Thursday, August 31, 2017

Jackals: 1980s Death Cults Strike Again

The year is 1983. Memories of the 1978 Jonestown People’s Temple mass suicide are still relatively fresh. Cults continue to dominate tabloid headlines—and the fear is warranted. The Powell family could very well be sadistically tortured and murdered by the cult that seduced the younger brother Justin, but at least he is not a Scientologist. Yet, this ominous mask and leather jacket-wearing band of ritual murderers might even be slightly more stalkerish. When the Powells abduct Justin for a Ticket to Heaven-style deprogramming, they will quickly find themselves under siege in Kevin Greutert’s Jackals (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles and Denver.

The prologue should give us an idea what the Powells will face when one long-estranged cult member murders his God-fearing, Reagan-voting family in the middle of the night. However, Kathy and Andrew Powell have opted to go on the offensive, hiring Marine Corps veteran Jimmy Levine to whisk Justin off to their remote cabin to give him a serious talking to. Jerky older brother Campbell has his doubts regarding their strategy, which will soon be vindicated. Unfortunately, that cabin is a little too remote for their own good. When a small army of Jackal-mask wearing cult-members surrounds their mountain home, they are clearly on their own.

Levine and the Powells are outnumbered at least ten to one, but the cultists hold back. According to the Jack Bauer of deprogrammers, they are giving Justin time to free himself and earn redemption on his own. Nevertheless, there will be periodic skirmishes that will thin Team Powell’s already meager numbers.

Jackals hardly breaks any new ground, but it is still viscerally effective, in a throwback 1980s kind of way. In terms of the look, score, and a narrative reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13, the film wears its John Carpenter influences on its sleeve. Greutert and screenwriter Jared Rivet understand how cults’ ruthlessness and collective denial of individuality get under our skin and they skillfully play on those fears. To that end, they do little to differentiate the violent hordes massing outside the cabin, with mixed results. There is no central villain to get our blood circulating, but their almost supernaturally hive-like behavior is definitely creepy.

Stephen Dorff is absolutely terrific as Levine. In fact, he could have been one of the great horror movie protagonists, but the film ill-advisedly undercuts him in a forehead-slappingly frustrating way. It is also cool to see Deborah Kara Unger as Kathy Powell, the wine-swilling mother. Johnathon Schaech gives the film more dignity and presence than you would expect, as Andrew Powell, the unfaithful father. The rest of the cast is serviceable, but they never leave much impression.

Jackals would be a satisfying film to watch late at night with a couch full of rowdy housemates, but it would have trouble justifying premium Manhattan ticket prices. However, it is slick and scary enough to warrant horror fans keeping Saw franchise veteran Greutert on their radar. (After all, it took fellow Saw-helmer Darren Lynn Bousman several tries before he finally realized a film as good as Abattoir.) Recommended to stream or rent, Jackals opens tomorrow (9/1) in LA at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater and in Denver at the AMC Highlands Ranch.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

JFFSF ’17: Love and Goodbye and Hawaii

In a way, breaking up is also a form of commitment, because it will most likely close one set of doors pretty definitely. Rinko and Isamu are not sure they are ready for that. They called it quits six months ago, but they are still happily living together. Obviously, this situation is not sustainable. When Isamu finally starts to hesitantly explore a relationship with another woman, it prompts great soul-searching on Rinko’s part in Shingo Matsumura’s Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japanese Film Festival of San Francisco.

Rinko the office worker and Isamu the grad student are quite civilized about their break-up. They had been living in his apartment, but given the cost of rent in Tokyo and Rinko’s desire to save money for a friend’s destination wedding in Hawaii, he quite reasonably let her stay on as a roommate. For a while, this works out quite well. They still speed-walk together and eat out at restaurants, but since they no longer have relationship stuff to worry about, they no longer fight.

At least, that is how things were for a while. When Kasumi, a pretty grad student starts showing and interest in Isamu and he starts reciprocating, Rinko feels threatened and inadvertently starts picking fights again. Before long, the atmosphere gets so tense, she must finally move out, but she only has a friend’s couch to temporarily crash on. As she deals with her near-homelessness and the heartaches of her friend’s younger sister (and co-couch crasher), Rinko finally faces up to her feelings and decides whether or not she will fight for Isamu.

Love etc is a deceptively simple but distinctly Japanese movie. It is sort of what we might expect if Hirokazu Kore-eda rewrote and remade a sappy break-up rom-com like Forgetting Sarah Marshall or the Vince Vaughn vehicle, The Break-Up. It is a quiet film, but its emotions get rather messy and they will not necessarily be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

In fact, this is quite an unequal movie relationship, with Rinko getting considerably more screen time than Isamu. She also seems to have more complicated feelings and Aya Ayano expresses them all with delicately subtle shadings. She makes all of Rinko’s flaws painfully clear, but we can also see why she is so hard to break-up with. In contrast, Kentaro Tamura is rather workmanlike as Isamu, but he has some nice moments expressing his passion for Japanese literature. However, one of the film’s surprise pleasures is Momoka Ayukawa, giving the film a slightly goofy, slightly saucy heart as the somewhat romantically-challenged sister of Rinko’s friend.

Matsumura captures the cool, crispness of early spring in suburban Tokyo, while the expressive songs of YeYe (a singer-songwriter known for accompanying herself on multiple instruments via overdubbing) further recalls the vibe of Kore-eda films like Still Walking. It is an exquisitely sad and lovely film. Very highly recommended, Love and Goodbye and Hawaii screens Sunday afternoon (9/3) as part of this year’s JFFSF, which is offering a slate of really high quality films, including Rage, Bakuman, The Projects, Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Napping Princess (a.k.a. Ancien and the Magic Tablet), and Your Name.

Goon: Last of the Enforcers

Marvel perversely decided to make Captain America a fascist double-agent and Warner Brothers will probably turn Superman evil in the Justice League movie everyone is dreading, but Doug “the Thug” Glatt is the same likable lug he always was. He is the nicest guy, but the only talent he ever had was for fighting. Yet, Glatt was able to use his gifts for good rather than evil in hockey’s minor leagues. He still has a passion for the game, but his aging body is not so reliable in Jay Baruchel’s Goon: Last of the Enforcers (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

After several playoff-less years with your Halifax Highlanders, Glatt is finally rewarded with the captain’s “C.” Unfortunately, he will not have long to enjoy it. Glatt will be hospitalized by the mentally unstable Anders Cain, who could be a huge star if he could just control his temper. He also happens to be the son of the Highlanders’ new owner, former NHL all-everything Hyrum Cain. Since his enforcer has been forced to accept retirement, Cain brings in his son to replace Glatt’s muscle. Not surprisingly, Glatt’s teammates bitterly resent his presence.

