Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Bunshinsaba (aka Witchboard) (2004)

Bunshinsaba (aka Witchboard or Ouija Board)
Ahn Byeong-ki/Kim Gyu-ri/2004
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...the horror makes up for its shortcomings."

Tired of being bullied, Lee Yoo-jin (Lee Se-eun) and her friends create a Ouija board and place the Bunshinsaba curse on their enemies...

Bunshinsaba continues to follow Yoo-jin after the curse is set in motion. The corpse of one of the bullies is found burned on a desk in school. A new teacher, Lee Eun-ju (Kim Gyu-ri), begins her class and unwittingly calls the student of desk 29 – the vacant desk of a deceased student, Kim In-sook. So, Yoo-jin begins to believe the curse is real and she is possessed by the ghost of In-sook. Eun-ju also believes in the curse, but sees that there is more to it. And so, the mystery unravels for a chilling climax. The ending is decent – there is some solid closure, but some events needed more clarification.

Bunshinsaba is in line with most traditional ghost films – and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The story is very engaging and interesting, particularly because of the chilling story and effective mystery. Bunshinsaba also delivers some great horror. Whether you're a fan of visual scares or jump-scares, Bunshinsaba has you covered. Some of the visuals were downright chilling, and some of the jump-scares were actually effective. The suicides, for example, were suspenseful and eerie. Fortunately, although it doesn't offer much more than scary visuals and jump-scares, the film captures a nice balance and consistency, so it doesn't get boring.

Well, at least not due to the horror. There are some moments were Bunshinsaba feels dull and repetitive. This happened during the latter half of the film, in my case. Although the mystery was coming full circle, I felt like it lose some steam. The film also suffers from some choppy editing, making the film feel inconsistent – it frequently jumps from scene-to-scene without a bridge or proper transition. Furthermore, the story can be convoluted at times. It can overwhelming due to the abundance of story it tries to have. On one hand, it's great because it tries so much. On the other hand, it's ineffective due to the limited runtime and inefficient storytelling.

The acting was strong, though. Lee Se-eun was really good with her facial expressions. Kim Gyu-ri, who also stars in Nightmare, delivers an enjoyable performance. The music is creepy and ominous, which is a big plus for a horror film. The cinematography was also great; I especially enjoyed the vivid lighting. The makeup was good, too. The DVD of the film looks good – obviously I'd prefer an HD version, but this is more than watchable. There are a few grammar and spelling errors in the subtitles, though. Writer and director Ahn Byeong-ki, who also directed Apartment and Nightmare, makes an ambitious story out of the classic ghost story; the mystery is interesting and engaging, and Byeong-ki delivers great suspense and horror throughout the runtime. However, there are some issues with the storytelling, and the film ran out of steam just as it was closing the deal.

Overall, I liked Bunshinsaba. It's a spooky and entertaining film with an engaging mystery. It has some flaws in its storytelling, which can be confusing, but the horror makes up for its shortcomings. By no means is it perfect, but it is definitely an entertaining treat for fans of ghost stories. And if you're a fan of ghost stories, you should be watching Bunshinsaba.

Score: 7/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Pieta (2012)

Pieta (Review)
Kim Ki-duk/Lee Jung-jin/2012
Where To Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...a masterpiece of Korean cinema."

A brutal debt-collector, Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), is shaken when he is followed by a woman (Jo Min-su) claiming to be his mother.

Pieta follows Kang-do. A debt-collector who makes cripples out of the people who fail to pay the ridiculously high interest rate. A strange woman begins to follow him and claims to be his mother. Slowly, his life begins to change as he reluctantly believes this woman – after some bizarre tests, of course. His character changes slowly as he develops a relationship with his new-found mother. The plot leads to a twisted climax and chilling ending – a film that will stay with you long after it's over.

Pieta is an art-house drama film. This, of course, means it's a film with multiple layers. This film, like many of Kim Ki-duk's films, works perfectly on the surface and beyond. First, the drama. The chilling drama in this film excels particularly due to the deep and complex characters. The drama is even more effective thanks to the chilling violence, disturbing and daring themes, and slow-burn execution. This isn't a thriller or horror film, but it really gets under your skin – and that's an amazing accomplishment for an art-house drama.

Now, looking beyond the surface, this is an incredibly thought-provoking film. The film deals with themes of violence, family, life, death, and commercialism. It crafts themes both subtly and blatantly. For example, due to some of the blatant dialogue, you may see yourself asking: what is money? On the other hand, some of its religious symbolism is a little more subtle. Fortunately, the film never preaches. In fact, it never delivers a clear-cut message. Instead, this film promotes discussion. So, what did you think about the themes and symbolism?

