Sunday, April 30, 2017

Frequency (2000)

Director: Gregory Hoblit
Writer(s): Toby Emmerich
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel, Shawn Doyle, and Elizabeth Mitchell

Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency is a ridiculously convoluted mess of a film that builds to an ending so neat and disgustingly sappy, that the Garth Brooks song that rolls over the end credits (the plainly titled "When You Come Back To Me Again") feels right at home. It’s sloppily written and narrowly-focused—every event altered seems to only directly effect the main characters, with no far-reaching implications beyond those that can’t be patched up by a simple action from one of its stars. It breaks off more than it can chew, and can’t decide if it wants to be a drama, science fiction, police procedural, or serial killer film, even though it spends a good amount of time dabbling in each of them. When it’s all said and done, it’s quite technically a terrible film.

And yet I love the hell out of it.

I can’t really explain why. Its flaws are evident even as the events play out on screen. It gets more and more unbelievable as it wears on, and let’s be honest, a movie about a guy talking to his dead father over a HAM radio doesn’t exactly resonate with plausibility. But even by the film’s loose standards, the twists become so disjointed and messy near the end that it becomes apparent we are simply being duped by the whim’s of the writer, instead of being put in a living, breathing world all its own.

But it’s such a completely interesting failure that I was absolutely transfixed by it, both times I have seen it. A lot of it has to do with the great performances by Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel, who play father and son, respectively. Quaid is Frank Sullivan, a firefighter who succumbs to a blaze in 1969, leaving behind his wife, Julia, and six-year-old son, John. Thirty years later, John, who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend and now lives alone in the same house he grew up in, finds his dad’s old radio buried in a closet, and tests it to see if it still works. Lo and behold, he does make contact with someone, and he slowly realizes it’s his dad, circa 1969!

The scenes where father and son rekindle after thirty years are emotional and heartfelt. Granted, most of these are simply by default, as we, as humans, are automatically wired to find comfort in these scenes. Even if you have never experienced loss on a personal level, can’t you imagine what it would be like to never be able to see someone you loved again? Still, they pack quite a wallop, and you may find yourself reaching for the nearest tissue box. But Frequency’s plot is only starting to take shape, because by this point we are only about at the half-hour mark.

Armed with his knowledge of the present, John decides he’s going to save his father from the blaze that took his life. Frank, at this point, is still leery of this whole situation, but heeds his future son’s advice and makes it out alive! However, it’s a small victory, because John learns that it has only altered the future: Instead of dying in a fire back in 1969, his dad will die in 1989, from cancer caused by his excessive smoking. But just when you think you’re finally getting settled into the story, you find out there’s still more: His mother becomes the target of a serial killer, who offs her a week after his dad survives the blaze, back in 1969 again!

So now the son must guide the father to prevent that from happening, then he goes one step further by having him try to prevent the murders of all of the serial killer’s victims. Then stuff happens on top of other stuff, and the whole story just descends into a chaotic mess of genre clichés, as if writer Toby Emmerich is desperately trying to pad his entire resume with just one movie. As if all this isn’t bogus enough, the dust settles, and we’re left with a gag-inducing happy ending that conveniently ties up every loose end into a pretty little bow.

This is the kind of movie I hate ninety nine times out of a hundred, but director Gregory Hoblit confidently navigates through the complex material, delivering a sure-handed final product that would have buried most other directors dumb enough to approach it. The dramatic scenes pack a punch, the twists and turns are at least fascinating, when they’re not utterly gripping, and even the serial killing aspect, which seem like they were cut and pasted in to an otherwise finished script, somehow works, at least as best it can within this general framework.

If you’re looking for me to explain myself, to defend every nuance and every contrived detail, to describe in explicit terms why I came to this conclusion, I will refer you to the Apple Jacks commercials of the mid ‘90s, in which children, who are notified of the cereal tasting nothing like apple, are asked why they like it. “I don’t know. We just do.” Couldn't have said it any better myself.

RECAP: It’s a convoluted, clichéd mess that weaves its way through three genres, some of them completely unnecessary, and yet, through a mix of great acting and often gripping (though increasingly implausible) twists and turns, manages to somehow not only be a competent movie, but often an excellent one. Even the ridiculously upbeat ending had me hook, line, and sinker, and I hate happy endings. Quite simply put, this is an underrated gem, and well worth a watch.

