Thelma (2017): Low Key Norwegian “Carrie” With a Twist (Review)

thelma-trailer

Co-written and directed by Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt was the other writer who helped on the  screenplay, Thelma is a slow paced, almost languid twist on Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Starring the achingly beautiful Eili Harboe, this suspenseful horror film includes key elements that are present in King’s tale of repression, telekinesis and religion.

The film can also be seen as being influenced by the Richard Matheson tale “It’s a Good Life.” This Twilight Zone story (directed by James Sheldon) dealt with a young boy on a farm who holds his “terrified family” hostage with his incredibly powerful mental ability. The lad, played brilliantly by a young Billy Mumy, can literally “think” someone out of existence if they annoy him.

Thelma has mental powers but they have been repressed with a brand of zealous religion practiced by her family. When the girl goes off to college and starts to fall in love, the power re-emerges with a vengeance. Just before leaving her family, Thelma (Harboe) has a seizure and these become more prevalent at school.

We see the young woman cautiously spreading her wings as she meets Anja, played perfectly by Kaya Wilkins) and as the two become infatuated with one an other, Thelma has an increase in seizures and some disturbing visions/dreams.  Eventually she goes to a doctor for help and discovers that her grandmother, whom she believed was dead, suffers from the same problem. 

After being tested for epilepsy, Thelma tracks her grandmother down and starts remembering a tragic event from her childhood. Her father, Henrik Rafaelsen, a general practitioner, starts treating Thelma as her mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) uneasily watches from the sidelines. 

Thelma can be seen as a loss of innocence film, or a “coming of age” tale. Regardless of how the viewer opts to interpret this story, it is beautifully filmed and splendidly executed. At just under two hours, the film is a long one, but it never bores or drags.

The sequences where Thelma seeks help from the medical community do crawl but despite this, interest in the young protagonist does not wander. Trier gives us a plot and storyline that teases with flashbacks and ethereal connections between Anja and Thelma.

Harboe as the naive Thelma gives us just the right amount of wonder and dread as she starts to grow up outside the influence of her strict parents. We learn, as the film progresses, just why Trond and Unni keep close tabs on Thelma; they are already aware of what she is capable of doing.

The horror here is very low key. However,there are moments where it strikes fear right into the heart of the audience. These are not jump worthy moments by any means but the instances, a drowning and a moment underneath an icy lake, reduce us to a primal horror that stays long after the moment appears on screen.

Thelma, unlike “Carrie,” gives us a protagonist that is not a victim but is, rather, a young woman who has lived a sheltered life. There is a reason behind her earlier protected existence. This helps us to develop an empathy with the young girl and her increasing confusion.

This is a full 5 star film that grabs the viewer and draws them slowly into the world of Thelma. Norwegian, indeed Slavic films in general, are, at the moment, top notch and well worth sitting through, despite having subtitles. Check this one out as soon as you can.

Attack on Titan: Part 1 & 2 (2015): Battle Royale Meets Giants (Review)

Fighting the Titans

It may sound a bit dismissive to label Attack on Titan (part one and two) as “Battle Royale” meets giants” but it is not intended to be a slur on the manga based film. Both films do deliver messages on a government determined to control its denizens at all costs (although the 1999 Kashun Takami novel was much more political than the Kinji Fukasaku film released in 2000) and each features young protagonists.

Certainly BR has heroes who are yet to finish puberty, but the youngsters who battle the Titan’s in these films are not too far removed from that time span themselves. The other thing both films have in common is the “childhood interrupted” theme. Each set of players are yanked from their everyday lives and placed in situations that require them to fight.

Having not seen, or indeed read, the manga, it was easy to just take the film on its face value. The story; a world where giant’s attack and eat the general population, is interesting and the breech in the outer wall, that starts the whole two film journey, is impressive and well done.

A “giant” Titan kicks a hole in the wall and a horde of smaller creatures enter. They destroy a small town and most of the surrounding areas in the outer districts. The inner wall, full of the rulers and elite class of the nation, has not been destroyed and the heroes of both films fight to keep the Titan’s out.

The action takes place behind walls and the attacks of the giant man-eating creatures veer between hilarity and good old fashioned “King Kong” type horror. (Or even Jurassic Park, where the solicitor/lawyer gets his head crunched off by a T-Rex…) Plot wise there is nothing all that new here. It is revealed, partway through the first film, that the Titan’s were “man-made” and that their lack of genitals is a mystery, even to the creators of the things.