The film is anchored by excellent performances from Lee Jung-jin and Jo Min-su. The supporting cast is also strong. The acting can feel melodramatic at times, but it ultimately works in conveying some genuine emotions. The film looks fantastic – the cinematography captures the bleakness of the film very well. The music, albeit seldom used, also works excellently in crafting its bleak themes and sorrow tone – definitely a soundtrack that can get you into the thinking mood, as well. I've said it before and I'll probably say it for the rest of my life, writer and director Kim Ki-duk is brilliant. He has captured the perfect balance between mainstream and art-house – films that can be enjoyed on any level. His direction in this film is flawless as he captures an ominous atmosphere, tells an uncompromising and effective story, and pulls magnificent performances from his cast – again, all without compromise.

Overall, Pieta is a superb film. I first saw this film over a year ago (I own the Drafthouse Blu-ray) and I can say it's still as effective. It's a masterpiece of Korean cinema. Like most of Kim Ki-duk's films, this is definitely not a film for everyone. However, if you enjoy entering the taboo territory and you occasionally like to think about the films you watch, this is definitely for you. Don't miss this film.

Score: 10/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood, some sexuality. (an attempted rape and some taboo sexual themes.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Monopoly (2006)

Monopoly (Review)
Lee Hang-bae/Yang Dong-geun/2006
Where To Watch:
Netflix Instant
Amazon Prime

"...feels less like a game of Monopoly, though, and more like a puzzle."

Eccentric computer genius Kyung-ho (Yang Dong-geun) manages the network for the banks in Korea. Persuaded by the charisma of a businessman named John (Kim Seong-su), Kyung-ho spirals into a mysterious con game...

Monopoly is a little complicated. The plot begins in the present as Kyung-ho and one of his partners are interrogated. Soon, Kyung-ho is hypnotized, and the flashbacks begin. The first half of the film works off of building up the relationship between Kyung-ho and John, as well as building up John's mysterious master plan. However, not much really happens. There's just simply too much buildup for the entire first half fails to efficiently buildup the big scheme, and instead works on Kyung-ho tasting the lavish life and developing this odd relationship. The rest of the film pieces together the mystery. The second half of the film works very well as a thriller and mystery. I overall enjoyed the ending – it's very redeeming for the first half's faults.

So, really, you have half of a mediocre film and half of a great film. Like I said, the film's focus – or lack thereof – during the first half makes it feel a tad bit tedious. It grabs your attention thanks to the storytelling, but it feels uneventful. I love buildup in film, but this is a case of too much. Other than that – and this is a problem that occasionally arises throughout the entire film – the story can feel somewhat convoluted. It has a lot of twists and turns, especially during the latter half, but some fail to land due to the previously mentioned lack of focus. There are a lot of characters in this film, too, that don't have proper introductions and pop in and out of the film – some of them left me a bit baffled.

However, I was ultimately entertained. This thriller keeps you on your feet throughout its runtime. Sure, it's occasionally boring and confusing, but I never gave up on it. The overall concept, especially its grand finale, is very intriguing – it had me hooked. It feels less like a game of Monopoly, though, and more like a puzzle. And, I didn't mind. I actually liked piecing together this mystery. It's not an action film by any standard, but there is some solid suspense and tension here and there. Actually, the climax of the film felt underwhelming, especially after all that buildup. But, still, I genuinely liked it.

The acting was strong from Yang Dong-geun and Kim Seong-su. Yun Ji-min, who has mastered the catwalk, also delivers a great performance. Some of the English-speaking scenes weren't all that good, but it wasn't a strong issue for the film – it doesn't have a strong presence, after all. The film is shot competently – nothing stood out as either good or bad as far as the cinematography goes. I did like the music, though, it really fit the genre. Writer and director Lee Hang-bae had me hooked for the most part. However, the writing and direction could have used some focus and fine-tuning.

Overall, I liked Monopoly. It definitely has some flaws, but I thought it was entertaining. It managed to keep me interested from beginning to end – and I very much enjoyed the ending. If you like mystery-thrillers that keep you on your feet and keep you guessing – sometimes for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong – then this film might be worth your time.

Score: 6/10
Parental Guide: Some violence and blood.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: 3-Iron (2004)

3-Iron (Review)
Kim Ki-duk/Jae Hee/2004
Where To Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...simple but effective on the surface and even more so when you look beyond."