It doesn’t sit well with Glatt either. Despite his promising his wife Eva he will settle down and plug away at his office job, Glatt yearns to return to hockey. Just like in Rocky III, Glatt’s old nemesis Ross “The Boss” Rhea steps up to train him for his big comeback. Rhea likes to think he can still throw down, but he has been reduced to scuffling in a hockey-themed club fighting showcase. Glatt has better options available than the battle royale on ice, but his loyalties to his wife and his team pull him in diametrically opposite directions.

The original Goon was the little movie that came out of nowhere to hold its own with beloved sports comedies like Slap Shot, Bad News Bears, and Kingpin. Sure, it had its share of rude humor and bruising hockey fighting, but Glatt always had a good heart and absolutely no cynicism whatsoever. Baruchel, who co-wrote and co-starred in the original clearly understood his appeal and wisely keeps Doug the Thug’s persona honest and guileless.

In fact, the follow-up is rather clever, in that it recognizes the similar potential pitfalls that face both film sequels and sports comebacks. As Glatt labors to overcome injuries and setbacks, Baruchel wrestles with sports movie clichés, but they both have the same solution: let Glatt be Glatt. Indeed, what makes the film surprisingly compelling a second time around is the ways he must struggle to balance his faithfulness to both his family and his team.

Forget Stiffler. Doug Glatt is the role that will define Seann William Scott. It is easy to get distracted by the flying fists, but his portrayal of the socially awkward Glatt is quite sensitive and complex. He is simply a great movie underdog. Even though she gets less screen-time in Enforcers, Scott still maintains his down-to-earth comedic and romantic chemistry with Alison Pill’s Eva.

However, the big surprise is Wyatt Russell as the volatile Anders Cain. Russell is a former professional hockey player and the son of Kurt Russell, so he could maybe relate to the troubled Cain in more than one way. He is certainly brutish, but he also humanizes Cain, conveying his persistent father issues and acute need for approval. In an added bonus, he even delivers some wryly funny lines. Yet, it is tough for anyone to beat the film’s ace in the hole: Liev Schrieber reprising the role of bad to the bone, but past his prime Ross Rhea.

There are a lot of laughs in Last of the Enforcers, but it still addresses issues facing aging athletes, like post-concussion syndrome, with the seriousness they demand. Baruchel probably lets the fights get a little too bloody, but perhaps there is some method to his excess. Regardless, Glatt and the Halifax Highlanders still have their scrappy, longshot mojo working. Affectionately recommended for fans of sports comedies and underdogs who make good, Goon: Last of the Enforcers opens this Friday (9/1) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Stasis: Back in Time to Fight the Future

Entitled teens today do not know how good they have it. Fifteen-year-old Ava is a particularly obnoxious example. Even when a drug overdose causes her to relinquish her body to a time-traveler, her remnant remains as petulant as ever. However, the time-traveling rebel agent will appreciate the little things about our world when she is not battling to prevent the apocalyptic dystopia of the future in Nicole Jones-Dion’s Stasis (trailer here), which releases today on VOD services.

Forget Skynet. The Cabal nuked over the world and now oppresses the cinders. It is not practical for the resistance to operate in this environment, but the past is a different matter. The world is quite messy in 2017, but in a good way. Who would really notice a handful of standoffish people? Their method of time travel necessarily helps them blend in. Basically, when a dying spirit exits, the time traveler moves into the empty “skin,” while their "up-time" body goes into "stasis." 

The only hitch is the randomness of the process. Obviously, it is less than ideal when Seattle moves into Ava after she OD’s at a party and Lancer, her partner in romance and covert operations assumes control of a twenty-ish college student after a hazing incident. However, Ava might not have fully died. Although nobody can see her, she haunts Seattle and Lancer like a ghost.

It takes an awfully long time for the film to get to this point, like fortysome minutes. Still, the mixture of science fiction and woo-woo elements is a fresh wrinkle. Unfortunately, Stasis can never get out of the long shadow cast by the Terminator franchise, especially when the Cabal sends back a “Hunter” to track Seattle and Lancer.

Not to belabor the point, but there are some awkward performances in Stasis. On the plus side, Richard Lippert stands out again in a B-movie for his commanding presence, this time playing the rebels’ “down-time” commander, Captain Suthers. Based on his work in Stasis and The Covenant, he could become something like the next Michael Ironside. The others you might say are more hit-and-miss.

Yes, the premise has promise, but the execution would serve better as a TV pilot, because after all that happens, hardly anything changes. Seriously, they have to move the ball further down the field than this. For a thematically-similar, but more character-driven time travel film, check out Alexis Boling’s Movement + Location instead. We wanted to feel more for Stasis, but it is just totally underwhelming. For time travel sub-genre fanatics, Stasis is now available on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

Mike Boy: Conspiracies, Prophesies, and Bogus 1st Editions

Conspiracy theories are the secular religion of our time, so it makes sense they would produce their equivalent of the messiah. It turns out the put-upon waiter at an Egyptian restaurant is the prophesized one, or whatever. Of course, he has no idea what that means, but it is not clear screenwriter-director Hamzah Tarzan knows either, judging from Mike Boy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Mike Boy is such a doormat, the hostess of his restaurant even shorts him on tips. He grew up an orphan, so he is understandably psyched when his bossy girlfriend Charlotte (she prefers to be called Lara) gives him a first edition of Oliver Twist (it turns out it was a flimsy tradepaperback published by Penguin. Who knew?). It wasn’t such a big deal for her because her father is an antiquarian bookseller, whose expertise might just factor into the caper later.

Shortly after an old Sopranos-looking gentleman spies Boy’s horse pendant, “Agent Chris” pays him a visit. Supposedly, two shadowy cabals have been secretly waging war for global domination. According to prophesy, Boy is the vengeance-seeker with the Andalusian horse necklace who will help Chris’s faction, the D’s, permanently overcome the Russian Mobbed-up Two Bones. To avenge his murdered mother and fulfill his destiny, Boy will have to complete a series of baffling transactions by midnight.