Still, this curious lack of reproductive equipment apparently kept the Japanese censors happy and made the film a little less “difficult” to watch.  While the female Titans did have breast, there were no offending nipples anywhere to be seen, or other genitalia to deal with.

(One character voices her interest at just how these gigantic humanoid creatures manage to procreate – there are some incredibly ugly “baby” Titans running around – but that is the only time it is mentioned.)

There are some comic moments: An enlisted man throws a Titan over his head, a young heroine eats constantly (potatoes) and her stomach is incredibly noisy when empty.

Attack on Titan (Shingeki no kyojin) is entertaining, even if one is not familiar with the original manga material by Hajime Isayama. Director Shinji Higuchi capably directs this live action adaptation of a popular Manga series. There are a number of writers connected to these two films and, according to IMDb, a few characters have been dropped, merged or changed totally.

Overall, the feel of the film is not too far removed from fantasy and/or science fiction.  The soldiers have new weapons that resemble samurai swords, “on call” and gas jets that propel the fighters through the air while powering anchors to structures. These enable the soldiers to “fly” through the air in order to attack the seemingly un-defeatable creatures.

Jun Kunimura, who played mob boss Ikemoto in Outrage   (who dies an almost comic death) and featured in “Kill Bill” volume’s one and two and the iconic cult classic Audition along with another 163 credits to his name, is, for all intents and purposes, the big bad in the film. 

His mostly understated performance helps nudge the plot points along and Kunimura is the only real “grown up” in the film. He is also easily the most despicable although Capt. Shikishima (played by Hiroki Hasegawa) comes a close second in terms of dislikable characters. 

Attack on Titan features a newer cast of young actors. None of these performers are of the Battle Royale time period. They are, however, quite capable of filling out their limited characters and look pretty good in the fight sequences. The wire work, in the film, is top notch and the combination of obvious green screen backdrops and the practical wire stunts is stimulating and impressive.

These films are not made to be taken seriously and apparently, according to the number of “dislikes” on IMDb (which go over a 1000) not really made for the discerning fans of the original Manga series or book. The Titan’s themselves are not overly frightening to look at, their faces look more like variations on the local village idiot rather than a Grimm’s Fairy Tale type Giant.

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over on YouTube, where this trailer aired in 2015, about how far the film had deviated from its source material.  Still, this is a solid 3.5 star effort that deserves a look, or two. Both are available to stream, via Amazon, or to be rented or purchased in DVD.

Fans of Japanese cinema will enjoy this offering perhaps a bit more than the annoyed fans of the manga. There is a lot of violence, a bit of low-key no-genital nudity and no cursing to be seen in the subtitles.

Check out the trailer below:

The Handmaiden (2016): Simmering Sex and Dirty Books (Review)

Publicity still from The Handmaiden

Directed by critic favorite Chan-wook Park, The Handmaiden (inspired by Sarah Waters‘ depiction of Victorian England in her book “Fingersmith”) is, for all intents and purposes, a “bodice ripper.” In other words there is a good amount of simmering sex and a lot of dirty books.

Updated to fit the time frame of Japan’s occupation of Korea, it features a beautiful pair of women who share an unhappy past. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) has a lot of money and is orphaned. She lives with her uncle who has a large library of pornographic books that he forces her to read to an appreciative audience. 

Jun-su (Tae-ri Kim), a young pickpocket – whose male mentor is a thief of the highest order – becomes Hideko’s handmaiden. The mentor becomes Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and he “tricks” Hideko into marrying him.  

But all is not as it seems in this film. The uncle (Jin-woong Jowho forces Hideko to read porn to his paying guests may be the only character who flies his true flag’s colours. His only real artifice, if it can be called that, is to affect Japanese ways.

It is this affectation that allows the “Count” access to the man and Fujiwara’s pretending to be Japanese royalty is both his plan and downfall. It could be said that Fujiwara’s intentions are also pretty clear, he is like the uncle in this respect…

Hideko pretends to be an innocent in the ways of love and sex and Jun-su, of course, pretends to be a handmaid versus a thief. The latter’s instructions are to aid Count Fujiwara in his quest to bed and wed Lady Hideko.

Through the course of the film, which runs in three parts like the source novel, we are treated to the two women falling in love and some “soft porn” depictions of sex. We also learn that Hideko is not the wallflower that Jun-su thinks she is and that the reader of books is desperate to escape her uncle’s iron rule.

