Burning Sands (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A hellish pledge week in one black campus

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As far I as I can remember, my campus years in Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology were mostly uneventful. Unless I watched movies or read books, my mind was usually occupied with getting good grades by any means necessary, and I did not have much interest in hanging around with others. I did join a club later, but I still preferred to be alone while not giving a damn about others around me, and that tendency of mine still remains inside me although I have been relatively less antisocial these days.

While what is disturbingly shown from the small campus world of “Burning Sands” is quite different from my campus experience in numerous aspects, I observed its several intense moments with a sort of anthropological fascination. Desiring for the sense of belonging and identity, its hero and several young characters around him let themselves driven and abused by toxic ideas of masculinity as going through their unforgiving fraternity initiation process, and we cannot help but cringe as they are pushed further and further into the dark pit of brutality and apathy.

The movie begins with its hero’s voice-over as he and other pledges are going to somewhere outside their campus. Zurich (Trevor Jackson) is a student of some prestigious university for African Americans, and he and other pledges are about to take their very first step toward Lambda Lambda Phi fraternity, one of the prominent fraternity in their university, After they arrive at a certain remote spot as instructed, they are forced to do push-ups by a senior fraternity member, and one of them eventually gets dropped out of the process just because he shows some compassion to Zurich.

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Of course, this is a mere beginning for more acts of punishment and humiliation, and senior fraternity members are ready to grab any excuse for bullying their pledges. For instance, when Zurich and other pledges make a minor mistake in delivering booze to the fraternity house, it initially seems that mistake will be forgiven as everyone in the house enjoys the party, but then, not so surprisingly, there comes a cruel moment of punishment in the basement, and Zurich and other junior candidates have no choice but to endure this until their seniors are satisfied enough.

Because it will probably be all right once they pass through their first week which will culminate to a big ritual to be held during the upcoming Saturday night, Zurich and other pledges try to harden themselves, but the situation often becomes almost unbearable as they manage to move from one ritual to another together. Although there is a senior member who is a little more generous than other senior members, he only prevents other seniors members from going too far from time to time, and it looks like that is all he can do, even though it is clear that he does not like what he and other senior members do to Zurich and other pledges.

Maybe they can just quit, but Zurich and other pledges are pressured by not only current fraternity members but also former ones. Individually sponsored by some of those former fraternity members, they certainly do not want to fail in what they are expected to do, and their sponsors surely have lots of expectation on them. In case of Zurich, his sponsor is none other than the dean of the university, and we are not so surprised when Zurich comes to learn how much the dean is willing to turn a blind eye on what is going inside his beloved fraternity.

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Meanwhile, Zurich finds himself becoming more distant to others who really care about him. His father, who once tried but failed in the same fraternity initiation when he studied in his son’s university many years ago, wants to talk more with his son, but Zurich keeps distancing himself from his father probably because his father’s old failure reminds him that he can also fail anytime. Zurich’s girlfriend begins to worry more about Zurich as he suffers more punishment and humiliation from the fraternity, but then there comes a point when she decides that she can no longer continue her relationship with him. In case of Professor Hughes (Alfre Woodard), she seems to sense something wrong from Zurich, but there is not much she can do as he chooses to remain silent about what he and other pledges are coerced to do.

The screenplay by director Gerard McMurray and his co-writer Christian T. Berg is predictable in its progress toward its eventual arrival point, and many of its supporting characters are rather underdeveloped, but the movie compensates for these weak aspects as constantly sustaining the level of uneasy tension on the screen. When Zurich and his fellow pledges eventually come to confront that dreaded ritual of Saturday night, the movie pulls no punch at all as vividly and frighteningly presenting their sheer pain and humiliation in front of senior fraternity members, and then there comes an inevitable moment as we have worried from the beginning.