Okay, so far, so good, even though it takes the film way too long to get to this point. Unfortunately, what follows is a series of meaningless exchanges of one package for another, with instructions of where to go next. Naturally, the Two Bones are following along behind him, killing the parties to his obscure dealings, even though they should be more prepared, considering they understand what is going on better than Boy does.

Everyone digs a good conspiracy theory, so we all come into MB primed for a climatic showdown in its Masonic Lodge from Hell. Regrettably, Tarzan never pulls back to give us a more macro view of the secret history afoot. Instead, the film starts to feel like an especially dull episode of Deal or No Deal, as Boy keeps trading one generically ominous package for another.

Hugh Massey is not bad in the title role, but he has zero chemistry with Emily Killian’s Charlotte/Lara. The supporting cast is genuinely colorful, but most of them seem confused about their characters and motivations—like we can blame them. More fundamentally problematic, the film doesn’t move along briskly enough for a paranoid thriller.

The best films in this subgenre regularly reward us with shocking revelations, but for every answer they introduce several new mysteries. Tarzan rather maddeningly keeps everything in a black box. Ultimately, that means none of it has any meaning. It is memorably weird in spots, but that hardly makes Mike Boy worth recommending when it opens this Friday (9/1) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Panic: A Music Critic in Jeopardy

To be a good music critic, you can’t simply rely on review copies. Eventually, you need to hear the music live. Andrew Deeley understands this perfectly well, but for eight months he has remained homebound due to the severe post-traumatic stress resulting from a violent physical assault. However, he will have to venture outside to have any chance of finding a missing neighbor in Sean Spencer’s Panic (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

For weeks, Deeley has been spying on Kem, a pretty Asian woman in the apartment building facing his, through binoculars. It is a little creepy, but he is enormously sad. Arguably, his internet hook-up with Amy might be a positive sign, but before she leaves, she observes someone attacking Kem. Of course, she refuses to talk to the police, for reasons one can easily guess, leaving the agitated Deeley to conclude he will have to find her himself.

Deeley will actually start trudging the streets of London again, but each confrontation will more likely lead to a panic attack than physical violence. Nevertheless, he manages to blunder across a dangerous human trafficking operation. Even if he finds Kem, it is doubtful he has the wherewithal to save her, but Amy is made of sterner stuff. Eventually, she helps the guilt-tripping music journalist, despite her better judgment.

Deeley might be the most pitiable obsessive peeping tom thriller-protag maybe ever, but he is always acutely human. You can feel the palpable sense of danger whenever he merely passes a bad guy on the sidewalk. That is how it works in real life when average people suddenly confront the criminal element. The decidedly damaged and unheroic Deeley acts as a corrective to just about every cinematic everyman amateur sleuth who came before him. Even Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are unrealistically cool and collected in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, an obvious touchstone film for Spencer (Thelma Ritter would be much truer to life).

As Deeley, David Gyasi looks like the personification of a nervous breakdown. It is a tense, grueling, uncompromisingly neurotic performance, but somehow Gyasi maintains the quietly spectacular anxiety attack throughout the film. Indeed, he carries the picture, since he is on-screen nearly every second. However, the more forceful nature of Pippa Nixon’s Amy counterbalances him quite effectively and Yennis Cheung is even more hauntingly desperate and vulnerable as Kem, who really is in a great deal of trouble.

Nobody will accuse Spencer’s screenplay of being overly intricate, but his execution is massively moody and stylish. He also has a good ear for music to match up with a discerning listener like Deeley, including Empirical’s “Kite,” written by British jazz musician Courtney Pine, Cymande’s funky “Bird,” and “Song of a Sinner” by the “famously” lost psychedelic band, Top Drawer. It all sounds right and Carl Burke’s neon noir cinematography looks right. Recommended for fans of hip, sleek, psychologically realistic thrillers, Panic releases today (8/29) on iTunes, from Gravitas Ventures.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Teacher: A Little Bit of Power can be a Dangerous Thing

During the Communist era, teachers were supposed to serve as the state’s first line of indoctrination. Of course, most disbelieved the propaganda they repeated by rote. However, Maria Drazdechova, teacher of history and Slovak, also serves as the local party chair. That makes her uncharacteristically zealous and decidedly dangerous, so when she makes it clear she expects favors from her students’ parents, most of them simply comply. Unfortunately, her abuse of power causes a tragedy that will force the parents to choose a side in Jan Hrebejk’s The Teacher (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York, at Film Forum.

On the first day of class, Drazdechova has each pupil stand and tell her what their parents do for a living. The purpose is obvious. She wants to know what they can do for her. The repercussions are also quickly apparent. The parents who deliver goods and favors receive tips as to which study problems their children should give special attention to. Those who cannot, will see their children punished, like Danka Kuncerova, a bright student-gymnast, who is regularly shamed and belittled in class, because her father, a back-office accountant at the airport, is unable and unwilling to call in favors on her behalf.

When the pressure finally breaks Kuncerova, it gives the decent head teacher an opening to call an emergency parents meeting. As they argue and deliberate, we witness Drazdechova’s tyrannical classroom behavior in flashbacks. However, the Communist teacher’s partisans clearly have the advantage. Besides the Kuncerovas, her most vocal critics are the highly problematic parents of Filip Binder, the wrestling prodigy who has a crush on Danka. The unlikely wildcard might turn out to be Vaclav Littmann, a former academic reduced to menial labor after the defection of his wife. Much to his discomfort, Drazdechova has made her romantic interest all too evident, but that also put him in a position to witness her full manipulativeness.

The Teacher is an emotionally grueling film, because it shows how Drazdechova strikes at her victims’ weakest spot: their children. It is one thing to stand up to do the right thing when you will be the only one to face the consequences and quite another when your son or daughter stands to take the punishment. They end up with a classic prisoners’ dilemma—it is in their collective interest to stand against Drazdechova, but individually, they each have an incentive to knuckle under.