RATING: 8.5/10


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Eerie Indiana, S1 E13: The Hole in the Head Gang

Omri Katz as Marshall Teller
Justin Shenkarow as Simon Holmes
Mary-Margaret Humes as Marilyn Teller
Francis Guinan as Edgar Teller
Julie Condra as Syndi Teller
Jason Marsden as Dash-X
Claude Akins as Grungy Bill
John Astin as Radford
Archie Hahn as Fred Suggs

Written by: Karl Schaefer
Directed by: Joe Dante


Well today we'll be taking a look at the thirteenth episode of “Eerie, Indiana”, which not only focuses on a simple plot—Simon and Marshall investigate a haunted house—but also introduces a new character, presumably in an attempt to breathe new life—and bring new viewers—to the series. Judging from its one-season run, it didn't work, and the character, known as “Dash X” (from two symbols he has written on his hand), always showed up to either create trouble for the boys, or get them out of danger. He had a “bad boy” charm that went completely against the personas of Marshall and Simon, which I'm sure was the entire point, but the writers never really gave any convincing reason for him to be around.

This episode also has another revelation up its sleeve: that the man we had come to know as Mr. Radford—owner of the World o' Stuff general store, you will recall--was actually an impostor; the real Radford was tied up in the basement the whole time. (In a humorous moment, Marshall asks the real Radford why he's not going to press charges, to which he responds: “Well, despite all his faults, that guy was one hell of a salesman. He moved more merchandise in six months with me tied up in the basement, than I made in my best year.”)

Since Marshall and Simon happen to be the first customers after the impostor is taken away (no one realized the completely different look of the “new” Radford?), Radford treats them to free drinks, and then notices that they have pictures of the Ol' Hitchock Mill, which is rumored to be haunted. He recounts the story of “Grungy Bill”, who has the unfortunate distinction of being “the worst bank robber east of the Mississippi.” (In another silly exchange, Simon mistakes Radford's meaning. “Really evil, huh?” “No! The worst! As in, no good, incompetent, 'don't quit your day job' worst.”) According to legend, he was arrested twelve twelve attempts robbing the Bank of Erie. On the thirteenth time, the talentless would-be thief forgot the most important tool to someone in his line of work—his gun—and he ended up perishing after police tracked him down to the mill and filled it, and Bill, full of holes.

Of course now Marshall and Simon have their interest even more piqued, so they return to the mill to find evidence that a ghost exists. Instead, they find man-made contraptions that lend themselves well to ghostly effects, such as a chair set up to a pulley system (that can make it look like it's levitating), and a long brass tube that can emulate ghostly voices. What's more, is they also find evidence that someone is living in the old mill. Who would be crazy to do such a thing?
Well, this is where Dash-X enters the picture (as played by Jason Marsden), in all his gravel-voiced glory (I will admit it's kind of funny to hear a teenaged kid have the voice of a man who has smoked for fifty years). He doesn't take kindly to visitors, and demands that Marshall and Simon give him any evidence that they had been there, such as photos and tapes. As he steps on the video tape to smash it (“This is one tape that's not going to be on America's Stupidest Home Videos”), he inadvertently reveals a small opening under the floorboard, which houses a rusty gun. Why, it's Grungy Bill's!

While waving it around, Dash-X accidentally sets it off, which then releases the spirit of Bill (and leads Simon to quip, “I hate guns! I hate 'em, I hate 'em, I hate 'em!” which somehow strikes me as adorably cute, and also very similar to my own viewpoint of the weapons). It seems he's been spending the last hundred years formulating a special plan to rob the Bank of Erie, and he's enlisted Marshall to help him (His plan? Bring a gun and demand money.) So Marshall ties up Dash and Simon, and heads to the bank with Grungy Bill. (In yet another scene worthy of mention, a bound Dash-X asks a bound Simon, “Does this kind of stuff happen to you guys a lot,” to which Simon exasperatedly replies, “At least once a week.”)

The robbing duo arrive at the Bank of Erie, with Marshall in full disguise (he looks like a woman from the 1800s). As if being an unwilling participant in a robbery attempt wasn't bad enough, there's a huge problem compounding matters...Marshall's family enters the bank, lured in by the promise of a free toaster with every new account opened. Well through a series of events, Grungy Bill's plan is foiled yet again...or is it? In the series' most inexplicably (and unexpectedly) hilarious moment, he vows that he's not leaving without robbing the place, and fulfills that promise by grabbing a (free) toaster, and marching out the door with it.

