Since I started this site I've been keeping myself to a bottom line of 4 out of 5 stars in order to review a film. It's a great way to determine whether a film is actually great (reviewing is time-consuming) or just plain old good. Still, there are always edge cases that are worth a look if you've nothing better planned. I'm going to list these films right here, providing a capsule review for each one of them.

Kotoba no Nai Fuyu

date
August 20, 2015
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Kotoba no Nai Fuyu poster

It's a bit weird to speak of "Japanese island films", when Japan itself is in fact one big island. But there's something unique about the movies filmed on Japan's smaller offspring. On the one hand you have the sunny, agreeable and relaxed films like Megane and Kikansha Sensei, on the other hand the icy winter setting featured in Kaza-hana, Hana-bi and Qianxi Manbo (usually round and about Yubari, home of one of Japan's most famous film festivals).

Kotoba no Nai Fuyu [Echo of Silence] falls in the latter category. Much of the film's atmosphere is drawn from the near-constant snowfall, the snow-covered surroundings and the icy walls next to the roads. It's the ideal setting for a subtle, slightly stoical drama, lit up by small touches of warmth and comfort. From afar Kotoba no Nai Fuyu may appear to be a depressing affair, up close it turned out to be a very sweet, soothing little film.

The story revolves around Fusako, a young girl stuck in a small, rural town. Instead of turning this into a typical "I want to leave this place" drama, she's actually quite content with her life. She takes care of her single dad, her sister flies in from Tokyo from time to time and she has a job she doesn't hate. It's not a glamorous life, but it's a happy one. The only thing lacking is a boyfriend. People in town urge Fusako to get married, but unless she can find a good match she's just not interested. All that is about to change when she runs into a mute technician who shelters her from a rampant snow storm.

Kotoba no Nai Fuyu is a very typical Japanese drama. It's a little slow and uneventful, characters aren't very vocal about their emotions and there isn't a big, emotional pay-off in the end. It's also good at not showing important, defining events in the lives of its characters, instead it prefers to focus on the aftermath directly. Not everyone is going to like that, but for me personally it's something that draws me to these films. And I must say, Atsuro Watabe did a pretty good job with it.

The only reason why I didn't give it a higher score is the lack of engaging visuals. It shouldn't be too hard to make an attractive looking film in a setting like this, but the image quality is a little too grainy and the camera work simply too rough for my taste. People like Hiroshi Ishikawa have shown that this style can work for Japanese dramas, but Kotoba no Nai Fuyu ended up looking just a bit too plain and boring.

That said, there's still a great little drama hidden away underneath its homely façade. The acting is great, the characters are loveable and emotions aren't spoon-fed. Sadly this is the only film Watabe ever directed, but since he's still quite active as an actor one can only hope he takes up the directing glove once more in the near future. There's a lot of potential here, some truly great moments to experience, so if he could just package it a little better there is nothing stopping his films from becoming true gems.

Keizoku/eiga

date
August 10, 2015
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Keizoku/eiga poster

Keizoku/eiga [Keizoku: Unsolved Mysteries - Beautiful Dreamer] is an extension of a popular Japanese TV drama. Usually these kind of films tend to be a little lame. Easy cash-in on an established brand, dragging out a regular TV episode to full feature length. While this may still be the case with Keizoku/eiga (I never watched the original series), I think that would make the TV drama one of the more interesting productions ever to have aired on TV.

Helming the film is director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, who enjoyed moderate international success when he entered a directing contest with Ryuhei Kitamura and produced 2LDK as a result. Tsutsumi is a rather hard to coin director, continuously on the lookout for new challenges. He isn't really bound to a genre or medium, the only constant is that he's always busy. Keizoku/eiga is one of his earlier projects and it bears all the markings of a young director.

The film follows the adventures of a police squad trying to unravel unsolved mysteries. Perfect material for a TV series of course, with a new case ready every episode. If that sounds a little stale, not to worry, Tsutsumi turned Keizoku/eiga into a surreal and sometimes even absurd mystery. A clash of styles, blending comedy, police thriller and arthouse all into one restless package. The result may not be very subtle or sensible, it sure as hell is amusing.

The color palette is a little dire, with lots of murky greens and blues, but there's quite a lot of visual experimentation to keep things appealing. The plot is convoluted and quite effective, but ultimately the film itself seems to lose interest in the mystery to solve. The big reveal is made almost 30 minutes before the actual ending, with the crazy post-finale eclipsing the entire mystery that was set up before. I'm sure not everyone will appreciate that, but if you're still expecting this to be a basic police flick 90 minutes in, you've probably been dozing off more than a few times.