Zuzana Maurery is absolutely chilling and enraging as the venal Drazdechova. One minute she adopts a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth façade and the next she lashes out at her young charges with emotional savagery that will turn your stomach to ice. Frankly, it is such a disturbing performance, because it is so true to life. Likewise, it is truly harrowing to watch Tamara Fischer’s breakdown as Danka. Yet, the film’s real heart and ethical soul is supplied by Martin Havelka as Filip Binder’s gruffly remorseful beat-first-and-ask-questions-later father Jaroslav.

For his first film in Slovak, Hrebejk channels Twelve Angry Men and similarly claustrophobic morality plays. Essentially, it combines elements of his critical examinations of the Communist experience, like Kawasaki’s Rose, with his domestic dramas, such as Honeymoon and Beauty in Trouble. Although Hrebejk has positioned Teacher as a universal exploration of the dynamics of powers, the thornier aspects of Petr Jarchovsky’s uncompromising screenplay, such as Littmannova’s defection are very particular to that dark era. It is a razor-sharp film that is almost unbearably gripping. Very highly recommended, The Teacher opens this Wednesday (8/30) at Film Forum.

Merchant-Ivory: Heat and Dust

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for her novel of two distantly related English women who come to India under very different circumstances, but the double-narrative divided by fifty years shares a stylistic compatibility with the best-sellers of today. Yet, it was the 1983 film version that proved to be zeitgeisty, ushering in a mini-boomlet of films and television set during the British Raj (A Passage to India, Jewel in the Crown, The Far Pavilions). Adapted by Jhabvala from her novel and produced by Ismail Merchant, James Ivory’s Heat and Dust (trailer here) helped set the template for what a Merchant Ivory production meant. A fresh 4K restoration of Merchant Ivory’s breakout hit (comparatively speaking) opens this Friday in New York, as part of a double bill with Autobiography of a Princess.

Anne was always curious about her great aunt Olivia Rivers, the black sheep of the family. When she and her husband Douglas arrived in 1923, they both are genuinely devoted to each other, but something about India will have a pernicious effect on their relationship. The heat is definitely part of it. So is her questionable friendship with the Nawab, Satipur’s local royal. Publicly, the Nawab makes nice with the British, but there are rumors he is not so secretly in league with the Dacoit bandits. His intentions towards Rivers are not necessarily honorable either.

Meanwhile, five decades later, Anne the great niece retraces Rivers steps with the help of old family letters. Initially, she is quite happy boarding with the Lal family, even when “Chid,” a foolish American Hindu convert invites himself to crash on her balcony. However, Anne finds herself repeating history with her landlord, Inder Lal, despite her affection for his sickly wife.

In many ways, H&D is exactly the sort of quality literary production the Merchant Ivory brand now implies. It features most of their hallmarks, including an elegant, classically-based score from their frequent film composer Richard Robbins, but in this case, it is augmented with some traditional Indian accents provided by tabla player Zakir Hussain, who also plays Inder Lal.

He is solid in the part, as is the late Christopher Cazenove as poor, clueless Douglas Rivers. Yet, there is no doubt this film and story belong to its women characters. Neither great aunt or niece fit the mold of “memsahibs,” the British “mothers of empire builders,” who were often more socially rigid and outright racist than their husbands. They also tend to look rather matronly. That is all very well for Anne in 1982, but Olivia chafes under their petty jealousies and resentments.

As Ms. Rivers, Greta Scacchi smolders up the screen almost as much as she did in the Kenyan-set White Mischief (ironically, another story of English colonials acting badly). Yet, she finds subtle dimensions in the unhappy memsahib that elevate her above a mere Hester Prynne of the Raj. In one of her final turns as a romantic co-lead, Julie Christie’s Anne is equally seductive, but in an earthier, more grounded and mature kind of way. We can certainly believe she is her great aunt’s grand-niece. However, the charms of Shashi Kapoor’s Nawad are not readily apparent.

Ivory is a filmmaker known for his taste and refinement, but he makes viewers feel the heat of Satipur and his characters’ resulting sweat. Thirty-some years later, its cultural attitudes do not feel the slightest bit dated. Yet, the sensitivity and ambiguity of the Jhabvala-scripted Autobiography of a Princess make the two-handed tele-film ultimately more satisfying. Recommended for Anglophiles and admirers of Christie and the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaborative team, Heat and Dust opens this Friday (9/1) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Merchant-Ivory: Autobiography of a Princess

For most historians, Indira Gandhi’s legacy is decidedly mixed. She clearly favored the Soviets as a not-so Non-Aligned Nation and effectively suspended India’s democracy during the infamous State of Emergency, but she also began the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel. However, the daughter of a fallen Indian Maharajah never equivocates in her opinion of the controversial prime minister. She will meet with her father’s former secretary to fondly remember the good old days, but he does not always share her idealized nostalgia in James Ivory’s Autobiography of a Princess, a Merchant-Ivory 1975 television special, which has its theatrical debut this Friday, along with a brand new 4K restoration of Heat and Dust.

Despite his mixed feelings, Cyril “Sahib” always keep his annual engagement with the Princess to mark the anniversary of her father’s death. To her, the Maharajah was a progressive reformer with a jolly sense of humor. Having served first as his tutor and then as his secretary, Cyril came to the conclusion the Indian royal was a master manipulator and a bully, so he is not especially eager to write his biography (and certainly not in the manner she so clearly expects).

Granted, he cannot deny the Maharajah provided opulent living conditions, but he largely blames the luxury for sapping his scholarly ambitions. During their late afternoon tea, the two old palace acquaintances will watch vintage news reel footage of early to mid-20th Century India specially delivered by the BBC, which will serve as Rorschach ink-blots for their perceptions of Indian history and society.

Autobiography is a deceptively simple two-hander, but it is a wonderfully thoughtful and graceful film. Like a good producer, Ismail Merchant re-purposed interview footage with former Indian nobles who had been stripped of their formal recognition and (more importantly) their government stipends, originally shot for an unfinished documentary. It is hard to weep for them, but the Princess seems to better exemplifies the sense of grace and duty that nobility is supposed to uphold. Yet, ironically, she again praises her father for giving her the independence to survive on her own (having jettisoned her deadbeat arranged husband long ago).

For many, this will be a James Mason film they are not familiar with, which should be reason enough to check out the Merchant-Ivory double-bill. In fact, it might just be one of his best performances, constituting some wonderfully complex, delicately shaded work. Although it is clear he has his misgivings about his service in Indian, his ultimate judgment of the Maharajah remains ambiguous.