Having been successful in his attempt to rob the Bank of Erie, and with his now-rusted gun in a million pieces courtesy of Dash-X, his spell is broken. In yet another clever twist, his spirit now haunts the toaster, seeing that his gun is destroyed and unusable, something that Marshall and Simon add to their collection.

The second-half of this series seemed to embrace the humorous more than the first, and this is the prototypical example of such an episode. That's not to say that early episodes weren't funny or lighthearted—this show has (almost) always been about that—but this one ups the sillymeter to crazy proportions...literally none of it is meant to be taken seriously.

Aside from the toaster theft, I remembered not liking this episode all that much (I'm viewing most of these episodes for a second time, as we blew through them too quickly for me to review them the first; this is why all reviews are way late), but upon a second viewing, it's really not all that bad. Most of the jokes land soundly, and there are even a couple callbacks (including a reference to Foreverware, from the first episode, in the bank) to reward faithful viewers of the show. This won't go down as any sort of classic, even within this show's nineteen episodes, but it's a great singular example of what this show was all about.



BACKUP LINK (in case above video removed)

Friday, April 21, 2017

Always Shine (2016)

Director: Sophia Takal
Writer(s): Lawrence Michael Levine
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald, Lawrence Michael Levine, and Khan Baykal

There were some rumblings about Always Shine when it was making its rounds through the festival circuit, where it seemed to be getting plenty of hype; I had forgotten all about it, and pegged it more as a drama, until it showed up to stream on Shudder, a horror-only streaming service. This once again drew my interest back into the project. One night, the wife and I decided to watch a movie, narrowed it down to two options, still couldn't make a final decision, and let a coin toss decide. Always Shine it was.

This is a bizarre little film that seems to owe almost its entire identity to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, a fitting irony for a film that is so concerned with identity. But whereas that was made by a master director arguably at the top of its craft, Always Shine was made by someone at the opposite end of the spectrum: a director who has only one other feature-length film to their credit. Oh, and it's a woman. Bet you can't name three female directors not named Kathryn Bigelow! This is the kind of mountain women in the film industry face.

Always Shine begins with Beth performing an audition for a horror movie, during which she is informed that there will be a substantial amount of nudity required for her character. She is hesitant, and it is clear that she is not interested in doing that again (we later learn she has gotten naked in virtually every part she has accepted), but she cannot say “no”, and so she accepts. She is actually like this throughout life, a pushover who is incapable of letting out her true feelings; from this we can gather she's been walked on her entire life.

Next, we are introduced to Anna. She is also auditioning for a role in which she is angry that a mechanic did extra work without asking her first, and now wants to charge her an extra $300. In the film's only clever twist, it turns out this is not an audition after all, but her actually in a car shop yelling at the mechanic. From this, we learn that Anna is fierce and confrontational, the exact opposite of Beth.

So, of course, they are good friends who are planning a weekend getaway. They had fallen out of touch with each other a while back, but want to make amends and regain the relationship they once had. Only, it seems something is aloof right from the outset: both girls are insanely awkward around each other, as if they've never met before. I guess this was just to show the length of time that they'd been out of touch, but it's weird that people that were once so close, can devolve into almost instant strangers just a few years later. I mean, it's awkward to the point that I'm surprised one of them doesn't just decide this outing is a bad idea, and back out.

Anyway, through a series of instances, we can tell that Anna is jealous of Beth; herself a struggling actress, she resents Beth for consistently landing roles and getting all the attention from men, and sees her success as a threat. Her hatred continues to reach fever pitch as she learns more and more about her former best friend: Beth resents her because she feels like Anna is a much better actress than her, and actually stalled on giving her agent Anna's portfolio, out of fear that Anna would upstage her. It doesn't take much imagination to figure that Anna will overhear all of this and get angry, which is what happens.

Beth finally decides she's had enough, and chases Anna out into the woods. We never see what happens, but all of a sudden Beth inherits Anna's personality. She cuts and dyes her red hair into blonde, and gets all the attention that she never got before. Anna makes fleeting appearances...or does she? They are quick, almost ghost-like, in which she disappears just as quickly as she arrived. Is it a manifestation of Beth's guilty mind? Or have they really switched personalities?

