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Capsule film reviews: Four horror movies from 2016

‘The Invitation’
Release Date: April 8, 2016
Director: Karyn Kusama
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard and Michiel Huisman
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller, Horror
Rating: Not Rated
Grade: B+

Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

In “The Invitation,” Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drive deep into the Hollywood Hills to attend a dinner party hosted by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) at the house Will and Eden used to share. The party is the first time any of their friends have seen them in two years — Will and Eden divorced following the accidental death of their son, and Eden left to join a grief support group in Mexico, where she met David. Throughout the course of the evening, Will becomes increasingly disturbed being back in the house he once shared with a happy family that is no more, and he also begins to grow suspicious of Eden and David, who try to share with the group their new spiritual philosophies that have helped them overcome grief. I like how “The Invitation” slowly turns up the suspense and leaves the audience unsure if there is really something sinister behind Eden’s cultish white dress and David’s calm demeanor, or if it’s just Will suffering from a mental breakdown when confronted with his past. It’s sufficiently creepy and even a bit thoughtful. All-in-all, “The Invitation” is a pretty good thriller.

‘The Neon Demon’
Release Date: June 24, 2016
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone and Bella Heathcote
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Rating: R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.
Grade: B

neondemon

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios, Broad Green Pictures, Scanbox Entertainment and The Jokers.

“The Neon Demon” is the most talked-about and most polarizing horror movie of the year. For the most part, I really liked it. Kind of a tired story: Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a young girl from a small town hoping to make it big as a model in Hollywood, but Hollywood is, unfortunately, full of Illuminati and lesbian necrophiliacs. It’s a higher budget version of 2014’s “Starry Eyes,” which is a much better film, plot-wise. But don’t come to “The Neon Demon” for the plot: come for the artistic visuals, evil female leads and the always excellent Jena Malone who steals the show as Jesse’s eerily too nice, there’s-gotta-be-something-wrong-with-her mentor Ruby. My main issue with “The Neon Demon” is the weird casting of Elle Fanning as the lead — she’s not charismatic enough to propel the movie on her own, and she’s cute, but the very embodiment of natural beauty? Eh. At least the costumes are fabulous.

‘Train to Busan’
Release Date: July 20, 2016
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Starring: Gong Yoo, Kim Su-an and Jung Yu-mi
Genre: Action, Drama, Horror
Rating: Not Rated
Grade: A+

train-to-busan

Photo courtesy of Next Entertainment World.

“Train to Busan” is one of the best zombie movies I’ve seen in a long while. The Korean horror film expertly showcases comedic moments, high tension, family drama, romance and truly frightening zombie shots. It’s an excellent movie and one of the best horror films of the year. The story follows Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), an absentee father whose focus on his business has crippled his relationship with his 9-year-old daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an). For her birthday, all Su-an wants is to be reunited with her estranged mother, so Seok-woo begrudgingly agrees to accompany her on the high-speed KTX ride from Seoul to Busan. Unfortunately, the train departs just as the country begins to deteriorate into a zombie apocalypse. Only Busan, the country’s southern port city, is safe, and the survivors must fight to get the train to its final destination. The intense zombie action scenes are top tier (my favorite is a stop in Daejeon where the passengers are faced with a horde of zombie soldiers in military uniform charging up the stairs), but where “Train to Busan” really got me is with its heart. The evolving father-daughter dynamic will suck you in, and the supporting characters are all so compelling. “Train to Busan” is not to be missed.

‘31’
Release Date: Sept. 16, 2016
Director: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Malcolm McDowell and Meg Foster
Genre: Thriller, Horror
Rating: R for strong bloody horror violence, pervasive language, sexual content and drug use.
Grade: B-

31

Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

As a diehard Rob Zombie fan, I enjoyed “31” and was pleased to find it more straightforward and accessible than Zombie’s last release, 2012’s “The Lords of Salem.” “31” follows a group of carnival workers who are kidnapped on Halloween 1976 and told by three strangers that they will be entered into a game called 31. During the game, they will have 12 hours to escape from a maze-like warehouse of rooms while various clowns will be sent to torture and kill them. The plot isn’t necessarily anything groundbreaking, but Zombie’s characterizations are always the most entertaining. His villains are excellent, particularly Malcolm McDowell as Father Murder, an aristocrat in a powdered wig who oversees the proceedings and announces the carnies’ odds for survival over a loudspeaker, and Richard Brake as Doom-Head, the final and most effective obstacle in the gang’s way of survival. As always, Sheri Moon Zombie is a badass and a delight, and I love that she’s still the ultimate scream queen, wielding chainsaws in barely-there crop tops at 46.

