the original Grave Encounters and Hollow Grove did, but somehow it is even eerier in Korean. Jung and co-writer Park Sang-min also manage to flesh out the characters to a greater extent than you see in most found footage horror films, at least with respect to their fan-guests (whereas the Horror Times crew are just bad karma-generating jerks). Moon Ye-won and Oh Ah-yeon are particularly notable as the rich, hip, and terrified Charlotte and the naïve but comparatively grounded Ah-yeon, respectively.

Jung skillfully builds the tension with small but unsettling bits of business, like doors ominously opening and candles extinguishing themselves. He also exploits the absolutely terrifying setting for all its worth (it is hard to believe the real Gonjiam was operational until 1996, because the movie analog looks like it has been moldering since the 1960s). As in franchising, location is often everything for horror films—and this one is profoundly malevolent looking.

So yes, this is another haunted asylum movie, just like the subtitle promises. Jung delivers on it. If you haven’t seen Grave Encounter, you will probably find Gonjiam a wildly chilling ride, but more experience may very well find themselves investing in spite of themselves, thanks to Moon and Oh. Recommended for K-horror fans due to some skillful direction and evocative set and prop design, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum opens this Friday (4/13) at the Los Angeles and Buena Park CGV Cinemas.

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