Shortly before writing this review, I came across a New York Times article on one unfortunate case of fraternity hazing, and I must tell you that what is described in that article chillingly resonates with what I observed from “Burning Sands”. While not wholly satisfying in several aspects, the movie still works as an intense, biting experience on the whole, and it will certainly give you some valuable insights on its dark subject.

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Coin Heist (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A small heist for saving their school

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“Coin Heist”, which has been available on Netflix since this early January, is a modest but interesting heist film with a touch of “The Breakfast Club” (1985). As a movie about a group of high school kids trying to steal a heap of coins from the US Mint, the movie surely feels cheerful at times while these smart kids prepare for their well-intentioned criminal plan step by step, but it also shows some seriousness as thoughtfully observing their personal aspects, and it mostly balances itself well between character drama and genre conventions.

The early part of the movie is about a sudden situation which turns its main characters’ world upside down. They are students of some prestigious private high school, and the opening scene shows them and other students having a field trip at a building belonging to the US Mint while accompanied with their art design teacher and the principle of the school. In the middle of this field trip, a couple of police officers suddenly come upon them, and everyone is perplexed as the principal is promptly arrested in front of them.

It is soon revealed that the principal is arrested for embezzling no less than 10 million dollar from the school fund, and the resulting financial crisis leads to lots of changes inside the school. While almost all of student activities outside their classes are discarded, the upcoming prom party is also going to be downsized in a considerable degree, and Dakota (Sasha Pieterse) has to tell this bad news to her fellow students as the student president of the school, even though she knows well that they are not going to be pleased about that.

In case of Jason (Alex Saxon), things are more awkward for him mainly because he is the son of the principle. While his reputation in the school has not been very good from the beginning, he feels embarrassed especially after hearing that his father comes to accept plea bargain, and every day in his school painfully reminds him of the undeniable damage caused by his father’s criminal deed.

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When Alice (Alexis G. Zall), a clever hacker girl in the school, suggests to him a rather risky heist plan for saving the school from possible bankruptcy, Jason rejects it at first, but he comes to believe that this can be a nice solution for him as well as many other students in the school. Sure, he and Alice will definitely go to jail for that if they are not very careful, but they really want to save their school, and they are willing to take the risk for that.

Their target is none other than that building of the US Mint, and the plan is pretty simple on the surface. After Alice does some hacking job on the surveillance system in the building, they will sneak into the building for producing a heap of faulty coins which can be sold at a high price as collectible items, and all they will have to do after getting out of the building successfully with those faulty coins is selling them as soon as possible for getting enough money for their school.

As they embark on their plan which still needs to be polished further, Alice and Jason are joined by two other students. Feeling suffocated by how she always presents herself as a model student to others around her, Dakota agrees to help Alice and Jason when she happens to learn about their plan, and she provides considerable help when they need to prepare for several things before their planned break-in. Utilizing her usual confident attitude well, Dakota successfully disguises herself as an eager college newspaper reporter in front of an official working in their target building, and we are served with a nice sequence as she and her fellow accomplices smoothly work together while managing to evade any possible suspicion.

The fourth member of this group is an African American student named Benny (Jay Walker), who wants to be an engineer someday and surely has lots of talent for accomplishing his dream. He is initially reluctant when he is asked to provide some technical help, but then he comes to join the group after learning that his scholarship is going to be cut off, and we see him doing a skillful job for a template for faulty coins, which is the core element in their plan.

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Of course, there comes a series of setbacks during the middle part of the movie, and most of them come from the conflicts among its main characters. While Jason and Alice get closer to each other as spending time more with other, Dakota and Benny also find themselves attracted to each other, but then, as being not so sure about what they feel, they all come to confront a considerable gap among them, and that almost topples what they have managed to build up together.