Capsule film reviews: Four horror movies from 2015

‘It Follows’
Release Date: March 13, 2015
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist and Daniel Zovatto
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language.
Grade: C+

itfollows

Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC and Dimension Films.

“It Follows” has definitely been one of the most-hyped horror movies this year, but it unfortunately doesn’t live up to those expectations. In the grand tradition of sexually-transmitted monsters in horror films, “It Follows” is about a girl, Jay (Maika Monroe), who has sex with her boyfriend and then realizes that by doing so, he has passed a curse onto her. There will just be a creepy person that only she can see walking steadily toward her at all times. If it catches her, she dies, and the only way to distance herself from it is to pass it on to someone else. Bummer deal. The film is shot well, and some of the scenes of “it” following her are genuinely creepy and unsettling. The movie begins to fall apart at the end, though, as Jay and her friends attempt to defeat “it.” The movie doesn’t have a strong conclusion at all, which leaves the audience feeling dissatisfied after watching.

‘Spring’
Release Date: March 20, 2015
Director: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci, Nadia Hilker and Francesco Carnelutti
Genre: Horror, Romance, Sci-fi
Rating: Not Rated
Grade: B+

spring

Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films and FilmBuff.

I enjoy horror-romance almost as much as I enjoy horror-comedy, so I was excited to check out Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s “Spring” (they also directed 2013’s “Resolution,” which I enjoyed). “Spring” is quite good as well (with a few caveats). After his mother’s death, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) takes a spontaneous finding-himself trip to Italy, where he starts working on a small farm and meets a beautiful woman named Louise (Nadia Hilker) that he begins dating. Of course, there has to be a catch when beautiful, exotic women show an interest in down-on-their-luck American dudes, and Louise’s hidden secret is both creepy and intriguing. “Spring” is Lovecraftian in its horror, but it’s mostly romantic. Which is my main complaint: I just don’t buy the romance. There is no way Evan is the best person she’s ever met. No way! Louise is such a complex, interesting character, but his main redeeming quality is that he still really likes her even when he discovers her grotesque secret. Eh, she could do way better.

‘Creep’
Release Date: June 23, 2015
Director: Patrick Brice
Starring: Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice
Genre: Drama, Horror
Rating: R for brief violence and language.
Grade: A-

creep

Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

I actually got quite a kick out of “Creep.” It’s a simple, independent found-footage horror film featuring only two actors. Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass not only star in the film, they also wrote the story. Additionally, Brice directed and Duplass co-produced it alongside Jason Blum of Blumhouse fame. This creates a real personal touch to the movie and allows the audience to really get to know the strange two characters. Duplass is excellent in his role as Josef, a man who places an ad on Craigslist for a videographer to help him film a message for his unborn son. Brice is less impressive but still alright as Aaron, the unlucky artist who answers the ad and becomes involved in Josef’s life. There are some really tense quiet moments, but overall, the film is pretty amusing with sarcastic jump scares and the increasingly absurd connection between Josef and Aaron. The conclusion is absolutely perfect, and I definitely recommend this movie.

‘Cooties’
Release Date: Sept. 18, 2015
Director: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion
Starring: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill and Rainn Wilson
Genre: Action, Comedy, Horror
Rating: R for horror violence and gore, language including sexual references, and some drug use.
Grade: B-

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Premiere.