Tae-suk (Jae Hee), a wandering loner, breaks into homes while their owners are away. One day, he finds himself in the home of an abused housewife Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), unaware of her presence...

3-Iron is fairly simple film – on the surface. The plot follows Tae-suk who tapes takeout menus on homes and breaks into the homes where the menus have not been removed by the end of the day. Eventually, he stumbles upon the household of Sun-hwa and her abusive husband. They don't speak a single word to each other, but have an understanding – an understanding and connection deep enough to have them runaway together. So, Sun-hwa adopts Tae-suk's wandering lifestyle for a brief moment. The story continues in this way, but I'd rather not spoil anything else. The ending is great, though – a very interesting and thought-provoking ending.

In fact, most of the film is very interesting and thought-provoking – when you look past the surface. Right off the bat, I have to tell you: this is not a film for everyone, especially those who don't want to think or immerse themselves into an art-house film. The drama on the surface works well, especially considering the lack of dialogue, but the symbolism and themes are really the meat of the plot. This is a film that requires some thinking. Not because it's confusing or difficult, but because it's a film that has very human themes and reflective qualities.

I'm not sure it can be fully enjoyed as a pure drama. This isn't a film like Silenced, which is excellent, where everything is laid out for you. This is more like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, which is a film that makes you think – and rightfully so. Not only is that film thought-provoking, but it's a film from the very same director, Kim Ki-duk. In my case, I enjoyed it on both levels. I liked the drama, especially how it is developed without direct dialogue between the leads, and I liked the general flow of the film; it has a very tranquil yet ominous atmosphere that is really mesmerizing. It can be a bit slow at times, though. Remember, it's a slow-paced film to begin with, but I found some moments to be unnecessarily and unusually slow.

The acting is wonderful. Jae Hee and Lee Seung-yeon share great chemistry without sharing dialogue – if I remember correctly, Jae Hee doesn't speak a word, while Seung-yeon has one line of dialogue. This was very impressive because both actors had strong, compelling performances and it was mainly due to their facial expressions and body movements. The film is beautifully-shot – its photography plays a large factor in the mesmerizing qualities of the film. The music is also superb – it doesn't play often, but it's magnificent. The English subtitles on the U.S. DVD are great, despite there being very little dialogue. Director Kim Ki-duk delivers another magnificent film – he has perfectly captured the balance between traditional film and art house. In fact, Ki-duk is the only filmmaker that I am not weary of watching when it comes to art house.

Overall,3-Iron is a superb drama/art house film. It's simple but effective on the surface and even more so when you look beyond. It's a very compelling and thought-provoking drama. If you're accustomed to art house films, I think you'll love this gem. However, if you're more of a blockbuster or traditional film fan – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – I recommend some lighter Kim Ki-duk films to ease you into. Maybe try out Rough Cut, which is written by Kim Ki-duk.

Score: 9/10
Parental Guide: Some violence and blood, some sexuality and nudity mostly in photographs.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: Wide Awake (aka Return) (2007)

Wide Awake (aka Return) (Review)
Lee Gyu-man/Kim Myung-min/2007
Where To Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"One of the more overlooked and under-appreciated thrillers..."

A young boy experiences anesthesia awareness during surgery and is traumatized afterward – but no one believes his story. 25 years later, the doctors who operated on the boy begin to die mysteriously...

Wide Awake follows Dr. Ryu Jae-woo (Kim Myung-min), a young surgeon, who believes he is being targeted by the young boy. He suspects a friend who has mysteriously reemerged, a man who has been stalking and threatening Jae-woo and his wife, and possibly a hypnosis who seems to know more than he lets on. Regardless, he finds clues in each and pieces together a vicious history. Wide Awake leads to an epic climax and a great ending.

Wide Awake is a case of “the less you know, the better.” My synopsis is a thin explanation of the plot, which is why it's so short this time around. It's a twisted thriller with plenty of character and thrills. The first half of the film is a little slow, though. It is also a little on the uneventful side, too. The buildup is effective, but it also feels like it drags its feet – a case of too much buildup and development, I suppose. Fortunately, the second half of the film becomes much more engaging and eventful. It becomes a heart-pounding thriller with some unpredictable elements. The concept overall – that is, the concept of being awake yet helpless during surgery – is terrifying and well-developed in the film; it adds some horror-like elements to the film, and it adds to the overall story.