While clearly reminiscent of “The Breakfast Club” and other films by John Hughes, director Emily Hagins’ screenplay, which is based on a novel by Elisa Ludwig, stumbles a bit during this rather predictable part, but its main characters and their relationships remain real and believable as before, and it surely helps that the young main cast members in the movie are engaging to watch as bringing some life and depth to their seemingly stereotype characters. As the movie eventually enters its third act, everything in the story is gathered together to generate a certain degree of suspense as demanded, and I like how it sidesteps some of its genre conventions via its rather anti-climactic finale.

“Coin Heist” is the fifth feature film directed by Hagins, a 24-year-old filmmaker who made her first feature film “Pathogen” (2006) when she was only 14 years old. I have not watched any of her previous works, but, as far as I can see from “Coin Heist”, she is a good filmmaker who knows how to interest and engage the audiences via good story and characters, and I sincerely hope that she will keep moving onto next promising steps of her career.

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The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): The autopsy of one spooky corpse

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“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is as spooky as its very title suggests. Its story premise is pretty simple to say the least, but it is enjoyable to watch how the movie carefully accumulates the sense of dread around the screen as its two main characters literally delve deeper into a mysterious entity handed to them, and we come to brace ourselves more while fearing for whatever may happen to them in the end.

Its two main characters are Tommy Tilden (Brian Cox) and his son Austen (Emile Hirsch). Tommy is a small-town coroner, and Austen has worked as his father’s assistant for a couple of years. Although he does not like his job much as reflected by a brief conversation scene between him and his girlfriend, Austen still hesitates to leave his widower father and their home, and we see him dutifully assisting his father as they autopsy a burned body recently sent to their morgue located right below their house. As a well-experienced professional, Tommy is meticulous with small forensic details, and it does not take much time for him to deduce the rather suspicious cause of death from the body, though he does not care much about what exactly happened.

Not long after they finished this job during late evening, the town sheriff comes to the morgue. As shown from the opening scene of the movie, a terrible incident happened to one family living in the town, and, while quite perplexed by the peculiar aspects of the incident, the town sheriff and his deputies discover something very strange in the basement of that ill-fated family’s house. Inside a hole recently dug up in the ground of the basement, there is the body of a young unknown female, and they still cannot identify this dead woman despite the mostly intact condition of her body.

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Anyway, the sheriff wants to know the cause of her death as soon as possible at least, so he hands over the body to Tommy, and Tommy agrees to do an extra night job for the sheriff. Although he is supposed to go outside along with his girlfriend right after his work hour, Austen decides to help his father as usual. After all, this seems to be another routine job to be taken care of within around 2 hours, and his girlfriend respects his decision.

However, as they begin the first step of their autopsy on ‘Jane Doe’, Tommy and Austen notice how odd her body is in many aspects. While there is no visible sign of trauma on her skin, they find multiple bone fractures in her limbs, and they naturally wonder how the hell she sustained such serious injuries without any sign of physical harm on her body, which looks almost impeccable on the surface except 1) her rather thin waist which looks like another possible sign of physical harm and 2) her cloudy eyes which implies that she died far earlier than the overall condition of her body suggests.

Tommy simply regards these puzzling aspects as pieces of a fascinating forensic puzzle to be solved sooner or later, but then he and his son continue to discover more weird things as they keeps going on with their procedure. When they try to cut her chest open, her body turns out to be a lot more sanguine than expected, and then they come across more perplexing surprises when they look closer into her chest.

As they spend more time in their morgue alone with this increasingly disturbing body, Austen finds himself becoming quite nervous, and he notices more of how the atmosphere in the morgue feels creepier than before. Not long after they hear from their old radio that a sudden storm is coming, they are stuck in their morgue as electricity is suddenly cut off for no apparent reason, and it feels more like that something sinister is hanging around inside the morgue. Is it possible that ‘Jane Doe’ is actually quite alive as Austen suspects? If so, what can they possibly do about that?