Tsutsumi never fully manages to bring all the different elements together elegantly, with the comedy and arthouse bits clashing violently from time to time. Like I said before, Keizoku/eiga isn't the most accomplished film, but it's never boring and has plenty of surprises packed to keep you engaged throughout its entire running time. Warmly recommended if you like weirdness and can bare some unevenness in the process, if you want a more solid experience it's better to look elsewhere.

Um Fa

date
August 06, 2015
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The Longest Nite poster

Tat-Chi Yau. Who is he, where did he come from and where did he go? That's what I've been wondering after seeing two films of him last week. I've seen quite a few Hong Kong films the past couple of years, but somehow Tat-Chi Yau never appeared on my radar. That's more than just a little odd, considering the talent he worked with (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Simon Yam, Eric Tsang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Ching Wan Lau, Francis Ng). And that's just for a total of 4 feature films, directed between 1997 and 2001.

If you know a thing or two about Hong Kong cinema, you may look at the dates and think "Oh, but that's a pretty dire period for Hong Kong films". Fair enough, but apparently Yau's films didn't suffer from the industry's local depression. The two films I've seen so far (that's 50% of is his feature film oeuvre) are well above average, even signalling Hong Kong's return to form during the early '00s. So why didn't Tat-Chi Yau's career take off? Well, your guess is as good as mine, the fact of the matter is that he made at least two worthy films, one of which is Um Fa [The Longest Nite].

Um Fa feels almost like a stepping stone to Johnnie To's '00 successes. That's not even all that far-fetched if you consider To produced Yau's first feature film only one year earlier. At its core, Um Fa is a pretty simple Triad film, resulting in a game of cat and mouse between the police and a killer hired by the Triads. Tony Leung Chiu Wai takes on the role of stone cold cop, Ching Wan Lau is the ruthless killer.

Leung and Lau are excellent, but it's Yau's deliberate direction that stands out. A remarkable soundtrack and lots of visual prowess complement Yau's flair and make Um Fa a film to remember. All of this comes together in a kick-ass finale, where the stand-off between Leung and Lau reaches a more than satisfactory conclusion. It would take To a couple years longer to reach the quality of Um Fa's finale, which is saying something.

Tat-Chi Yau is one of the mysteries of Hong Kong cinema. If you're a fan of Johnnie To's 21st century films then I can wholeheartedly recommend Yau's films, Um Fa in particular. I'm not sure why his films haven't garnered a greater following or how I could've missed his films for so long, but I'm glad that wrong has been righted once and for all.

Insidious: Chapter 3

date
July 30, 2015
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Insidious: Chapter 3 poster

It's was just five years ago that the first Insidious film saw its release. Reading back my original review, I clearly didn't give Wan enough credit for what accomplished with Insidious, as it would go on to reinvigorate an entire subgenre of films. The past five years a series of brooding, dark movies about demonic hauntings (Annabelle, The Conjuring, Oculus, Sinister) has found its way into theaters, pretty much copying Wan's Insidious success formula over and over again.

With Insidious: Chapter 3, Wan leaves the directing chair behind and hands over the reigns to co-writer and close friend Leigh Whannell. It's always a little tricky when an original director leaves a film series behind, but Whannell proves a worthy successor. His involvement in the first two films clearly made the transfer a lot easier, and with Wan still attached as producer the series was left in capable hands.

That doesn't mean Insidious 3 is everybody's cup of tea. It might be a pretty popular horror series, but its strong reliance on jump scares (a tense build-up harshly disrupted by a sudden image of horror, often accompanied by a loud sound) has alienated a large part of its audience, casual viewers and horror aficionados alike. Much like handheld camera work, slo-mos and voice overs, jump scares are often scoffed at, regardless of the actual quality of execution.

If you don't mind a good jump scare though, the Insidious series is by far your best option. Whannell paid close attention to Wan's direction, even one-upping him a couple of times during the first part of the film. Production values are impressive, the camera work is smart (showing exactly enough to keep the mystery going) and Whannell's timing is impeccable. Just throwing in some random loud noises is easy enough, but if you want to actually fool the audience nowadays you need to do a lot better. I'd even go as far to say the build-up to the film's big finale is one of the better ones I've seen.

Sadly the actual pay-off isn't quite up to par. The reveal of the demon is a little disappointing, especially when you compare it to marvelous ending of the first Insidious film. It's all a bit barren and lifeless, lacking any real impact. Fans of the series can warm themselves on the return of Lin Shaye and the origin story of the ghost hunting team, but that isn't enough to fully redeem the somewhat disappointing finale.

