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.

The Book of Life

date
January 05, 2015
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The Book of Life poster

It surprises me to say, but 2014 was actually a pretty decent year for US animation. Sure enough there was still plenty of crap floating around, films like How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie continue to stifle the potential of the genre (and with films like Penguins of Madagascar and Minions coming in 2015 that isn't going to change any time soon), but at least there was some solid counterweight available. I already mentioned The Boxtrolls, The Book of Life should be added to that list.

The Book of Life is produced by Guillermo del Toro and helmed by first-timer feature film director Jorge R Gutierrez (who does have a rather lengthy history in the animation industry). While the influences of roughly 20 years of US CG productions are clearly visible, del Toro and Gutierrez bring a festive Mexican vibe to the table that helps to differentiate this jolly animation from the rest.

Give the film five minutes to settle down. The intro is a little lame, but once the "book of life" story actually starts the beauty of this production quickly transpires. The art style is cute, colorful and unique, sporting smart character designs and amazing environments. Once the characters are transported to the Land of the Remembered it gets even better, evoking memories of the parade sequence in Kokaku Kidotai 2: Inosensu.

But this is a US production, so sadly the film never spends enough time making the most of its beautiful surroundings. It's a bit like constructing an awesome instrumental piece of music and then drowning it out by adding vocals. While there's plenty to admire in The Book of Life, characters keep yapping away and everything is focused on plot progression instead of taking the pacing down a few notches so people can enjoy the scenery. I understand The Book of Life is primarily aimed at kids, but a film like Chasseurs de Dragons did a much better job balancing the two.

Still, The Book of Life is a big step up from other popular US CG animation features. It's a fun film, aimed at younger viewers but with plenty to enjoy for older animation fans. The story is a bit basic, not everything is as funny as it should be (Ice Cube's character didn't really do it for me) and you can pretty much guess how it's going to end, but the flashy Mexican vibe and the amazing art direction more than make up for that. Hopefully other studios will see this as a clear sign that there is a world beyond cheap comedy and plastic animation aesthetics.

It's Such a Beautiful Day

date
December 18, 2014
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It's Such a Beautiful Day poster

Don Hertzfeldt may not be well known to the general public, his short animation Rejected did the rounds and became an instant cult favorite. With simple animation techniques and a wacky, often absurd sense of humor he courted his audience, setting them up for an immense pay-off in the second part of the short. It seems Hertzfeldt set out to recreate that same feeling with It's Such a Beautiful Day, only on a much bigger scale.

Even thought It's Such a Beautiful Day is listed as a 60-minute film, it's actually an aggregate of three different short films (Everything Will Be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It's Such a Beautiful Day) stitched together back to back, all involving the same main character. The separate shorts were already extremely detached and fragmented, so pasting them together to create a big one hour feature didn't pose that much of a problem.

Hertzfeldt's sense of humor is a little hard to describe. It's a combination of mind-bending logic, plain absurdity, utter mundanity and astute, recognizable observations. A bit like the beginning of Amélie, only a lot more cynical and absurd. Still, there's warmth in there, hidden among all the other weirdness that's flying towards you. There's also a more philosophical layer that starts to shine through around halfway each short, making it an even stranger experience.

The only problem I had with It's Such a Beautiful Day being a feature film is the lacking technical side of things. The simple art style works for Hertzfeldt in his shorter work, but over a timespan of 60 minutes it becomes boring real fast. The animation itself is surprisingly livid and emotive, but looking at black and white almost-stick figures left me a little wanting. The DIY special effects and poor quality stop-motion real-life backgrounds didn't make things any better. And it's not that I think Hertzfeldt lacks the technical skills, the details in the animation betray a much higher skill level, it's just that I don't really agree with the choices he made here.

The soundtrack on the other hand is a clear asset, together with the inventive editing it makes for a fun, challenging yet rather inaccessible experience. Add to that Hertzfeldt monotonous and dry voice-over delivery and you'll quickly see why his films are not intended to be enjoyed by a large audience. Still, It's Such a Beautiful Day is a million times better than the average CG animation drivel that usually comes out of the US.