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While toying with that dark possibility during its first half, the movie builds up its ominous atmosphere step by step. While I appreciated its nice variation of a certain genre cliché associated with cat, I enjoyed how it has a gory, morbid fun with Jane Doe’s anatomical details to be examined by Tommy and Austen, which will surely make some of you cringe for good reasons. The movie also shows a wry sense of dark humor at times, and I especially like an early scene where Tommy explains to Austen’s girlfriend about a little traditional object he always puts on the bodies stored in his morgue.

The screenplay by Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing is efficient in their economical storytelling. While we do not know a lot about Tommy and Austen, they are presented as engaging human characters via small, succinct details, and Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are believable in their respective lead roles. As we watch their characters working together, their characters’ personal/professional relationship is organically established thanks to their good performance, and Cox and Hirsch have a nice scene when their characters are allowed to have a little personal moment between them later in the film.

The movie is directed by André Øvredal, who previously made “Trollhunter” (2010). While that film was an amusing fantasy movie coupled with mockumentary style, “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is a chilly horror film, and I was entertained by how deftly the movie sustains creepiness and suspense during its shorting running time (86 minutes). This is a competent genre piece which succeeds as much as intended, and you will not disappointed if you are looking for a little scary fun.

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Raw (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): When she awakens to her carnal craving

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Utterly disturbing and gruesome, French horror film “Raw” is definitely not for everyone. Since it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, I have heard about how some audiences were quite disturbed or repulsed during its screenings, and now I can assure you that it is certainly one of the most uncomfortable movie experiences I had during this year. While I seriously doubt whether I will able to watch it again, I observed it with horrible fascination and dark amusement, and I admired many of its striking moments, which are still vividly remembered in my mind even at this point.

After its quiet but ominous opening scene unfolded on a remote road, the movie begins the story as its young heroine Justine (Garance Marillier) is about to start her first year at some prominent veterinary school where her parents graduated from. Her elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) has already been there for a year, and Justine’s parents expect Alexia to support her younger sister well while Justine gets herself accustomed to her new environment.

Not long after Justine arrives at the school dormitory, the hazing week for freshmen is started, and she and other freshman students including her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) are forced to endure a series of cruel pranks and rituals by gleeful seniors including Alexia. At one point, Justine and other freshman students are suddenly gathered together in a corridor and then are demanded to crawl to their destination spot, and this and other cruel acts of hazing in the film reminded me that I was rather lucky during my first year in KAIST.

The situation seems tolerable to Justine as she manages to endure along with her fellow freshman students, but then there comes a point when she faces a very difficult challenge. After being showered with a bucketful of animal blood in a way reminiscent of “Carrie” (1976), she and other freshman students have to eat a raw piece of rabbit kidney, but Justine hesitates because she has been a strict vegetarian just like her parents. She naturally resists when her turn comes, but not even her own sister is on her side, and she is eventually coerced to eat rabbit kidney.

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This carnivorous act of hers merely looks like a trivial minor transgression, but something begins to happen to her. On the next day, she suffers an inexplicable incident of skin problem, and then she finds herself craving for meat. At first, it is just a piece of cooked meat she attempts to steal at a school cafeteria, and then she comes to devour raw chicken during one night. She surely feels disgusted, but her urge keeps growing nonetheless, and there is a cringe-inducing moment as she vomits something inappropriate to eat into a toilet stool.

This alarming progress eventually comes to a tipping point when she and Alexia happen to spend one night together. After their crude attempt of Brazilian waxing on Justine’s pubic hair goes wrong, Alexia tries to handle this problem with a pair of scissors, but then an unfortunate accident happens, and that accident leads Justine to the discovery of the ultimate object of her craving: human flesh. Spiced a bit with wry dark humor, this disturbing scene is handled well with enough power and conviction on the screen, and we cannot help but watch it even while disgusted and horrified by Justine’s small but significant act of cannibalism.