The entire finale feels ripped out of the David Lynch handbook, complete with deja vu and flashbacks, as the two girls reverse their roles, and the film goes for a dreamlike atmosphere. The events leading up to the end are largely convincing in their gradual intensity, though, thanks mainly to the performances of Mackenzie Davis (as Anna; you may remember her as the nerdy lesbian in the wildly popular Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”) and Caitlin FitzGerald (as Beth), the two best friends. What is less convincing, though, is how they were ever friends to begin with.

This is just an example where too much ambiguity seems to sabotage the results. What starts off as a rather intriguing character study between two friends, abandons reality for its surrealistic ending, and suffers for it. Why be weird when there's no reason to be? A further annoyance is the relationship between the two characters: I mentioned that the actors give it their all, and they really do, but they are let down in the writing department because their characters never feel like more than bitter enemies. Even in the early scenes of them on their way to Big Sur (their destination spot), there is an unspoken tension between them that kind of hinders the rest of the proceedings: If someone is that bizarre from the outset, why would you follow through by voluntary quarantining yourself with them in a beach house somewhere for an entire week? I guess it just goes to show you how complacent Beth is, but it's agonizing for the viewer, who has to watch two annoying characters out-complain one another.

I think director Sonia Takal has a great understanding of pace—it all happens at a believable, perfect clip—but by having everything feel false from the outset doesn't really make us want to invest in any of these characters. They are simply two people who label themselves as friends, but who secretly (to themselves, anyway) feel nothing but deep resentment for the other. The final “twist” into ambiguous dreamlike fantasy atmosphere is rather pointless, and feels artsy for the sake of reviving its--by this point--long-bored audience.

There are a lot of things to like here, just more things to dislike, and that's what makes Almost Shine...well...well-titled in more ways than one.

RATING: 5/10


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Eerie Indiana, S1 E12: Tornado Days

Omri Katz as Marshall Teller
Justin Shenkarow as Simon Holmes
Mary-Margaret Humes as Marilyn Teller
Francis Guinan as Edgar Teller
Julie Condra as Syndi Teller
Matt Frewer as Howard Raymer
Harry Goaz as Sgt. Knight
Archie Hahn as Mr. Radford
Old Bob as Himself

Written by: Michael Cassutt
Directed by: Ken Kwapis


“Eerie Indiana” is a show that has always prided itself on its bizarre ideas. And that tends to be the show's strength: it was unafraid to tread where other kid's shows would never dare to go. That being said, “Tornado Days” goes for outrageous, and ends up falling flat on its face, in a way that hasn't been seen since “The Retainer”. In fact, I would venture to say it's even worse than that one. It's a rather stupid idea, executed stupidly, and is easily the worst episode the usually creative show ever put out.

It's “Tornado Day” in Eerie, which is pretty much just an excuse for the locals to gather around for a community picnic. Ever the rebellious teen, Marshall refuses to go, and as a result, so too does his pal Simon (who, sadly, clearly wants to go, but would rather support his friend). Well, this pisses off “Ol' Bob”, the name given to the town's tornado (?) that visits Eerie every year on Tornado Day. Okay...

Things are already off to a bad start, but now we get another character tossed into the mix: A crazy stormchaser by the name of Howard Raymer, who crash lands on Marshall's front lawn. He informs Marshall that by boycotting the festivities, he is angering Bob, and sets out to find a way to tame the tornado before he wreaks havoc across the city. But his only way to do that is to get inside the tornado with his “Wind Rider”, which is basically a modified trailer.

Well I've spent enough time describing this, because none of it is remotely interesting or funny. Like I said, this show usually does really well when it comes time to dabble in the offbeat, but this one is just a flawed idea from start to finish. I was actually pretty excited to sit down with it the first time I read the synopsis, thinking there would be some typical "Eerie twist" that would make it a good episode, but it's just a straightforward failure. About the only thing I can give it is the tornado-themed dress that Marshall's sister Syndi's absolutely ridiculous, but she somehow looks adorable in it. (Kinda the way the looks adorable in anything.)

Overall, though, this is just a bad episode, full of uninteresting ideas, and lame jokes. Thankfully, this is the last bomb that I recall from the entire series; every show has its ups and downs, and this just proves that even an underrated show like “Eerie Indiana” isn't exempt from these issues. But man, what a bomb this is.