The story also has a strong sense of realism – it has some issues that hinder that realism, but it ultimately felt very raw – maybe it was the photography or acting, but it really hits. The only other issue I had with Wide Awake was the occasional plot contrivance. The story only often feels contrived. “Oh, I dropped this.” “Oh no, I slipped.” Those moments that make you question the writing. There aren't many of these moments, but it has just enough to be noteworthy. Fortunately, most of the major plot points avoid these plot contrivances.

The acting is all-around great. A little melodramatic, especially during the introduction, but it ultimately works. Kim Myung-min is a great leading man – very charismatic and he is capable of hitting the correct emotional notes. Yoo Jun-sang was also great – I think his performance was the least overacted. The film looks great, too, I thoroughly enjoyed the cinematography. The camerawork is also great. The music fits the film well – it's thrilling, emotional, mysterious and so on, and right on queue. Director Lee Gyu-man crafts a slow-burning and engaging thriller, with plenty of thrills and originality; however, the film does suffer somewhat from some convoluted storytelling, some plot contrivances, and minor pacing issues.

Overall, Wide Awake is a very good thriller. It takes time to build the characters and situation – maybe a little too much time – and leads to an immensely satisfying and thrilling second half. The climax and ending are great, too. It is, however, held back by the convoluted storytelling and the occasional plot contrivance. With a little effort, you have yourself a surprising thriller. One of the more overlooked and under-appreciated thrillers of the last decade – especially from South Korea.

Score: 7/10
Parental Guide: Some strong violence and blood, and scenes of surgery.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: The Host (2006)

The Host (Review)
Bong Joon-ho/Song Kang-ho/2006
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...thrilling, funny, and, most importantly, very entertaining."

Illegally dumped chemicals in the Han River spawn an amphibious creature. This monster kidnaps the daughter of Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), who runs a small snack-bar nearby...

The Host continues as Park Gang-du and his brother, sister, and father as they begin tracking the location of Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), Gang-du's daughter. Originally believed to have been eaten by the creature, Hyun-seo was able to call Gang-du and let him know that she was trapped in a large sewer. Off of that tip, the family head out, dodging the authorities hot on their trail, to kill the monster and save Hyun-seo. Of course, the family isn't the brightest around, which causes some issues in their plans. This humorous and thrilling creature feature leads to a decent ending -- it does feel a little off, mostly due to the tone of the film, but it works.

The Host is a creature feature. It's a blend of horror, thriller, and comedy. There's plenty of suspense during the action sequences, a few thrills during the chase sequences, and it's all drenched in black humor. The moment the creature emerged from the river, for example, was epic and suspenseful, and one scene was very humorous. It does feel somewhat unbalanced due to the overwhelming humor, which usually consists of family bickering and Gang-du's incompetence. But, I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh out loud at least a handful of times and didn't have a smirk on my face for the rest. Otherwise, it's a fairly paced film with a lot of entertainment value.

Song Kang-ho delivers a great performance, as usual, despite playing a bit of cliché. Go Ah-sung, who is wonderful in Snowpiercer, was most impressive -- she really shines with her charismatic and genuine acting. The music is great, I really enjoyed the versatile and well-fitted soundtrack. The film is absolutely beautiful -- the camera angles, the camerawork, and the cinematography overall is stunning. Director Bong Joon-ho is great; he paints a vivid picture and delivers an exciting monster film; it could've used some fine-tuning, though, especially when balancing its many elements.

Overall, The Host is a great film. It's thrilling, funny, and, most importantly, very entertaining. The humor may drive away some viewers, but those accustomed to this brand of humor, as well as those who know about the humor ahead of time, will find pure enjoyment.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Some strong violence and blood.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: The Dino King (2012)

The Dino King (aka Speckles the Tarbosaurus) (Review)
Han Sang-ho/2012
Where to Watch:
Netflix Instant
Amazon Prime

"...if this film had zero dialogue, I think it would've been much better."

During the Cretaceous period, a young Tarbosaurus named Speckles is born, and faces a life of hardship and loss, and ultimately hope...

The Dino King is a fairly straightforward adventure film. The story follows Speckles from the age of one and up to his adult life. As a young dinosaur, Speckles and his family are attacked by a vicious tyrannosaurus named One-Eye, which devastates his life. After these devastating events, Speckles attempts to survive on his own, but faces other dangerous predators and a recurring appearance from One-Eye – I suppose you can call One-Eye his arch-nemesis. Anyway, that's basically all of The Dino King – Speckles' sad life and how he deals with it. The ending was decent – not bad, not amazing, simply decent.