Elijah Wood has produced and starred in some great horror movies in the past few years — “Grand Piano,” “Maniac,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” “The Boy.” He also produced and stars in “Cooties,” a goofy horror-comedy in which infected chicken nuggets served as school lunch turn elementary school students into zombies across the nation, leaving a group of teachers to fight for their lives. Wood is pretty funny as Clint Hadson, a substitute teacher who would rather be working on his novel than working with children. The movie definitely has some failed attempts at humor — the same run-of-the-mill stuff you’d see on “Saturday Night Live.” But it’s overall pretty entertaining to watch the mismatched group of teachers fight their way through the monstrous children. “Cooties” is a satisfactory movie, but it’s not going to become one of my favorites.

Capsule drama reviews: Healer, Little Mom Scandal, etc.

‘Little Mom Scandal’
Starring: Hwang Jung-eum, Im Sung-uhn and Song In-hwa
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Episodes: 16

Photo courtesy of CGV.

“Little Mom Scandal” is an awesome drama if you’re looking for a story with many strong female characters and a straightforward look at female sexuality and sex work. It’s rare to see these issues presented at all on television — let alone as well as they are covered in “Little Mom Scandal.”

The show is split into two eight-episode seasons, and it tells the story of Hye-jung and Sun-hee, two high school best friends. Hye-jung is super smart and rich, but struggles with some real daddy issues that have led her to become a prolific sugar baby, dating rich older men. Sun-hee is such a typical teen girl: she just cares about finding a cute boyfriend and getting him into bed with her. The girls befriend Sung-sook and Hyo-won, two employees of the local gentleman’s club, but things go south when Sun-hee finds out she’s pregnant.

“Little Mom Scandal” has so much going for it. It’s really a great drama with a shockingly realistic, honest and unbiased depiction of sex work from many different perspectives. It also really gets into the truth of teen pregnancy and, later, teen motherhood. And what’s more! It also features a ton of multifaceted, interesting female characters all pursuing their individual dreams. Highly recommend “Little Mom Scandal.”

‘A Werewolf Boy’
Release Date:
Oct. 31, 2012
Director: Jo Sung-hee
Starring: Song Joong-ki, Park Bo-young and Lee Young-lan
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Rating: Not Rated

werewolfboy

Photo courtesy of CJ Entertainment.

“A Werewolf Boy” is one of the most successful Korean melodramas of all time, and it is no joke. It is a beautiful, bittersweet story of ill-fated young love — the best and most painful stories to tell. And it features the best and most relatable of all the movie monsters— the romantic werewolf.

The film begins in the modern day: Kim Sun-yi has traveled with her granddaughter back to Korea to sell her childhood home. When she arrives, she remembers her time spent there as a chronically-ill teenager — particularly a darling feral boy named Chul-soo she and her mother discovered living in the surrounding woods and adopted into the family.

Song Joong-ki gives a fantastic performance as the sympathetic wolf boy with huge, expressive eyes. Likewise, Park Bo-young’s emotional delivery as Sun-yi is stellar, and the two actors create excellent chemistry in their scenes together. The first half of the film is very well crafted, funny and sweet as Chul-soo learns to become more “human” and forms a bond with Sun-yi and her family. The film’s weakest points revolve around the cartoonish villain Ji-tae (a random rich asshole thrown in there to advance the plot with his rich asshole behavior) and the weird secret-government-experiment werewolf origin story that’s thrown in unnecessarily. Really, the movie’s success rests solely on the intense connection between Sun-yi and Chul-soo.

The ending of “A Werewolf Boy” is like getting your heart run over by a train, though. I sobbed loudly. Those last 20 minutes will knock you on your ass. I’m just warning you now. It’s a deeply heart-wrenching conclusion that is fitting for the star-crossed lovers’ overall story, but that doesn’t make the tragedy any easier to bear. It’s actually perfect and thoughtful and so, so sad — it’s the kind of poignant conclusion that you’ll be thinking about for weeks after finishing the film.

‘Healer’
Starring:
Ji Chang-wook, Park Min-young and Yoo Ji-tae
Genre: Romance, Comedy, Drama, Thriller
Episodes: 20

healer

Photo courtesy of Kim Jong-hak Productions.