(Actually found someone who just uploaded the series to YouTube last month. Considering episodes seem to be taken down with regularity, it probably won't last long, but here it is in the meantime. In case it gets taken down, a backup link is provided below.)

BACKUP LINK: Click here.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Burial Ground (1981)

Director: Andrea Bianchi
Writer(s): Piero Regnoli
Starring: Karin Well, Gianluigi Chirizzi, Simone Mattioli, and Peter Bark

I saw Burial Ground (aka Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror) once as a teenager, and was immediately enthralled by its complete lack of plot, which felt exactly like the kinds of films I was attempting to write in school right around that time. I was never much into the time required to fully flesh out characters, and so my scripts would usually require the action to start well before the tenth page, or else I would quickly lose interest in it (I actually lost interest in just about all of them regardless...out of dozens of attempts, I only finished two or three, and they are awful by today's standards). Sure enough, here we are treated to a brief (five minutes or so) introduction that ever-so-vaguely hints at a cause for the ensuing zombie outbreak, another five minutes (or so) featuring characters meeting in a villa, and then the rest of the movie is survivors vs. zombies in an all-out zombie apocalypse.

I kind of have to give it some credit for that, because once the zombies start rising, the film never slows down or eases up on the survivors, who all tend to stand around until the last possible moment before fleeing from the oncoming hordes. Unfortunately, that's about all I can give it, because, while it manages to be entertaining for long stretches (unintentionally, of course, but “entertaining” nonetheless), there's very little talent on either side of the camera.

It clearly takes its queue from the sudden international success of Lucio Fulci's Zombie (which, in turn, took its queue from the sudden international success of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead). I've not made it a secret that I greatly admire Fulci's film--while still acknowledging it has more than its fair share of flaws—but what makes Fulci's vision work are the stupendous special effects. Sure, its characters are sublimely stupid, and unforgivably so, with the writers often having their characters stand “paralyzed with fear”, conveniently giving the incredibly-slow corpses time to shamble over and finish them off, but it worked because the make-up effects are still impressive to this day, while the gore effects just may be some of the best ever put to film.

Burial Ground is what would have happened had Fulci been a complete Z-grade director, with large chunks of screentime dedicated to lingering closeups of poorly made-up zombies slowly inching their way toward hapless victims, ear-piercing high-pitched synths often providing the sole musical backdrop for attack scenes (sounds made even more unbearable when seen in a theater, which I had the fortune of doing for the second viewing upon which this review is based). It has the feeling of a production that was shot and edited over the course of a single weekend, with only a day allotted for the atrocious English dubbing. The make-up effects, I suppose, are acceptable, but some of the zombies do look more humorous than scary, which offers up even more unintentional laughs. Meanwhile, the gore effects leave a lot to be desired, though many just consist of watching zombies tear out the insides of hapless victims, before gorging on their organs. It's appropriately disgusting, but the other effects are rare, generally weak and surprisingly tame.

The film would probably have slipped into complete cinematic limbo were it not for the random inclusion of a small child who is sexually obsessed with his mother. Played by 25-year-old Peter Bark, “Michael”, as he is known in the movie, has become a character of legend, with his likeness bearing T-shirts and other merchandise, even to this day. It shouldn't need to be said, but every sequence between Michael and his mother manages to be supremely uncomfortable, whether he's getting jealous as he watches her kiss his father (?), or attempting to feel her up as he makes out with her (?!); the infamous “climactic” scene between the two just may be one of the most nauseating scenes in movie history. (He does mostly redeem himself with one scene. Early on in the film, before the zombies attack, he grabs a random piece of cloth sitting on the floor, sniffs it, makes a weird face, shambles over to his mother, hands the cloth to her, and says, "Mother, this cloth smells of death!" I'd be lying if I didn't admit this is one of my favorite movie quotes of any film ever made.)

This is the kind of movie that will only appeal to a certain clique, and I cannot say that I am firmly entrenched within such a group. Sure, it has enough moments to keep you awake, but none of it could even remotely be classified as “gripping” or “suspenseful”. It's just an extreme cinematic cash grab, quickly written and shot so as to capitalize on the then-newfound explosion of the Italian zombie subgenre; seeing it in a theater only seems to heighten the amateurishness on display (while also magnifying the impact of the ridiculousness of it all). I have always admired it for its brazen lack of anything resembling a coherent story, but unfortunately when every other facet of the film suffers in a similar fashion, and the high point involves a weird-looking midget with a mommy fetish, there just isn't much there to recommend.