Although the movie does not explain a lot, we gradually come to gather that Justine’s cannibalistic tendency is based on genetic factors. Not so surprisingly, her sister turns out to harbor the same tendency behind her back, and we get to know a bit about how she has managed her own craving, as she gives her sister one hell of bloody example. In case of their loving parents, it is later revealed that they found a way to maintain their married life, and that is surely another nice dark touch to be appreciated in the film.

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Meanwhile, the movie continues to observe Justine and other freshman students’ ongoing hazing week. Figuratively and literally delving more into matters of flesh and blood during their classes, they endure more hazing from seniors, and this puts more stress into Justine’s agitated mind as she struggles more with her newfound instinct which is further fueled by her first taste of human flesh. We subsequently get a darkly amusing scene where she cannot help but look intensively at Adrien from the distance, who certainly looks desirable (and tasty) to her because of his good-looking body.

The movie is directed by Julian Ducournau, who received the Petit Rail d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival for her short film “Junior” (2011). While this is her first feature film, she demonstrates here a dexterous control of mood and style, and I was especially impressed by the raw emotional horror pulsating below the polished texture of her movie. Thanks to the nervous score by Jim Williams and the meticulous cinematography by Ruben Impens, the movie is constantly filled with nervous vibe even when nothing much seems to be happening on the screen, and Garance Marillier is natural and captivating in every disturbing step her character takes along the plot. She and her co-star Ella Rumpf did a commendable job of vividly conveying to us the tumultuous relationship dynamic between their characters, and Rabah Naït Oufella, Laurent Lucas, and Joana Preiss are also solid in their respective roles.

While it may be too unpleasant for some of you, I recommend “Raw” for not only its technical achievement but also the deft handling of its main subjects. This is a twisted coming-of-age drama willing to disturb and challenge its audiences, and you may appreciate that aspect as much as me once you accept what it intends to do. Anyway, please don’t tell me I did not warn you in advance.

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The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): The girl with special hunger

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Zombie apocalypse flicks are dime a dozen these days, but “The Girl with All the Gifts” injects some fresh new elements into its genre. While we get heaps of rotting zombies as usual, the movie intrigues and engages us via its interesting story premise, and it is also surprisingly thought-provoking at times as following the gradual awakening of its young heroine to her exceptional position in an apocalyptic world.

When we meet Melanie (Sennia Nanua) during the opening scene, she simply seems to be a bright, polite young girl, and the same thing can be said about a bunch of kids with whom she lived in their isolated place for several years. Although their living environment is not exactly cheery, they happily follow their daily routine without any complaint, and their favorite time is when they study and learn under the guidance of Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton).

However, from the beginning, we notice how constantly these kids are guarded day and night. Each of them is confined in their respective cells, and soldiers guarding them are always watchful especially when Melanie and other kids are taken out of their cells. The kids’ bodies are tightly strapped to wheelchairs, and we later learn that soldiers and other adults including Justineau always apply some special cream to their body whenever they need to be around Melanie and other kids.

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The reason for these extremely careful measures is soon revealed to us when Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) deliberately ignites a dangerous instinct inside Melanie and other kids. During a massive zombie outbreak caused by some virulent fungus strain several years ago, they were infected while they were still in their mothers’ womb, but they did not turn into rotting zombies like other infected people because a sort of symbiosis between the fungus strain and their bodies. While they can think and learn like any normal people, they still have a powerful urge to eat fresh meet and blood, and the movie has a rather amusing moment involved with their special protein source (Hint: it is not meat).

While Justineau has been quite sympathetic to Melanie and other kids, Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) thinks otherwise. To Caldwell, Melanie and other kids are simply a possible key to the survival of the entire human race, and she is willing to do anything for her project, which, according to her, is almost close to the success she has yearned for years. With her benign but determined attitude, Close embodies well her character’s understandable position, and that will make you wonder about how much we can justify ourselves in the name of survival.