The film looks spectacular, even without all the lovingly lit and framed female nudity, and the set pieces, along with the costumes, help to bring the film’s setting to life.  The story, broken into three parts, reveals what is going on behind the scenes, although the final act really wraps things up.

Behind all the subterfuge and the nefarious doings of various characters, the film really is a romance. It chronicles, at the start, the two women and their gradual awareness of each other. What starts as an infatuation graduates to full sexual congress and they bond completely before the “Count” ever arrives.

We learn of Jun-su’s (whose name is changed to Sook-Hee when she starts work at the house) background and what makes the young woman tick.  Leaving out the lovemaking (there is not a huge amount anyway) the romance between the two women takes second place to the mystery of who is really doing what.

In many ways this feels like a combination of Stoker with a touch of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” For those who never heard of the book, it was a sensation “back in the day” as a story regaling the reader of a “lady” who fancied a bit of “rough.” A lot. In this particular tale, the “rough” is a young pickpocket and not a stablehand. (This really is down to the author of “Fingersmith” however and not Park Chan-wook.)

The film is a long one, clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes.  It does not, however, feel long. The story is interesting enough that it keeps the attention transfixed on the events in each of the three parts, or acts, as  presented.

The Handmaiden is a full 5 star treat and it is available on Amazon Prime, for free or can be rented/streamed if one is not a Prime customer. Head over and catch this one, if you can live with sub-titles, and enjoy this mystery/romance.

 

The Windmill (2016): Dutch Homage to Hammer (Review)

The Windmill, aka The Windmill Massacre

Written and directed by Nick Jongerius, The Windmill, aka ‘The Windmill Massacre,” is no Amsterdammed. This is no taut thriller dressed up like an 80’s cop/horror film.  Jongerius gives us what could be construed as a loving homage to those ’60’s and ’70’s Hammer horror films. Classics like “The Vault of Horror” or Dr. Terror’s House of Horror,  for example, where the cast all find they have died and are about to meet their just deserts, are given a nod here.

A disparate group of foreigners, a few Brits, an Aussie, a French woman and a Japanese man on a mission, all take a “Happy Holland” tour of local windmills.  Unlike the anthology films of the ”70’s, these victims are not overly heavy with an abundance of backstory. This is no in-depth retelling of their various peccadilloes that have landed them in this predicament.

We get flashes of their “sins” but that is all. (Except for Jennifer – Brit actress Charlotte Beaumont who plays a murderer from “Down Under” – who has quite a bit of backstory presented in fits and starts.)  There is no real location given in the film, although we get the impression that the events are unfolding in and around Amsterdam. 

Abe, the driver, takes his charges to at least one windmill and then on the way to another, the bus breaks down. The group narrowly escape getting injured when the vehicle falls into a canal and later on, after an abortive attempt at finding help, they all walk to another windmill off the road.

Before the reach the windmill, they find an abandoned structure that is filled with old papers. One of the papers tells of a story where a miller sells his soul to the devil. Shortly after, a very big man with a scythe and great huge wooden clogs on his feet makes an appearance.

As the tourists begin to die, the Japanese man decides that they are at the gate of hell and that he must perform a sort of exorcism.

The film itself is nothing to really get too excited about but it works, after a fashion, and we manage to get caught up in the Australian girl’s story.

While this is not an anthology theme, per se, it does feel like one. Enough so that one is thrown immediately into Hammer territory. The Dutch actor who plays Abe (Bart Klever) performs his part well and later on the film  itself gives us a satisfying O.Henry type twist.

(Hammer also specialized in these sort of endings, although each anthology managed to turn the story in its protagonist as well.)

For those who have been to Holland and seen the windmills, the tale of the devil’s miller makes a certain amount of sense. Those wooden towers with their creaking blades do seem a bit creepy and the setting in this film is spot on.

Jongerius gives us a taste of horror that borders on the religious. (Each “victim” is a sinner who did something horrible to someone else, in most cases murder, and are now going to pay the piper for their previous transgressions.)

The Windmill Murders is a solid four star film. The effects are, for the most part, practical and work very well. The movie was filmed in and around Loenen, in The Netherlands, and as a location the area was perfect for the storyline.