That said, Insidious: Chapter 3 is a worthy successor. It's a little better than the second film, a little worse than the first one. So if you're not fed up with the Insidious series and you don't mind a few well-executed jump scares, you really can't go wrong with this one.

Beruseruku: Ougon Jidai-hen III - Kourin

date
April 30, 2015
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Beruseruku: Ougon Jidai-hen III - Kourin poster

I never really cared much for the Berserk franchise. The TV series was pretty poorly realized and the manga didn't do much for me either. But when it was announced that Studio 4°C would make a series of three films spanning one of the existing story arcs, I didn't hesitate for a second. Studio 4°C has an impeccable track record and whatever they put out, I watch.

The first two films in the trilogy were fine. Not up to the usual 4°C standard, but still a whole lot better than what I expected from a Berserk movie series. Beruseruku: Ougon Jidai-hen III - Kourin (Berserk Golden Age Arc III: Descent) is the third and final installment and a slight upgrade over the two previous films. Studio 4°C's signature is definitely there, it's just that the Berserk saga itself gets in the way sometimes.

Especially the first part of the film can get a little tedious. There's a lot of shallow drama and endless gushes of unnecessary sentiment. They probably intended it as meaningful character development, or a way to make the story more involving, but it simply isn't working. Luckily there are some action scenes interspersed throughout the first hour, so that at least kept me engaged. The second part came as a pretty big surprise. I knew Berserk was kind of violent, but all hell breaks loose when the stage is finally set. Big monsters, ample gore, rape, tentacles, people travelling through the universe. In no time the film blows up to Akira-like proportions. Might not be for everyone (quite an understatement), but I liked it a lot.

Especially when the quality of the animation is this high. It's pretty much impossible to distinguish between 3D and traditional animation these days (style-wise that is, some shots are just too complex and fluid to pull off with traditional animation), but Studio 4°C didn't simply stop there. Several sequences are drawn in a different, rawer and more edgy style. It's at these times that the film really comes to life. The dub is great too and as far as I know there isn't an English dub available, so that's at least one pitfall you don't need to avoid.

Beruseruku: Ougon Jidai-hen III - Kourin can be tough to chew, especially during the first part of the film, but once it gets going it's pretty much unstoppable. The drama is worthless, the plot very much in your face, but the action kicks ass and the animation is top notch. It's probably a bit too violent for some, but if you like older animes like Wicked City or Demon City you shouldn't need to worry. It's not 4°C at its best, but it's better than most of the current anime (film) series out there. If you plan to watch it though, make sure you see the first two instalments before this one as this is really the ending of a complete arc, so it doesn't stand all that well on its own.

Let Us Prey

date
April 07, 2015
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Le Us Prey poster

Don't. Don't go in expecting an elaborate plot, nifty narrative twists or stellar dramatic performances. Originality is not something that's high on O'Malley's list of priorities. Let Us Prey is a pure genre effort, 100% horror film and not ashamed to fully commit itself to that. Just deal with the shortcomings of the genre and what remains is a pretty cool horror flick that finds itself close to becoming a modern genre classic.

The collaboration between Ireland and the UK has proven a great source for quality horror films these past few years. Just think Citadel and Outcast. I feel Let Us Prey could rightfully claim its place amongst that elite gang, although it stops just short of reaching the same heights. The potential is definitely there though and horror fans will find plenty to enjoy.

The film follows a fateful night in a remote little commune. A dark figure rises up from the cliffs in the sea and strolls into town. He is hit by a car, but his body disappears into thin air. When he is finally caught and brought into the police station, his file reveals that the man died years ago. Not only that, this strange individual also knows exactly what buttons to push to irritate the people around him, landing him in jail even though he's done little wrong.

Visually O'Malley has things covered. From the very first frames Let Us Prey emits a very dark, gloomy yet stylish vibe. Strong use of lighting and shadows, well-timed slow motion sequences and effective camera work set it apart from its peers. The soundtrack doesn't let down either, adding to the menacing and grim atmosphere. This audiovisual mastery, together with some strong performances of Liam Cunningham (Harry Brown) and Pollyanna McIntosh (The Woman) form a solid basis for some very stylish horror antics.

The only problem with Let Us Prey is its somewhat dull and lifeless setting. Most of the film is located in the town's police station. A boring, rundown facility that loses its appeal halfway through. It's a shame because the little of the town and its surroundings we do get to see shows a lot more promise for a horror film like this.

The first part of Let Us Prey is pretty mysterious, with people trying to find out who the mysterious newcomer is. The second part brings the true horror. When O'Malley switches gears it quickly becomes clear that Let Us Prey has more to offer than just a moody atmosphere. Things run out of hand pretty fast and O'Malley doesn't shy back from showing a few gruesome kills. While the finale comes quick and hard, I did feel the horror part of the film could've continued for just a while longer.