When Melanie is about to become Caldwell’s latest experiment subject, there comes a sudden massive zombie attack, and Melanie soon finds herself accompanying a few survivors including Justineau, Parks, and Caldwell. As searching for any possible way to get to another safe place, they eventually come into London, and we soon behold streets and alleys strewn with zombies, which can remain dormant as long as Melanie and her accompanists carefully move around them without any serious disturbance.

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Now you may think the movie becomes another typical zombie movie, but director Colm McCarthy and his screenplay writer M.R. Carey provide enough fun and surprise to hold our interest. I will not go into details for not spoiling your entertainment, but I can tell you that I was impressed by one particular sight of horrible wonder which Melanie and other characters come across in the middle of the story, and I must confess that, as a guy with a PhD degree in biological science, I was amused a lot by the name of a certain big vehicle which appears later in the movie.

While Melanie experiences more of her apocalyptic world, Carey’s screenplay, which is based on his novel, smoothly goes back and forth between horror and poignancy. It is touching to see her feeling more freedom than before, but then we are constantly reminded of her dark nature. Sure, she sincerely wants to do right things, but she cannot help herself at times as shown from one brief gruesome moment involved with one unlucky animal, and there is always the tension between her and other main characters in the film.

Imbueing her character with innocence and intelligence, newcomer Sennia Nanua gives a confident lead performance. She is especially good during one certain scene which may remind you of that famous classic novel by William Golding, and that dramatic scene totally works thanks to her strong, convincing acting although it looks a bit silly on the surface. The other main cast members of the movie are believable as effectively supporting Nanua’s performance; while Close is surely prominent in her shady role, Paddy Considine brings some human nuances to his character, and Gemma Arterton is also fine in her sympathetic role.

As I told you several times before, I have been tired of zombie movies, but I do appreciate clever ones whenever I come across them, and “The Girl with All the Gifts” definitely belongs to that category. Besides having several well-made scenes, the movie has a compelling heroine to watch, and it did a good job of making us involved in her dark coming-of-age drama. Overall, this is an enjoyable genre piece, and you may like it even if you are not particularly fond of zombie movies.

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I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Steady creepiness

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“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” is a steady exercise in creepiness. After establishing its small, sparse setting, the movie patiently dials up the level of tension bit by bit as its ill-fated heroine is slowly pushed toward its eventual finale, and I like how it maintains well its quiet but creepy atmosphere as adamantly sticking to its glacial narrative pacing. Although I felt impatient from time to time during my viewing and I was also a little disappointed with its anti-climactic ending, the movie works in terms of mood and style at least, and I admire that aspect to some degrees.

After the ominous opening sequence accompanied with the phlegmatic narration by a young live-in nurse named Lily Saylor (Ruth Wilson), we see her beginning her first day in a big 19th New England house belonging to an old writer named Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss). Due to her deteriorating health condition, Blum needs someone to take care of her in the house, and the job seems to look easy at first. There is no one in the house besides Blum and Lily, and Blum is usually in her bedroom without much demand.

During her prime period, Blum wrote a good number of horror novels which are still famous with considerable reputation, but Lily is not so eager to read any of these novels mainly because she does not like being scared. In fact, she once tried to read one of Blum’s novels, but even its first few pages turned out to be too much for her.

Unfortunately, it looks like she comes into a place she should have avoided from the beginning. During her first night in the house, a weird incident happens to her, and she is naturally unnerved by that. While she comes to get accustomed to the quiet emptiness inside the house as time goes by, strange things continue to happen, and she cannot help but more agitated as becoming more conscious of what might be inside the house besides her and Blum.

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While her senile mind becomes more deteriorated, Blum keeps confusing Lily with someone named Polly, and Lily later comes to learn that Polly is actually the heroine of one of Blum’s novels. Although she is curious about that novel in question, she hesitates to read it as a certain dark possibility comes to dawn upon her; it is possible that Blum’s novel is based on what a ghost living in her house told her, and that ghost may still be inside the house at present.