Action-romance is done right in “Healer.” It’s a winning combination: a cast of strong and likable characters, a murder mystery storyline that doesn’t let up on the excitement even toward the end, a substantial and complex villain backstory, sweet fight scenes, even sweeter wardrobe changes, and an incredibly darling male lead. For real, Ji Chang-wook might be the most attractive actor ever to appear in a drama. He is unbelievably gorgeous, and his felon-with-a-heart-of-gold “Healer” persona doesn’t hurt one bit.

The show centers on Seo Jung-hoo (or, as most know him, Healer), a “night courier” who is known for his martial arts skills and an illegal business of breaking-and-entering, petty larceny and the like. He is planning to save up enough money to live alone on a deserted island as the only person he has any connection to is an ajumma he’s never met in person who serves as his hacker accomplice. Unfortunately for him, he takes a job from a famous television anchor that sets him on a path toward unraveling the mystery of his father’s death in 1992 and its connection to his present.

“Healer” really is great. Even the wild, unbelievable puzzle pieces that perfectly come together are presented so well they aren’t even too ridiculous, which is a sign of a remarkable drama. “Healer” is also one of the rare dramas that doesn’t lose momentum halfway through its 20 episodes. I wish there were more so I could continue being thrilled by each new revelation and, of course, admiring Ji Chang-wook all the while.

‘EXO Lives Next Door’
Starring:
Moon Ga-young, Park Chan-yeol and Do Kyung-soo
Genre: Romance, Drama, Comedy
Episodes: 16

exonextdoor

Photo courtesy of Naver TV.

I am so pleased to live in a world where actual famous boybands are required to act out bad fanfiction on camera for our amusement. What a time to be alive. “EXO Lives Next Door” is all the standard self-insert fanfic tropes you may remember from LiveJournal circa 2006, but with the adorable, accommodating boys from EXO at the helm.

“EXO Lives Next Door” is a short web drama that packs a lot of zaniness into 16 quick episodes. Ji Yeon-hee is an underachieving 20-something who lives with her mother and younger brother and has never had a boyfriend because her face turns unnaturally red and she is unable to speak when faced with cute boys. Conveniently, several members of the 10-piece k-pop group happen to move into the house next door to her and immediately begin fighting over her, as this is how fanfiction usually goes. First, she slips on a banana peel and tosses her pads at them in the dark. Embarrassing! Then, she breaks into their house and chokes on rice cakes. Oh, no! At one point, Sehun and Baekhyun catch her spying on them with binoculars, so they decide to make out with each other to freak her out. Who even wrote this script? I’m not entirely convinced they didn’t just lift it from some 13-year-old’s FanFiction.net profile.

The best thing about “EXO Lives Next Door” is that the episodes are only 12-15 minutes long, which is exactly my attention span. The next best thing is that it’s completely ridiculous. Yeon-hee is not an interesting or likeable character at all, but no fanfiction heroines ever are (see: Bella Swan). The storyline, however, is so ludicrous it’s amazing. Personally, I’d stick around just for Sehun’s unlikely bromance with Yeon-hee’s kung fu-obsessed brother.

P.S. How can I get a job writing for one of these?!

What’s in my DramaFever queue this month?

‘Boys Over Flowers’
Starring: Ku Hye-sun, Lee Min-ho and Kim Hyun-joong
Genre: Romance, Comedy, Drama
Episodes: 25

boysoverflowers

Photo courtesy of Group 8.

“Boys Over Flowers” is probably the perfect introductory drama — it is so extra.

The story follows Jan-di, a plucky girl from a working class family who receives a scholarship to attend the exclusive Shinhwa High School, which is populated primarily by rich assholes. She faces some of the most hardcore bullying I’ve ever seen depicted on screen (the kids light her bike on fire!). The most fearsome of the students are the F4 clique: Jun-pyo (the gorgeous heir to the Shinhwa fortune who owns a surplus of fabulous coats), Ji-hoo (the insufferable Nice Guy™ who cries while playing the violin alone in the woods), Yi-jung (the playboy who is popular at school because he’s such a great potter) and Woo-bin (I’m not even sure what his story is, but I’ve grown fond of his silly hats and random usage of English slang).

Obviously, all of the cute rich boys begin fighting over Jan-di’s affections, and there is a life-or-death situation in every episode. People are getting chloroformed and kidnapped left and right. It’s truly wild.