If you're looking for something different, It's Such a Beautiful Day is a solid introduction into the warped brain of Don Hertzfeldt. And if you think the 60-minute format is a bit too demanding, you can always watch the three shorts separately without missing out on anything except the full-length experience.

Lucy

date
November 27, 2014
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Lucy poster

It's been a while since Luc Besson made a truly great film (that would be Angel-A in 2005) and Lucy isn't the film to end Besson's brave quest for renewed excellence. But it is the best film he has made in a long time and it's not unlike Besson's own The Fifth Element: a colorful sci-fi flick that may look like a crowd-pleaser from afar, but delivers exactly the opposite.

Lucy isn't an easy film to explain as it constantly hides between ideas and pretences it doesn't really care about. In essence, it's just a crazy roller coaster that aims to amuse and to incite wonder. To accomplish that, Besson digs up an old (and popular) scientific misinterpretation and goes from there. He dresses up the original theory with layer upon layer of scientific half-truths and uses that increasingly silly premise to have a little sci-fi fun.

The premise that humans only use 10 to 15% of their brain has been dismantled years ago, but that's not important. The point is that it's the kind of premise that makes people gaze up into the sky, maybe take a sip of their whiskey and has them pondering out loud about what humanity could be capable of if we unlocked our brain's full potential. It's the kind of premise that, when brought up in a film, asks for a "meaningful philosophical exploration" of the subject, possibly assisted by some equally thoughtful quotes and existential meanderings.

But no, Besson runs with the premise, states that the extra brain power will allow us to control our own body, other people's bodies, all matter and finally time itself, feeds his main character a drug that miraculously unleashes her brain's true potential and spirals everything into a gleeful mix of high-octane action and outrageous sci-fi, including big and bold percentage statistics in between the various stages of evolution. That's a big bummer for people who were already stroking their chin in anticipation, but it's all the more fun for people like me who enjoy the grotesque and shameless direction this film takes.

The premise of the film has another interesting side effect. Since Lucy becomes super powerful mere minutes after she has taken the drugs, there really isn't anyone on this planet who can stop her. So even though there are a few nifty action sequences, there's never any real threat from the bad guys or any sense of urgency besides the fact that Lucy has a limited time to live. Again Besson crushes the expectations of the audience, working his way to an almost Akira-like finale.

The final blow is probably Johansson's performance. As the film progresses she quickly loses her (presumed - I'm not a fan) charm and becomes this blank-eyed, transcendent, super-rational entity. Instead of this charming, sexy, ultra-cool killer you're looking at an omniscient, omnipotent god-like creature who doesn't give a damn about who's after her, only interested in sharing the knowledge she's gaining before she burns up.

Sadly Besson misses the mark when things get truly frantic. The CG isn't really up to par and the aesthetic qualities of the sci-fi bits are a bit meagre. While the idea and direction of the film is amazing, the execution isn't on the same level. That's my only real complaint. Besides that Lucy is a hell of a ride, though you have to be prepared to follow Besson's path rather than get stuck in your own preconceptions of where Besson should've taken this material.

Eliza Graves

date
November 11, 2014
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Eliza Graves poster

Brad Anderson does Edgar Allan Poe. A pretty interesting collaboration if you ask me. This is my seventh Brad Anderson film and he hasn't disappointed me so far. Poe material is always worth a gamble too, even though most adaptations of his work are hampered by mediocre directors who lack the funds (and skills) to make something good out of it.

Not so in the case of Eliza Graves (also known as Stonehearst Asylum). It's a project that harbours enough money and talent to bring the warped world of Poe to life. Whatever you do though, skip the trailer. I was unlucky enough to see part of it in theaters and it shamelessly spoiled the basic premise of the film, which is just completely unnecessary. Eliza Graves is a film that is best discovered without prior knowledge of the plot (unless of course you're already familiar with Poe's short story).

The film follows Doctor Newgate as he arrives at Stonehearst Asylum. Fresh out of Oxford, Newgate has a soft spot for the insane and enlisted himself to Stonehearst to help out treating and curing the madmen. He is taken on board as Dr Lamb's assistant, who has a rather peculiar way of dealing with his patients. On his first round, Newgate is smitten by Eliza Graves, one of Lamb's dearest subjects. She seems ill at ease in Newgate's presence and it doesn't take long before Newgate starts to suspect that something is seriously off at Stonehearst.