As our heroine accordingly comes to feel more nervous day by day, the movie slowly doles out several spooky things to us. Besides that rug in the hallway which is often flipped up for no particular reason, there is also a growing spot of mold on a wall, which may be due to some plumbing problem but seems to be suggesting something terrible behind the wall. As Lily manages to read the first few pages of that novel by Blum, Polly (Lucy Boynton) begins to feel more palpable in Lily’s mind, and we get a chilling scene which may be 1) what really happened in the past or 2) what eventually occurs in Blum’s novel or 3) what is actually imagined by Lily.

Director/writer Osgood Perkins, who is the elder son of Anthony Perkins, did a commendable job of establishing the sense of dread throughout his movie. Even during its bright day scenes, the movie is shrouded in moodiness and uneasiness, and we come to follow its slow but steady progress to the inevitable ending which is already announced to us from the start. While there are a few moments designed to jolt us, but they are effectively thrown to us without interrupting the overall narrative flow of the film, and I particularly like one good moment involved with an old TV.

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Furthermore, the movie is anchored by a solid performance from its engaging lead performer. Ruth Wilson, who drew my attention for the first time via her villainous supporting turn in TV series “Luther” and then gained more attention thanks to another acclaimed TV series “The Affair”, ably carries the movie with her edgy appearance, and she subtly conveys to us her character’s unstable emotional state even when her character does not say or reveal much to us. While Wilson’s performance is indeed the main show of the movie, Paula Prentiss, Bob Balaban, and Lucy Boynton are also fine in their respective supporting roles, and Balaban is colorful as usual as Blum’s estate manager.

While it clearly evokes other psychological/supernatural horror films such as “The Haunting” (1963) and “Repulsion” (1965), “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” is distinctive enough to hold my attention, and it surely delivers a frightening moment as eventually arriving at the finale. What follows after that is less interesting in comparison, but, fortunately, that remains to be a minor flaw compared to what has been maintained well during the rest of the film.

Before “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”, Perkins made his directorial debut with “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (2015), which somehow came to be released in US early in this year after “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” was released via Netflix in late 2016. I have not watched “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” yet, but I can tell you that I am impressed enough by “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”, and I think Perkins is a talented filmmaker to watch during next several years.

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A Taxi Driver (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A taxi driver and his foreign passenger

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South Korean film “A Taxi Driver” drives along a rather predictable route, but it knows well what it has to do for engaging us and then touching us. Although I still think it could be improved in several aspects, the movie has enough good things for recommendation, and it is also supported by another strong performance from one of the best performers in South Korea.

The movie begins with its everyman hero going through another ‘usual’ day of his plain daily life in Seoul, May 1980. Not long after the assassination of President Park Chung-hee in October 1979, General Chun Doo-hwan seized the power through his coup d’État, and he subsequently declared the martial law in the following year while further solidifying his political status. As many prominent political figures including Kim Dae-jung were accordingly arrested, lots of people demonstrated against Chun and his regime, and this unstable nationwide situation eventually culminated to a civil uprising in Gwangju on May 18th, 1980.

For Man-seop (Song Kang-ho),  who is one of many taxi drivers working in Seoul, frequent demonstrations in his city are simply an annoying problem blocking him from more money to earn. He does not care much about why those demonstrators are against the government, and all he cares about is earning enough money for him and his young daughter, who has been his only close family member since his wife died early not long after he came back from Saudi Arabia.

On one day, Man-seop happens to overhear a conversation about one foreigner who offers a considerable amount of money for a round trip between Seoul and Gwangju. Although he and others have heard rumors about what is going on in Gwangju, he instantly snatches that opportunity mainly because he has been behind several months in paying his rent, and that is how he comes to meet Jürgen Hinzpeter (Thomas Kretschmann), a German reporter who flies to Seoul from Tokyo after sensing something big from the ongoing situation surrounding Gwangju.