There are a lot of complaints that could be lodged about “Boys Over Flowers,” and I had to read some spoilers to make sure the ending wasn’t going to piss me off, but it’s just so over-the-top ridiculous I can’t help being hooked.

‘Commitment’
Release Date:
Dec. 6, 2013
Director: Park Hong-soo
Starring: Choi Seung-hyun, Han Ye-ri and Kim Yoo-jung
Genre: Action, Drama
Rating: Not Rated

top-school-desk

Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

This is cheating because “Commitment” isn’t even on DreamaFever, it’s on Netflix. But I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Myung-hoon is a North Korean teenager who has to go undercover as a spy in South Korea in order to save his younger sister from the labor camp where they’ve both been imprisoned after their father’s death. It’s a fairly lengthy and involved film (and it involves some knowledge of the politics revolving around the Korean War), but it is surprisingly captivating throughout with a handful of sweet, action-packed fight scenes.

To be honest, I mostly wanted to watch “Commitment” as an excuse to spend two hours gazing adoringly at Choi Seung-hyun (better known as T.O.P, a rapper and member of the boyband Big Bang). He’s painfully attractive, and a talented actor to boot, so it’s time well spent.

‘Absolute Boyfriend’ (aka ‘Absolute Darling’)
Starring:
Ku Hye-sun, Jiro Wang and Kun Da
Genre: Romance
Episodes: 20

absoluteboyfriend

Photo courtesy of GTV.

“Absolute Boyfriend” is a Taiwanese adaptation of a Japanese manga novel, but it stars a Korean actress, Ku Hye-sun, and dubs over her dialogue. It’s really weird.

That aside, the show is about a single woman, Xiao Fei, who ends up purchasing a robot boyfriend from an eccentric salesman through a strange sequence of events. Once she receives her order, she feels uncomfortable about it, but it’s too late! To make matters worse, the arrival of the robot boyfriend dredges up all the hidden feelings her neighbor and best friend, Zong Shi, has for her, and he starts spilling his guts all over the place. Eventually, the robot begins to develop human emotions as well, putting a hitch in the plans. He is played by Taiwanese boybander Jiro Wang, who is completely perfect as the lovable galoot with a rockin’ body, and I could totally go for one of my own, if anybody wants to hook it up.

The show starts off light-hearted and silly, but it really takes a dark turn somewhere in the middle. There is a lot of implied sexual assault and rape that I was not prepared for or expecting (again, people keep getting drugged and kidnapped!). I found it so disturbing I had to take a break from watching the show for a while. Once I resumed, the episodes became increasingly sad as they neared the ending. This is not what I thought I was signing up for — I’m glad to have finally finished “Absolute Boyfriend” and gotten it out of my life.

‘High School – Love On’
Starring: Kim Sae-ron, Nam Woo-hyun and Lee Sung-yeol
Genre: Romance, Supernatural
Episodes: 20

highschool

Photo courtesy of KBS2.

“High School – Love On” is the best show of this bunch, and I am fully obsessed.

It’s another romantic teen melodrama — albeit a lot more realistic than something like “Boys Over Flowers” — with a fantasy twist. Seul-bi is an angel of death who suddenly takes a human form after accidentally saving the life of a high school student, Woo-hyun. Once she’s stuck among the humans, she has to decide if she wants to return to her world or stick it out in high school and give mortal romance a shot.

All of the characters are well-rounded and interesting, from the school bullies to the kids’ parents and teachers to the other angels who appear throughout. The main love triangle is possibly the best I’ve ever seen on television, as I’m equally invested in all three characters and love the unique dynamic between each pairing. Woo-hyun and Sung-yeol are such compelling frenemies and have amazing chemistry — probably because the actors playing them are Nam Woo-hyun and Lee Sung-yeol, two members of the boyband Infinite. I’m rooting for them to all end up together in polyamorous happiness.

So far, I am really adoring “High School – Love On,” and I can’t wait to see the drama continue to unfold. Thankfully, I don’t have a life, and watching dramas is all I do anymore.