Let Us Prey is a nifty little horror flick, packed with mystery, creepy characters and gruesome kills. The film looks great, sounds great and does pretty much everything right. It's a shame the setting is somewhat dull and underused, that's really the only thing holding it back a little. Hopefully O'Malley gets a second chance because he shows a lot of promise with his first feature film.

Omoide no Mani

date
April 06, 2015
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When Marnie Was There poster

You can't help but feel a little bad for Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Kari-gurashi no Arietti was the first feature film he ever directed, and while not one of Ghibli's absolute best it was a more than accomplished film that promised Yonebayashi a bright future under the wings of Miyazaki and Takahata. But then, out of nowhere, they both announced their retirement. To make things even worse Ghibli decided soon after that Omoide no Mani would be their last feature film (at least for now).

Now Yonebayashi's second feature is not only the successor of two of Japan's most lauded animators/directors, it may also be Studio Ghibli's feature film swan song. Clearly Omoide no Mani (When Marnie Was There) wasn't equipped to shoulder that much responsibility. It's somewhat of a niche film (or at least not as broadly accessible as Ghibli's other work) and it carries the marks of a director still looking for his own tone of voice. It's a good film, but not what you'd hope for when faced with the idea that this might be Ghibli's last.

Omoide no Mani seems to be aimed at a younger, female audience. Not that it's overly childish, but the setting with the abandoned marsh house, the secret diary and the play dates between Marnie and Anna feel like a blend of classic Ghilbi and classic fairytale material. There is still plenty to like for adults, but the core of the film felt a little flimsy at times, leaving me just a tiny bit bored and wanting. The middle part in particular could've used some extra spice.

It's still a true to heart Ghibli film though, so there's a basic level of quality that is just impossible to ignore. The animation is magnificent, the voice acting is right on the mark and the hot, summery, outdoors vacation vibe embedded in its roots the perfect cure for a rotten, rainy spring day. Add a young, female protagonist and the traditional break away from city life and lifelong fans will feel right at home. The CG isn't always seamless and the city scenes feel a little dull compared to the country side, but that too is vintage Ghibli.

If Omoide no Mani had lived on to become a filler film in the Ghibli catalogue then I think it would've slipped by without a hitch. But with Kaze Tachinu and Kaguyahime no Monogatari still fresh in mind, knowing this might very well be the final Ghibli film, people are going to watch this one yearning for something more substantial. Just a few weeks ago Yonebayashi announced that he has left Studio Ghibli, so hopefully he will find a new home to further develop his talent. He has everything to make it on his own and given the time he could become one of Japan's top animation directors. Omoide no Mani is a fine film, but in this case that simply wasn't good enough.

The Scribbler

date
March 05, 2015
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The Scribbler poster

Superhero films are hot property these days. Marvel elevated its niche to become one of the industry's most impressive strongholds, DC Comics is desperately trying to take a piece of the pie. On the indie side there's been a rise in superhero films featuring geeky main characters faking their superhero-dom (Super, Defendor, Griff the Invisible). The problem is that both scenes are doing little in the way of innovation. It's basically the same film told over and over again.

The Scribbler offers a rather novel take on the whole superhero concept. There are no capes or costumes, no evil supervillains, no lame love interests ... or maybe there are, but completely twisted and mangled as to make it virtually unrecognizable. If you look at the bare facts then The Scribbler is indeed a superhero film, but while watching the film it never feels like one.

The vibe coming from The Scribbler reminded me of films like One Point O and Ink. Low-budget movies with an intriguing concept that bet heavily on an expressive audiovisual image in order to stand out from the crowd. Even though the technical and financial limitations are impossible to miss, the styling more than makes up for it. But judging from the critiques, The Scribbler (and like-minded films like Kite) has a hard time selling itself. It seems this kind of cinema is slowly going out of fashion.

The plot follows Suki, a young women suffering from multiple personalities. An experimental new treatment is killing off her personalities one by one, slowly getting her back to normal. When she finally starts to feel better she is sent to a closed off apartment building, a place that functions as gateway between the world of the mentally insane and the regular folk. It's there that things start to take a turn for the worse. When people around Suki start dying in droves, The Scribbler, Suki's final excess personality, takes over.

There's a noirish atmosphere running underneath that's not quite unlike Sin City, but with touches of neo-goth and more outspoken scifi elements. The soundtrack is a little underwhelming for a film like this, but visually there's plenty to like. At the end of the film it does start to fall a part just a little, with an over reliance on mediocre CG and a rather poorly choreographed duel, but by then I was already quite pleased with what I'd seen.