While Mason exudes world-weariness, Madhur Jaffrey is absolutely luminous as the Princess. She is a forceful screen presence, who only allows the subtlest hints of doubt and insecurity to peak through the Princess’s charm and hospitality. Together, they are quietly terrific playing off each other.

The fifty-eight-minute, 2K-restored Autobiography is the extra added bonus paired up with Heat and Dust (for over three hours of Merchant-Ivory), but it is the bigger surprise and arguably the superior film, thanks to the assured co-leads. Very highly recommended, Autobiography of a Princess opens this Friday (9/8) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

8 Assassins: From Morocco with Love

You have to start somewhere and this is very definitely someplace: Morocco. The nation’s first domestically produced action movie and it isn’t bad, but it might have appealed more to Sir Richard Burton the explorer than the actor. Shrewdly, director-co-screenwriter Saïd C. Naciri takes full advantage of his exotic locales in 8 Assassins (a.k.a. Kanyamakan, trailer here), which opens a brief four-day theatrical run tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Amir would be the first to say he is a thief, not a hero. He isn’t even a particularly honorable one. When we meet him, he is double-crossing his accomplices during a back robber. Technically, he is the one holding the bag (full of cash). They will chase him into the desert in hopes of expressing their personal disappointment, until Amir reaches the walled Kasbah ruled by the evil Sharkan. This is definitely an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation for Amir, who is stripped of his loot and thrown into the dungeon, but he still fares better than his soon-to-be late colleagues.

Inadvertently, Amir finds himself in the middle of a clan power struggle, when the prisoner in the cell next to his reveals he is Shahin, the rightful chief, long thought to be dead. Sharkan was his presumed successor, but the old man realized his true nature before passing on the secret of the tribe’s storied treasure. During a chaotic escape attempt, Amir will subsequently meet Shahin’s daughter Aida, who has been aiding the tribe’s nomadic rebels, even though she is betrothed to Sharkan. She has hired two assassins to take out the usurper, but neither has arrived yet, so she expects Amir to rally to the cause in their place. Eventually, both hired guns will turn up. While the second is only good for comic relief, the firepower and know-how Cassius brings will be helpful for storming the Kasbah.

So right now, you’re probably wondering about the other six assassins. Good question. Even if you count Amir and Sharkan as assassins (which they aren’t), we are still four hired killers short. Your guess is as good as mine, but if you’re inflating the number of assassins in your title, why stop at eight?

It is a mystery alright—a completely unnecessary one. Maybe you have to grade a bit on a curve, but 8 Assassins—let’s call it Kanyamakan—is rather enjoyable as gritty, low-budget action throw-down. Frankly, it was a mistake to dub Kanyamakan, because the natural audience for it is used to watching subtitled Hong Kong action movies. Regardless, Naciri recruited a number of stunt performers for his cast, all of whom are clearly comfortable with shooting, fighting, and pyrotechnics. The Kasbah is wildly cinematic and all the tribal elements add an intriguing dimension.

Mohamed Elachi has the action chops and a decent roguish anti-hero screen presence as Amir. Sarah Kazemy, co-star of the rather daring Persian lesbian drama Circumstance, is indeed quite striking as Aida. As Cassius, Diouc Koma attacks his scenes with admirable gusto, even though his character doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps most notable among the supporting ensemble is Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, who generated controversy when he portrayed Satan in the History Channel’s Bible miniseries, because some commentators thought he looked Obama. In Kanyamakan, he doesn’t remotely resemble Obama, or, as far as we know, Satan, but plays Shahin with all kinds of grizzled dignity. However, Taken franchise veteran Affif Ben Badra makes the strongest impression radiating villainous intensity as Sharkan.

In the West, even supposedly “indie” films probably spend more on catering than Naciri probably had for his entire budget. Yet, if you can forgive a few rough patches, you will inevitably find yourself digging its energy and commitment. It is not an overstatement to call it a Moroccan El Mariachi. Plus, it is the first film since Hitchcock’s second The Man Who Knew Too Much to film in Marfakesh’s Jemaa el Fnaa, the old city market square. Recommended for those who appreciate underdog action movies, 8 Assassins opens tomorrow (8/28) in Los Angeles, at the Laemmle Music Hall, with a VOD release to follow shortly after.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Frightfest ’17: Real Gods Require Blood (short)

Imagine an episode of EastEnders directed by early-period Wes Craven and you will have an idea of this short’s film’s vibe. Technically, it is set in Manchester, but the milieu is not radically dissimilar. As if the conventional crime, poverty, and addiction were not scary enough, something very sinister might be going on behind the closed doors of the estate flat Alice is forced to visit in Moin Hussain’s short film Real Gods Require Blood (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Frightfest in the UK.

Blame the local authorities. In 1990, Manchester was about the only spot in England mired in economic doldrums. Unfortunately, Alice is usually too stoned to notice the moribund job market. This is like any other morning for her, but because she is so slow witted, she cannot conjure up an excuse (aside from the obvious fact she is an irresponsible junkie) when her neighbor strong-arms her into minding her children: a boy and girl of elementary school age, who certainly look like they have different fathers.

As Alice tries to make nice with her charges, she finds herself confused by the assorted photos and references to their “uncles.” It doesn’t exactly add up for us the viewers either and we’re sober as judges, or so we’ll assume. There is obviously something very wrong about their domestic environment, starting with the fact the TV only seems to pick up torture porn horror movies. The kids themselves seem nice enough, but as soon as Alice arrives around midday, they start pressuring her to leave before nightfall. Of course, she does not want to be there in the first place, but she feels duty-bound to stay until their mother returns.

Real Gods works rather insidiously as a chamber-style horror piece, because the socio-economic setting and the actual genre business reinforce and amplify each other. It is always hard to tell whether the greater evils are inside or outside the flat. Manchester crime novelist Tom Benn’s screenplay also obliquely hints at a deeply troubled backstory that could become a feature in its own right. Anna Berentzen convincingly portrays the drug-befogged Alice’s gradually mounting but still rather hazy suspicion that something is profoundly off about the kids and their situation. Thanks to Mick Cooke’s feverish cinematography, the viewers share her wooziness and sense of unease.