RATING: 3.5/10


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Eerie Indiana, S1 E11: Marshall's Theory of Believability

Omri Katz as Marshall Teller
Justin Shenkarow as Simon Holmes
Mary-Margaret Humes as Marilyn Teller
Francis Guinan as Edgar Teller
Julie Condra as Syndi Teller
John Standing as Professor Nigel Zirchon
Harry Goaz as Sgt. Knight
Archie Hahn as Mr. Radford
Gregory Itzin as The Mayor

Written by: Matt Dearborn
Directed by: Bob Balaban


Here we have an episode that pits the believable (science) against the unbelievable (paranormal phenomenon), and the battle is waged between Edgar, Marshall's scientific father, and Professor Nigel Zirchon, a man who arrives in Eerie with his "Traveling Museum of the Parabelievable". Zirchon, you see, is not an actual professor, nor does he have any sort of scientific credentials, but he still purports that everything in his “museum” is real, including the crisp, clear pictures of UFO's, and evidence of “mythical” creatures.

I shouldn't have to explain how excited our little Marshall and Simon are about this visitor, as they are certain he will simply confirm what they have always known: that Eerie, Indiana is the center of weirdness for the entire world. And their excitement reaches a fever pitch when Professor Zirchon makes an unexpected announcement: he has spotted something mysterious entering the Earth's atmosphere. His contacts at NASA confirm it can't be a spaceship or a meteor, so that leaves only one explanation: a flying saucer! And best of all, it's going to land right in Eerie!

But Edgar is skeptical. And so are we, as viewers, because Zirchon seems to be hatching some sort of plan with his assistant, that involves faking the whole alien landing! For their parts, Marshall and Simon want to get some approval from Zirchon, and bring a mold of a that they took months ago out of a neighbor's backyard. Unfortunately, by the time they get it there, in a suitcase, the entire mold has broken in to little pieces. Poor kids!

Compounding matters is the mayor, who claims Zirchon's large vehicle is parked on city property, and so he must move by sundown, or he will be hit with a citation. Marshall, always being the helpful little guy, suggests he move the large truck to the Teller's driveway...needless to say, Edgar is not enthused about having to share a house with someone whose ideals and beliefs go in direct contradiction to his own, which leads to much tension between the two.

In a slight twist—one of many “slight” twists—the assistant who goes and sets up the fake space debris panics when he has a run-in with an actual Bigfoot! The following flare that he shoots in a panic is mistaken by Marshall and Simon as the falling space debris, and so the two go about to find it, dragging Zirchon and the family in tow. What they find is a metal ball that becomes the talk of the entire town!

And here's where things start to veer off from the standard children's show, as they most often do on this show: Marshall and Simon, in complete belief of Zirchon and his findings, search for proof in his laboratory...only to find the blueprint for creating the space ball, thus proving all of it was a sham. Or was it?

This episode has more twists than the average, and has a lot to say about the power of belief and family, with Edgar caught between telling Marshall the truth, or allowing him to believe things that aren't true. Where does a parent's obligation end? On the one hand, having an active imagination is certainly a good thing for a child (or teenager, or adult) to have, but it can also be counterproductive if it's allowed to go unchecked, and this plot provides the perfect setup for such an exploration of themes.

I will say the final “twist” ending didn't really do much for me; it's a little too “standard” for my tastes, especially given the unpredictable directions the show frequently likes to go. When taking the entire episode into consideration, though, it's above average and entertaining enough, and a good entry into the series.


Click here. (Looks like a trap, it's not; embedding code is just over my head).

Monday, April 3, 2017

Train to Busan (2016)

Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writer(s): Yeon
Starring: Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jun, and Dong-seok Ma

There are some movies that start off so ingeniously and unique that you just know they're going to be good; Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busan is such a film. A man driving an urgent package to an urgent destination drops his phone and, while attempting to retrieve it, hits something in the middle of the road. It's a deer. He surveys the damage to the front of his truck, and looks a little upset, but the package is too important to care about anything else. He gets back in his car and drives off.

But the slow tracking shot back to the deer, along with the ominous swell to the soundtrack, tell us that something is not right. The animal is still, blood surrounding its body, just as we would expect. Then, it starts to twitch, then violently—and ever so awkwardly—jumps to its feet, the camera lingering closely on its face at which point what we already knew is explicitly verified: this deer might be moving, but it's not alive.