I guess you can best describe The Dino King as the life of the most unfortunate dinosaur. I mean, Speckles doesn't have a shred of luck, whether he's one year old or twenty. It does feel a little repetitive and it also feels uninvolving; I was interested in the story, particularly because of the setting and because it has some shades of The Lion King, but it just didn't hook me. It's a sad story, indeed, but I was able to shrug it off with ease – and I should not have, I should have been able to take this film seriously and should have been fully engaged.

I think this is due to the narration. I watched the English dub, by the way. The characters in this film do not have voices. They grunt and shout, but they don't speak like one would expect from an animated film. Instead, the voice overs work as narration for Speckles' many thoughts. And, it just seems so childish and unnecessary; almost like I was watching some Dora the Explorer or Blue's Clues, or anything on Nick Jr. (are those shows still being produced? That might be an outdated reference.) In fact, if this film had zero dialogue, I think it would've been much better. There are some decent action scenes, though. And the use of music and a few epic sequences creates a grand sense of adventure at times.

I did not enjoy the voice acting. I mean, do I need to clarify any further? It takes you out of the zone, it stops you from fully engaging with the film. The visual effects are decent, at least for people with the right expectations. The computer graphics are far from Avatar, but satisfying enough. They do stick out like a sore thumb due to the use of real-world environments and 3D, but they work. The music is great; it's a very epic and adventurous soundtrack, it really help buildup some scenes. Writer and director Han Sang-ho is decent; I think his largest mistake was the unnecessary narration, but the film also suffers, albeit less severely, from some pacing issues and a slightly uneventful and repetitive story.

Overall, The Dino King is a mediocre film. I think it would have been a much better film if the runtime was cut down and if the narration was removed completely; now that I think of it, it probably would have been a surprisingly decent short film. Otherwise, this film does not offer much to the genre. A few decent action sequences, and a genuinely sad moment or two – that's what you are getting. My score is a 4/10, this might be a 5/10 (which is decent on my scale) if you're watching this with children 8 or older.

Score: 4/10
Parental Guide: Some violence. Some frightening images for young children.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review: The Thieves (2012)

The Thieves (Review)
Choi Dong-hoon/Kim Yoon-seok/2012
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...a fun and exciting blockbuster."

Korean and Chinese thieves unite to steal a valuable diamond necklace from a casino in Macau.

The heist film. They tend to share many, many similarities -- whether it's Ocean's Eleven or The Big Swindle. A huge cast of characters with specific skills, a pinch of humor and wit, some action, a lot of swindling, twists and turns, and a huge payout. Like many before it, The Thieves has all of the above in its story. Fortunately, The Thieves also excels in delivering a distinct and likable cast of characters, some genuine humor and sass, as well as some of the most exciting action sequences.

The Thieves is a "been-there-done-that" plot, but with exceptional execution. Personally, I didn't mind treading the familiar territory, but it's worth noting for those who do. Like i said, despite its story, it delivers lively characters, some laugh-out-loud humor and attractive charm, and some amazing action. And, it blends these elements so well, it feels perfectly balanced and paced. Don't let the long runtime scare you, it moves at the speed of light. However, I didn't like the cheesy love subplot; it's not only cheesy, but it adds little to the film, and ultimately feels like nothing more than a plot contrivance.

On that point, the film also feels somewhat contrived at times. There are scenes where the characters do things, like placing gum or bugs, right in front of the other characters, and these characters are completely oblivious. Also, there are those "these are twists just because I didn't tell you earlier"-type twists; you know, those that you can't guess because the film purposefully omits information -- I didn't mind these that much, but they do feel cheap.

The ensemble cast is fantastic. These characters feel so alive thanks to the charismatic cast. Kim Yoon-seok is great as the lead, and Lee Jung-jae delivers a great complimentary performance. Oh Dal-soo is hilarious, and Jun Ji-hyun is equally funny. (she's not as genuinely sassy as she was in My Sassy Girl, though, sometimes it doesn't feel genuine.) Otherwise, the film has blockbuster written all over it; it looks and sounds fantastic. The English subtitles on the Netflix Instant stream are nearly perfect, too. Director Choi Dong-hoon does well in making a been-there-done-that story fun and exciting again; and, his pacing and balance in superb.

Overall, The Thieves is a great heist film. It's very similar to other films in the genre, but manages to differentiate itself through its distinct cast, as well as its excellent action and humor. It has a few pitfalls, like a dull subplot and some cheap and contrived writing, but it's ultimately a fun and exciting blockbuster.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Violence and blood.