Usually, when horror movies make literary allusions, they fall back on heavy-sounding but cliched passages from The Bible or Pardise Lost, so Real Gods earns bonus point for Zora Neale Hurston. It is the sort of film Ben Wheatley fans should eat up that would also pair-up nicely with Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration, but viewers should take heed—some of the accents are so challenging, the entire short really ought to be subtitled. Recommended for fans of gritty, urban-centered horror films, Real Gods Require Blood screens tomorrow (8/27) as part of Short Film Showcase II, at this year’s Frightfest UK.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Red Christmas: Bah Humbug

There is something sinfully transgressive about Christmas horror movies, such as Silent Night, Bloody Night; Silent Night, Deadly Night; and Silent Night, Zombie Night, but they are maybe not so brilliantly original when it comes to titles. In any case, it is weirdly compelling to watch slasher violence during what is supposed to be a family holiday. Unfortunately, Craig Anderson does not know when to stop. Instead of mere yuletide gore, he delivers an absolutist pro-abortion access message early and often in Red Christmas (trailer here), which opens tonight in New York.

Apparently, this film is set in Mississippi, New South Wales, where twentysome years ago, there was a nasty bombing at an abortion clinic. As fate would have it, the recently widowed Diane had just finished her procedure when the bomb went off, resulting in utter bedlam. However, it turns out her fetus-baby-lump of tissue-sacred human life was not sufficiently aborted. The mad bomber would adopt the woeful Cletus, who will come looking for his birth mother after the death of his surrogate father.

Naturally, Cletus turns up just as Diane is about to open presents with her stoner second husband Joe and her obnoxious, entitled grown children. The Bible-thumping, cloak-wearing Cletus is out for either revenge and/or acceptance from his mother. Frankly, he is probably has grounds to feel resentful, given the presumed effects of the procedure on his long-term development, but he is a fundamentalist, so that is evil enough for Anderson.

Have you ever been to a Christmas party where some loudmouth won’t shut up about Trump, Obama, W., or whoever? You know how everyone just agrees with him hoping he’ll let it rest, but he can tell it isn’t sincere, so he gets even more belligerent? This film is that guy. Seriously, just by making a Christmas slasher movie, you’re already sort of desecrating one of the most sacred days in the Christian calendar. To then proceed to imply all Evangelicals are deformed homicidal maniacs is just kind of rude. It also interrupts the tension and jump scares for countless interludes of eye-rolling.

Despite all that, it is always nice to see Dee Wallace [Stone] back in another horror movie. She is terrific as the no-nonsense Diane, but it doesn’t make sense that she would have raised such self-centered, un-self-aware children. Regardless, she develops some likably lived-in chemistry with Geoff Morrell as the wryly laidback Joe.

Just on a purely logical level, it makes no sense Diane’s entire assembled family cannot overwhelm the admittedly large-of-frame Cletus, especially considering he is supposedly living with Down Syndrome (yet another icky plot point). Compared to this film, the Natasha Henstridge horror flick The Black Room is model of subtlety and restraint. Not recommended, Red Christmas screens tonight and tomorrow night (8/25 & 8/26) in New York, at the IFC Center.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Sidewalk ’17: The Weight

Missouri is the home of barbecue spare ribs and Provel cheese, so maybe it’s not surprising the villain of this Midwest border state noir is a weight loss counselor. She sells a healthy lifestyle and not so healthy drugs. Unfortunately, Thad Sitter got himself mixed up in her illicit business. When he suddenly disappears under mysterious circumstances, his ex-wife will defy the conspicuously unhelpful sheriff to find him in Thomas Rennier’s The Weight, which screens during the 2017 Sidewalk Film Festival.

Although Thad and Julie Sitter divorced, they still care deeply for each other. It was one of those complicated situations. Things weren’t so complicated between her and Sheriff Crane. She just dumped him—end of story. Of course, that means he has all kinds of bad attitude when she reports him missing. Sitter had been working for Gayle Benson’s weight loss clinic, where he served as the primary contact with her drug supplier. Benson sells a supposedly natural weight loss supplement to her clients that is apparently some kind of amphetamine compound. Obviously, this is problematic, but it also means it probably works. In any event, when her regularly supplier shorts them, Benson deals out some disproportionate payback, which Sitter is forced to clean-up. That also makes him a loose end.

When Benson hires a low-rent hitman with an ugly toupee to kill Sitter, he takes to the wind. Meanwhile, his wife’s Red Hot Riplet guzzling private investigator Jake Liebig starts nosing around the weight loss center for clues. Obviously, this will end badly for the majority of the characters, because that is how noirs roll. Unfortunately, the film craters after a nifty hardboiled second act.

Despite sharing little screen time together, Clayne Crawford and M.J. Brackin convince us the Sitters really do still care for each other. However, the real fun comes from Ken Hudson Campbell as Liebig, the private eye who looks rumpled and slovenly on a good day. Likewise, Heather Roop is entertainingly catty as the ruthless Benson.

The Weight has plenty of good Fargo-like small town skulduggery, but it collapses in a total face-palm moment that was probably intended send a message. Seriously, why? Alabamans can still enjoy their native son Crawford and the Missouri setting up to that point, but they will wish they could take the work-print back into the editing bay and recut it. Getting a mixed review, The Weight screens this coming Saturday night (8/26) as part of the Sidewalk Film Festival, in Birmingham.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Justin Chon’s Gook

This film is set during the 1992 LA Riots, but it is impossible not to hear echoes of subsequent events, such as the unjust persecution of Chinatown’s Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the selective prosecution of NYPD officer Peter Liang, and the still unsolved (and possible hate crime) assault on Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens)—provided you had heard of those news stories in the first place. In each case, it was deemed socially and politically acceptable to scapegoat or marginalize Asians. This was especially true of the grossly under-reported crimes committed against the small proprietorships owned by Koreans and other Asians in 1992. Twenty-five years later, their testimony is still often excluded from the media narrative. Drawing on his family’s own experiences, writer-director-lead actor Justin Chon tells the inspired-by-actual-events-story of two Korean American brothers who will be blindsided by violent looters in Gook (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Their father’s shoe store is slowly dying, but Eli clings to it, like he holds onto his anger. In contrast, Daniel yearns to leave the store to pursue his R&B dreams, but he is too passive to directly challenge his brother. The store also provides a direct link to eleven-year-old African American Kamilla, their mascot and surrogate little sister. Years ago, her mother was shot dead inside the store along with their father during an ill-fated hold-up attempt.