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While everything looks fine at first as Man-seop gladly drives his taxi along a highway leading to Gwangju, he soon comes to realize that he inadvertently gets himself into a very serious circumstance. As he and Hinzpeter come close to Gwangju, they come across a warning sign on the road and then they come upon a makeshift military post where a bunch of soldiers are blocking the road. When they manage to arrive in Gwangju via a narrow detour, they behold the city mired in quiet unrest, and they soon come across a bunch of young demonstrators, who take Hinzpeter to a nearby local hospital which is filled with lots of people injured or killed by soldiers.

Man-seop tries to get out of Gwangju as soon as possible, but he only finds himself stuck along with Hinzpeter in the city, and, not so surprisingly, he come to witness the dark, brutal side of his country as Hinzpeter insists on recording more of what is happening in Gwangju. At one point, he watches a peaceful mass demonstration being savagely suppressed by soldiers, and that gut-chilling pandemonium certainly shakes up his belief in his country while also igniting his guilt on having been oblivious to the injustice inside his world.

While Man-seop is a fictional character, the movie is inspired by a dramatic real-life story of German journalist Jürgen Hinzpeter, who died early in last year. As shown from the movie, Hinzpeter managed to sneak into Gwangju thanks to an unknown taxi driver who bravely took the risk for his foreign passenger, and what Hinzpeter shot there has been one of a few visual records vividly showing the atrocities committed in Gwangju during that horrible period in 1980.

The screenplay by Eom Yu-na is often blatant especially during its melodramatic third act, but its earnest storytelling works on the whole. Its main characters are rather broad and simple, but they are depicted with recognizable human qualities nonetheless, and that is why the movie is better than “May 18” (2007), another major South Korean film about the Gwangju Uprising. While I merely observed that film from the distance due to its thin plot and stiff cardboard characters, “A Taxi Driver” held my attention via its more engaging storytelling, and I found myself caring a lot about Man-seop, Hinzpeter, and some other supporting characters in the film – even during the climactic part of the movie which requires a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief for good reasons.

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Director Jang Hoon, who previously impressed me and other South Korean audiences with “Secret Reunion” (2010) and “The Front Line” (2011), did a competent job of steadily maintaining narrative momentum, and it surely helps that the period background and atmosphere in the movie mostly feel authentic on the screen. For instance, several South Korean pop songs from the 1980s are effectively used throughout the film, and my parents and other older South Korean audiences will certainly appreciate these aural period details more than me.

As the ordinary hero of the movie, Song Kang-go utilizes well his likable screen persona as he did before in several films including “Memories of Murder” (2003), “The Host” (2006), “Secret Reunion”, and “The Attorney” (2013), and he has a number of good scenes as his character earns understanding and empathy from us. His character’s gradual change over the story may be a pretty predictable character arc, but that process feels sincere and heartfelt thanks to Song’s excellent performance, and the movie surely confirms to us again that he is indeed one of the most interesting South Korean actors at present.

On the opposite, Thomas Kretschmann holds his own place well, and it is a pleasure to watch how his acting is mixed well with that of his South Korean co-performers. While Yoo Hae-jin is enjoyable as the de facto leader of taxi drivers in Gwangju, Ryu Jun-yeol is also fine as a young demonstrator who comes to befriend Man-seop and Hinzpeter by chance, and Park Hyuk-kwon, Choi Gwi-hwa, Ko Chang-seok, and Jeon Hye-jin fill their respective minor supporting roles as required.

“A Taxi Driver” is not without weak points. It could be more effective and interesting if it put more emphasis on its foreign perspective on the Gwangju Uprising, and I must point out that it is less colorful compared to what was achieved in “Scout” (2007), a small overlooked South Korean comedy drama film which is also about the Gwangju Uprising. Despite these and other weak aspects, the movie mostly succeeds in what it intends to do, and I often found myself becoming involved in its human drama more than expected during my viewing. In short, this is one of better South Korean films to watch during this summer season.

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