Suit's film is not without faults, it's not even the best in its league, but it offers a welcome refresh of the superhero genre. The film looks great, has plenty of innovative touches and doesn't outstay its welcome. The finale is a little lacking and the score could and should have been a bit better, but it's definitely a fun diversion when you've gone through all the usual suspects.

Zhi Qu Weihu Shan

date
February 26, 2015
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The Taking of Tiger Mountain poster

Old man Hark Tsui (Ching Se) seems to have finally settled down. Gone are the days of lively martial arts films, snappy comedies and risky (at least for Hong Kong standards) projects. Nowadays Tsui invests his time in epic blockbusters. Not too surprisingly, he's actually quite skilled at making them.

Like his two previous films, Zhi Qu Weihu Shan (The Taking of Tiger Mountain) was shot in sprawling 3D. Reportedly Tsui is quite capable of handling 3D imagery in his films, it's just that I'm not a very big fan of the whole 3D/live action thing. Instead I settled for the boring yet pleasantly comfortable 2D version, which I believe was the right decision. Even while watching the 2D version it was pretty easy to spot the 3D effects, something that would've bothered me no end if I'd seen the film in 3D. To each his own though, I'm just glad the choice was there.

Zhi Qu Weihu Shan feels like Tsui's answer to Wen Jiang's Rang Zi Dan Fei. Both films are extremely light-hearted action flicks with an unmistakeable tongue in cheek approach. Tsui's film may not be as balanced and accomplished compared to Jiang's and it's clearly geared at a more forgiving audience, but the link between the two is definitely there.

The plot is pretty convoluted, but the film's premise is actually quite simple. A gang of criminals has its stronghold on top of a snowy mountain, a small but dedicated police force is tasked with breaching the stronghold and capturing the leader. Start with some espionage and people double-crossing each other, add a couple of long-running, high octane action scenes, finish of with a touch of drama and there you go: two hours of shameless entertainment.

Two things stand out. First of all there's Tony Leung Ka-Fai as the lead criminal. His character may be a silly caricature, but Ka-Fai has so much fun playing him that he quickly became one of the funniest villains I've come across the past few years. Then there are the crazy, over the top action sequences that take up a pretty big part of the film. Tsui clearly didn't aim for realism here, leaning heavily on CG (just check the crazy antics of that plane during the finale) to support some outrageous action scenes. If that's not your kind of thing, it's probably best to stay away from this film.

Sadly the parts in between are a little less entertaining. The drama and the espionage bits are decent enough, but they still needlessly slow the film down. Tsui also misses the raw talent to rise above the commercial foundation of the film, failing to bring that little extra which is needed to give a film like this a more lasting impression. Still the action is fun and exciting and while it lasts, it's a wildly entertaining experience. If you're okay with that it's hard to go wrong with this one.

Xi Feng Lie

date
February 02, 2015
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Wind Blast poster

China's Gobi desert is probably one of the most beautiful shooting locations I know of. The barren, dusty and moon-like landscapes and near-deserted concrete towns make for the perfect place to shoot some high-octane action flicks (remember Wu Ren Qu). Director Qunshu Gao (Feng Sheng) is well equipped to bring an ordeal like this to a good end and you don't need to look any further than Xi Feng Lie (Wind Blast) for proof.

There are some meager plot lines hidden away in Xi Feng Lie, but Gao is too busy introducing characters and changing the dynamic between the different groups and coalitions to spend too much time explaining what the hell is happening. Because of that, the first 20 minutes are a little hard to follow and get in to, but once the film gets up to steam only the most hardened plot whore are likely to take offence.

The film is basically one big action sequence, travelling from one location to the next while setting everything up for an explosive 30-minute climax. All the while Gao makes excellent use of the film's setting, so expect rugged, hardened characters, dusty surroundings and a muted color palette. The Gobi desert is not a very hospitable place, that much is certain.

The cast does a good job, even though there aren't too many familiar faces. Jacky Wu is present but in a rather minor role, Francis Ng on the other hand shines as a ruthless assassin. There's also a small role for director Yibai Zhang (Jiang Ai, Mi Guo, Kaiwang Chuntain De Ditie) and a notable performance of Zhang Li. Not that there's much depth to the characters, but as tough action stars they're definitely above average.

Compared to a film like Wu Ren Qu, Xi Feng Lie falls just a little short. The intro is a little too tough to get through and it takes too long before the film really gets up to speed, but once it gets going there's a lot to enjoy here. It's a pretty neat action flick, sporting a phenomenal setting, some solid performances and a memorable finale.