Before the Rodney King verdict is even announced, Eli receives a beating from local thugs. However, Daniel will eventually catch much worse when he is caught in the wrong neighborhood, at the wrong time. Both brothers understand the verdict is an ill omen, but they are too preoccupied with their own bickering to recognize the storm brewing, until it is too late.

Chon has screen intensity of a younger, saner Sean Penn that even shines through in comedies, like the under-seen Seoul Searching. There is a rawness and honesty to his performance that harkens back even earlier, to the work of Brando and the Angry British young men. He is always a livewire in the film, but his scenes with his real-life father Sang Chon (a former child actor, who survived the 1992 lootings as a Greater LA store-owner) crackle with electricity. Initially, Mr. Kim appears to be a cranky foil for Eli and Kamilla, but he will have wisdom to offer during the crisis.

David So nicely counterbalances Chon as Daniel. While he presents himself as a more easygoing mensch, he is really just keeps his resentments quietly bottled up. Simone Baker is also very good as Kamilla, but her character often feels more like a symbol of inclusive martyrdom, transparently modeled on a widely-reported victim of the riots.

Ante Cheng’s black-and-white cinematography is stark and spartanly powerful. Yet, it also gives the film a timeless quality that suddenly feels uncomfortably timely. There is a good reason Burkean conservatives and classical liberals distrust the masses. When large groups of people start following collective impulses, riots might break out, which could hurt friends, foes, and unsuspecting bystanders alike. Chon emphasizes the personal rather than the political, but it is clear the experiences of Korean shopkeepers like his father still hurt twenty-five years later (the scathing bluntness of the title should have been your first clue). Highly recommended, Gook opens this Friday (8/25) in New York, at the Regal Union Square.

Frightfest ’17: Fashionista

Eric wants to be the vintage clothing king of Texas. Unfortunately, his wife April has some Texas-sized jealousy and self-esteem issues. Clothes are how she self-medicates. When she falls under the spell of someone who feeds and exploits her addiction, it probably leads to some extreme behavior, but it is hard to tell what is real and what is delusion in Simon Rumley’s Fashionista (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Frightfest in the UK.

Initially, Austin hipsters April and Eric seem to enjoy living together amid the mountains of clothes he calls “stock” and she considers her wardrobe. However, when he starts spending more time in Dallas preparing their second store, she inevitably suspects he is cheating. There might be something to her fears, but her paranoid, passive aggressive behavior ironically pushes him further into infidelity. Seething from his betrayal, April allows the slimy but very rich Randall to pick her up. He has a bit of a fetish when it comes to women’s clothing, but strictly for his partner to wear. Randall starts dressing April in high-end couture, but he clearly has a nefarious agenda.

We get hints of his evil machinations in nearly subliminal flashforward snippets. At least we assume they are flashforwards. Rumley so thoroughly smashes narrative linearity, it is dashed difficult for viewers to piece it back together on the fly. Frankly, we always have good reason to doubt the legitimacy of everything we are watching supposedly transpire. That makes Fashionista rather exhausting, but Rumley and editor Tom Sainty cut-and-paste it together with such a sure hand, it is always compelling to watch.

In a tour de force performance, Amanda Fuller is terrifying, infuriating, and stripped bare to the point of utter vulnerability. Eric Balfour (recognizable to many for surviving pretty late into the original 24 as Milo Pressman) is spectacularly sinister as the manipulative Randall. Ethan Embry, who has become a go-to horror guy in films like The Devil’s Candy, Late Phases, and Cheap Thrills, helps tether the film to something we can consider reality, but it is hard to understand why he doesn’t shun April like the plague.

Fashionista is definitely an Austin kind of Texas film and Rumley is British, so there you go. It would be more akin to a sexually charged psycho-drama like Eyes Wide Shut, if it were not for provocative and bloody twists that pile up during the third act. It is not for all tastes, but those who enjoy the avant-garde when it gets lurid will flip for what Rumley pulls off. Recommended accordingly, Fashionista screens this Friday (8/25), as part of Frightfest UK.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Revelator: His Name is John and He Sees the Dead

John Dunning can see dead people, but is he ever defensive about it. The last person he should be teaming up with is an ambitious journalist trying to work her way out of listicle Hell, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Dunning was born desperate, thanks to his incessant visions of the dead and the increasingly severe mental stress they have caused. However, he might achieve some measure of relief and redemption if he does not completely crack-up in J. Van Auken’s Revelator (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

The only dead person Dunning has not been able to see is his late wife, a school teacher who drowned with her students in a freak ferry accident. Every three years, he moves into a brand-new apartment complex, because that is generally how long it takes before the first resident dies in the building. Unfortunately, that leaves little money for anything else. Despite his shady rep, Dunning has amassed little through his gifts.

The closest thing he had to a patron has just passed away. By law, he stands to inherit an unusual property from her, but the wealthy and powerful Bellevue family intends to contest the will into eternity, unless he can solve the mystery surrounding the death of patriarch Carmine Bellevue’s developmentally-challenged son. When scuffling journalist Valerie Krueger sniffs out the story, she sets off Dunning’s alarm bells, but he still lets her observe him at work, because he needs a regular ride. Dunning can indeed see the late poor Jacob, but in a somewhat unsetting turn of events, he also seems to see Dunning.

Revelator might have a few rough edges, like most first features, but Van Auken offers up a number of fresh wrinkles on the psychic spirit-chaser genre. In fact, some of the eeriest incidents actually do not happen on-screen, but are related as evocative confessionals. That also means they are quite well written.

Directing himself as the lead might sound like a vanity project or a decision mandated by a rigid budget constraint, but Van Auken arguably projects the right world weary, spiritually-deflated psyche for the literally haunted Dunning. Yet, the real discovery is Mindy Rae, who is terrific as the brash but also somewhat broken Krueger. (Careful googling her, because there is another Rae, who is completely different and totally NSFW.) Plus, Greg Lucey does his best to channel the Hammer Horror greats as Old Man Carmine, which is definitely not a bad thing.