There were a few odd moments, for example the hookers at the small red-light district were actually not in their windows at all but standing in the doorway, and the milled flower flowing down the chute was behind glass, like a tourist mill, but apart from these instances the film flowed well.

It is on Netflix at the moment and is well worth a look. It won’t give you nightmares but it will make you jump here and there.  There is a certain amount of bloodshed and a decapitation. There is no nudity and not one sex scene.

Check out the trailer below and then head over to watch this Dutch homage to Hammer anthology horror.

Train to Busan (2016): World War Z on Wheels (Review)

Train to Busan still image

Written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon, Train to Busan is the follow up to the auteur’s animated zombie film “Seoul Station” (2016).  Sadly, the animated film is not available on Netflix – like its sequel – but TtB is a high octane mix of “World War Z” on wheels with a bit of “Snakes on a Plane” thrown in. 

(One could even argue that some of the film’s base plot owes a bit to Kramer vs. Kramer…)

The story revolves around businessman Seok-woo (Yoo Gong) who is estranged from his wife and fighting for sole custody of their daughter Soo-an (Soo-an Kim).  As things appear to be unravelling in his business life, he agrees to take Soo-an to Busan to see her mother. It is the child’s birthday and this is what she wants to do. 

It is clear that Seok-woo is struggling to cope despite the love he feels for his daughter. As they start their journey, zombies suddenly appear in the city, the train station and on the train itself. It becomes apparent that the undead are flooding the entire country.

As Seok-woo works to keep Soo-an safe he gets help from Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) and his heavily pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung).

Sang-ho Yeon has obviously been influenced heavily by the 2013 Brad Pitt zombie apocalypse film.  His zombies favour the Pitt film’s undead in behavior and amped up speed. Yeon has been even more influenced by the  later film than, say,  the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake of the 1978 Romero classic. The earlier film (remake) featured super energized zombies that were, in essence, damned scary. Much more effective than George’s shambling and slow-footed flesh-eaters.

(Although Romero himself dislikes the speedier undead creatures, the new improved models, that can chase their victims down with insane speeds, are terrifying.)

World War Z gave us zombies that were more akin to Army ants with a sort of group mentality and a intense sort of adrenalized activity that made the James Gunn/Zack Snyder (Yes that Zack Snyder.) zombies seem turtle-like in comparison. Train to Busan also uses the WWZ ant-like behavior to good effect and while using some well established tropes, if you will, that have been established in the long running AMC zombie fest “The Walking Dead.” One being the “sound attracting the undead” cliche that has been a feature of the Robert Kirkwood series from the beginning.

There are other nods to film tropes that are present in other genres. The turning away of survivors by a larger group because they “might be infected” has been used before but its presence in this film fits perfectly.

South Korea has been top of the pack for some time with their “Z-Horror” creations. Train to Busan marks their first foray into the zombie film and, like other auteurs in the country, Sang-ho Yeon has managed to make film that is scary, entertaining and fast paced enough to keep us on the edge of our seats.

The performances are solid across the board. Dong-seok Ma, who was brilliant in The Good, The Bad, The Weird as the nearly silent giant hammer wielding villain in that film, is perfect as the muscle bound soon-to-be father with an attitude. The child actress Soo-an Kim, like other young performers from this country, offers up a truth in her role of the daughter and it helps the film along.

Sang-ho Yeon manages to keep the film moving along well, making the most of the claustrophobic feel of the setting. Unlike the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle of “Snakes on a Plane,” with its unintentional collapse into comedy, (“I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHER****ING SNAKES ON THIS MOTHER****ING PLANE!”) Train to Busan manages to keep things on an even keel.

There are a number of familiar South Korean characters to help the audience feel at home. A douche businessman, some young romantically inclined teenagers who happen to be on the train, a couple of sisters who, despite their bickering, really care for one another and of course the pregnant mother struggling to keep her pushy husband in check.

While the main action is around the estranged father and his daughter, a trio soon forms where the expectant father, Soo-an’s dad and one baseball playing teen (Woo-sik Choi) all try to save their respective female counterparts. 

At one hour and 58 minutes the film could have bogged down in the middle but the action and the storyline keep things moving as quickly as the high octane zombies that are flooding South Korea.

Train to Busan is a solid 5 star film that hits every mark spot on. There are no lags, lapses or mistakes in this satisfying action/horror.  The film is streaming on Netflix and is presented in Korean with English subtitles. There is a good bit of violence, not too much blood and no nudity.