It's really quite an in-your-face open that sets you up for the “anything goes” world that you will be inhabiting for two hours. But there's also an ugly side to Train to Busan, one that's in direct contrast to the popcorn atmosphere that the film is trying to achieve. And it, too, is foreshadowed right from the outset.

In the very next scene we are introduced to Seok Woo, a businessman for a large corporation who seems deeply involved in his work. As it turns out, he is, to the point that he has to ask a coworker what to get his daughter for her birthday...after being reminded that tomorrow is, in fact, her birthday. Not surprisingly, we later learn, that selfish attitude is the main reason behind his impending divorce. Nothing in this movie can be that simple, though, so naturally, there's some collateral damage in this situation: their young daughter, who also happens to be celebrating her birthday the following day. And, of course, her only wish is for Seok to take her to Busan, to see her soon-to-be-estranged mother. Seok, ever the businessman, tries to use the “I'm too busy” excuse, but finally caves in to his daughter's request.

And that, even more than the occasionally amazing action scenes, becomes the film's trademark: It's all covered in a cloying saccharine coating, where every event feels like little more than a reason to beat us over the head with more emotion. Yes, we already get the strained relationship between father and child, because it's instantly made evident in several of the opening scenes. We already get that the child, who cannot be more than ten years old, is innocent, and sweet, and pure, and merely a victim of her father's workaholism. Yet the movie still rubs our noses in just how angelic the daughter is, even at the common sense cost of safety: After his father, a high-ranking executive, is tipped off about a route to avoid that would lead to guaranteed quarantine, she tries rushing off to tell everyone else. But when she is stopped, her father informing her that it's every man for himself in this scenario (a sad, but hard, truth), she accuses him of being selfish. Sure, stupid kid, it's only a good decision if you agree with it, even if your stupidity leads to the deaths of everyone around you, right? It's a movie that so desperately wants us to take it seriously, that it's impossible to feel anything but utter annoyance, especially as the painful outpouring of emotions continues to be a story device until the very end.

Now, don't take this rant the wrong way: there are movies that have successfully pulled off the difficult combination of emotion and horror. The Orphanage is a phenomenal example; it scared and moved me almost in equal measure. Even B-movies can do it: Trollhunter is unexpected proof of that, a film that had the audacity to “humanize” its monsters, something Hollywood would never have the guts to do. But the problem is the way Busan tries going about it: in the most formulaic, mundane ways imaginable. Each “heart-tugging” scene feels like it was ripped out of a Hallmark channel film, and with the same amount of conviction as you will find in those, which are themselves, tired retreads of one another.

Then there are the group of survivors, which are completely generic in mind and action. We already have “indifferent businessman who will change his ways and become a hero”, and “completely angelic little girl” covered, but there's also “popular cheerleader/athlete combo”, “rough-around-the-edges man who turns out to have a heart of gold”, his wife, who ticks the box marked “pregnant”, “homeless man who turns out to be okay after all”, etc., etc., etc. Bringing the groan-inducing cast of characters to completion is the “whiny rich man who will survive at all costs”; he also doubles as the film's central living villain, as if the overwhelming hordes of the undead aren't enough. It all becomes too much, and it eventually comes falling down under the weight of its own half-assed (though admittedly ambitious) ideas.

The title pretty much sums up the plot, in which a zombie outbreak befalls a train, leading the dwindling number of survivors to stay alive as long as possible against the growing hordes of the undead. That's it. And within this context, there are certainly some fantastic action sequences that show director Sang-ho Yeon can be a force to be reckoned matter how much of a seasoned horror or action film fan you are, there's virtually guaranteed to be at least one scene that will drop your jaw to the floor. Along those same lines, I can't chastise him for lack of ambition, and many of the special effects are very well done. And the zombie movements, as well as their intense desperation to kill, are some of the best I've ever seen in a zombie movie, period.

It just becomes a problem when you're more dreading the obligatory banter between scenes, than you are looking forward to the action. And the longer that went on, the more I found myself disappointed with many of the “fight” sequences, which are largely bloodless (or only lightly bloodied), and in which it becomes clear just who the screenplay is favoring at any given time. If tired predictability is your favorite trait in a horror film, then you will have a great time riding this train; it's just an English-language audio track away from a multi-million dollar run at the multiplexes.

RATING: 5/10