When Van Auken starts working with bigger budgets and greater technical resources, he should produce something really distinctive. Yet, the talent and freshness to be seen in Revelator already make it worth searching out. (We’re happy to give it a positive review now—and suspect we’ll look like geniuses for it, in a few years.) Recommended for genre fans looking for the next new thing, Revelator opens this Friday (8/25) in LA at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Frightfest ’17: Voice from the Stone

Ever since the death of his mother, young entitled Jakob Rivi has refused to talk. For some reason, his sculptor father Klaus considers this a problem, rather than a consolation. More nurses have been fired at the Rivi estate than Trump West Wing staffers, but the oddly intense Verena might be different. However, she might be dealing with supernatural matters outside her area of expertise in Eric D. Howell’s Voice from the Stone (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Frightfest in the UK.

To call the Rivi’s home a manse or a villa would be an understatement. It has crenellations. It has also seen better days. Much of the masonry is chipped and cracking, unfortunately including Jakob’s room. Ever since the death of his pianist mother Malvina (doesn’t “mal” usually mean bad?), he has supposedly heard her speaking to him through the aperture in his wall. It seems he is afraid that if he starts talking, she will stop.

Enter Verena (presumably named after St. Verena, the patron saint of nurses and lepers, don’t you reckon?). At first, she is having none of Jakob’s spookiness. Yet, as her protective mothering instincts start to kick in, she begins to suspect there maybe something to it after all. The more driven she is to help Jakob, the more she and Klaus feel their powerful mutual attraction. She even starts sitting as a model for his unfinished statue of Malvina after he realizes how much they look alike. Yeah okay, if he says so, but not really.

Based on Silvio Raffo’s Italian novel, Stone clearly echoes Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, but it is really stingy with the sinister elements until late in the third act. There is at least one uncanny plot twist supposedly hiding in plain sight, but it is distractingly obvious (especially considering one late 1990s blockbuster is famously constructed around a similar revelation).

What works here is the atmospheric, Hammer-esque 1950s costumes, sets, and trappings. Castle Rivi and the family mausoleum are terrific gothic locations, but Emilia Clarke and Marton Csokas are no Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Of the two, he fares the better, mostly just brooding and glowering like Edward Rochester’s less imposing cousin. The work of Clarke, (a Game of Thrones fan favorite) is rather lightweight, but she tries to compensate by opening her eyes impossibly wide. It is hard to imagine anyone would confuse her with Caterina Murino, which is why the audience starts to pine for Malvina along with Jakob (let’s just say he looks awkward on-screen and leave it at that).

Stone looks great, but it has no passion or sense of urgency. It is a strange choice for Howell, considering the grittiness of his Oscar-shortlisted short Ana’s Playground, but one could argue both films fully capitalize on the architecture of their settings. The ending almost redeems Voice from the Stone, but there are much better genre films at this year’s Frightfest UK, including Psychopaths, Sequence Break, Game of Death, Mansfield 66/67, The Villainess, Devil’s Gate, Meatball Machine Kodoku, and the short film Bad Heads. Here in the U.S., it is already available on DVD, but it has its UK premiere this Friday (8/25), as part of Frightfest.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Villainess: Kim Ok-vin Vanquishes All Pretenders

Sook-hee is a lot like La Femme Nikita, but she lends herself more readily to Freudian analysis. Gangster Joon-sang became both her father figure and fiancé, so when a rival gang killed him, she decided to wipe them out, with no regard for her own life. Of course, when Sook-hee, now working for a shadowy assassination agency, discovers Joon-sang is still alive and most likely betrayed her, you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to guess how she might react. The body-count is truly awe-inspiring in Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

After learning of Joon-sang’s supposed death, Sook-hee launches a frontal assault on the gang that allegedly did it. Think of this sequence as the hallway scene from Oldboy, raised to the power of one hundred, but initially seen through Sook-hee’s POV, a la Hardcore Henry. However, Jung uses a cleverly transition to pop back to a standard omniscient viewer perspective about halfway through the opening carnage.

Sook-hee never expected to live through her super-charged vengeance-taking, but her conspicuous skills catch the eye of Chief Kwon, who oversees a double-secret counter-terror and organized crime agency. Basically, they are a death squad, but whatever. If Sook-hee gives them ten years of service, she can reclaim her life. It won’t be such a bad deal. She will assume the identity of aspiring actress Chae Yeon-soo and she will be able to maintain custody of the daughter she didn’t know she was pregnant with.

Unbeknownst to the reinvented Chae/Sook-hee, her new neighbor is also her handler Hyun-soo, who is deliberately worming his way into her life and confidence. However, he legitimately falls for her and duly adores her daughter too. Then one fine day, Chae is ordered to assassinate a target that turns out to be Joon-sang. Chaos ensues.

Granted, there is a bit of slack in the middle of Villainess, but it is hard to judge it harshly when the extended, relentlessly pedal-to-metal action sequences at the beginning and end are so spectacularly cinematic. Jung started in the business as a stuntman, so he has always had an affinity for action, but he takes it to a new level of artistry in Villainess. It is the sort of film you will want to re-watch with a clicker to try to keep track of the escalating death toll.

This summer, Hollywood has been congratulating itself for casting women in action roles, but they are rather late to the party, considering how long martial arts superstars like Cheng Pei-pei, Angela Mao Ying, Kara Hui, and Michelle Yeoh have thrown down in Hong Kong productions. Nice try studio guys, but as Sook-hee, Kim Ok-vin blows away all the phonies, pretenders, and Johnny-come-latelies. She is a trained martial artist, so she has the chops, but she also has Eastwood levels of steely intensity. When she shares the screen with Shin Ha-kyun’s charismatically manipulative and villainous (so to speak) Joon-sang, all bets are off. Yet, for elegant ruthlessness, it is tough to beat Kim Seo-hyung’s deliciously imperious Chief Kwon.

The Villainess is an action film that delivers over and over again and then some more. As soon as you have seen the first half-hour, you will think of Sook-hee as an action icon. The brutally cathartic fight scenes should firmly establish Jung as a modern master, but he gets a key assist from cinematographer Park Jung-hun, whose work is by turns evocatively noir or wildly frenetic. When it comes to women action protags, Kim Ok-vin can’t be beat. Very highly recommended, The Villainess opens this Friday (8/25) in New York, at the IFC Center.