The film has no lack of star power. They are not the biggest names in Hollywood, but with names like Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, David Thewlis and Jim Sturgess, filling a poster shouldn't be too hard. They all put in a good performance too, clearly enjoying their various evil and disturbing roles.

The main attraction of the film is its late 19th century setting though. The asylum looks lush and haunting, the interiors rich and almost romantic. But it's all a façade for a darker, more morbid reality that thrives underneath the superficial calm. The soundtrack adds plenty of atmosphere too, but that's only to be expected when Anderson is helming the film.

The final part drags just a little, but apart from that Eliza Graves is a moody, fun and pleasantly twisted film with no obvious weaknesses. Anderson delivers another good film worthy of your time, which was somewhat of a certainty anyway. Sadly his films tend to suffer from poor distribution, so catch it while you can.

I Come with the Rain

date
November 03, 2014
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I Come with the Rain poster

I feel for Tran Ahn Hung (Norwegian Wood). I Come with the Rain was meant to be his international break-through. An ambitious Pan-Asian production (featuring Hollywood star Josh Hartnett in one of the lead roles) that should've landed him a sizeable audience. But the film disappeared off the radar completely. Production problems, with Tran eventually distancing himself from the final cut damned the film to a lackluster DVD release, only picked up by Tran's most hardcore fans. To make things worse, the film is quite the departure of Tran's earlier work, so even they didn't like what they saw.

Though production-wise I Come with the Rain was a complete disaster, the film itself is actually quite good. It's perfect material for a cult revival, though its relative obscurity and the apparent lack of incentive to pick it up (Tran's popularity has waned the past couple of years) will probably prevent that from happening. If you're not a zany Tran adept though and you're looking for something peculiar to watch, I Come with the Rain is actually a pretty safe bet. It's not without faults, but its perks more than make up for them.

The cast alone should merit some extra interest. There's Hartnett and Koteas drawing in the Hollywood crowd, but Tran also went actor-shopping in several high-profile Asian countries. Takuya Kimura, Byung-Hun Lee, Shawn Yue and Tran Nu Yen-Khe make for a nice international ensemble. You have to put up with some stilted English dialogues because of that, but the language barrier makes sense, seeing that most of the actors are from different countries anyway.

The story revolves around a private detective (Hartnett) trying to find Shitao (Kimura), the son of a wealthy businessman. The film is split in two, one part focusing on Hartnett's past and the other focusing on Shitao's adventures. For a Tran film, things get pretty weird and intense, with Kimura portraying some kind of Jesus figure who can take away the pain of others and Hartnett having to deal with a human body parts sculptor.

Visually Tran put his mark on the film, with dreamy visuals and nice camera work. The soundtrack is less pleasing, but that's probably because I'm not much of a post-rock fan. Featuring bands like Radiohead and Silver Mt. Zion is not a plus in my book, even then the soundtrack could've benefit from a more subtle approach.

I Come with the Rain may be a tough sell if you want to market it to a broader audience, but there's a very unique and mysterious vibe that should appeal to people looking for something different. From the crazy sculptures (not unlike the artwork of Rubber Johnny artwork) to the interesting cast and challenging story structure, there's enough here to warrant 2 hours of your time.

Kaien Hoteru - Buru

date
October 27, 2014
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Petrel Hotel Blue poster

2012 was going to be a great year for Koji Wakamatsu. With three films released and already a fourth one on the way, he was on a roll. At the age of 76, that's quite a feat. Sadly it wasn't meant to be. On a walk home from a budget meeting Wakamatsu was hit by a cab and he would pass away soon after. A surprisingly tepid ending for an explosive director.

Kaien Hoteru - Buru (Petrel Hotel Blue) is one of the three films Wakamatsu managed to finish in 2012. It's a peculiar film, experimental but featuring an elaborate narrative and remarkably free from political propaganda. It would make a good companion piece to Landscapes the Boy Saw, though both films are still quite different from each other.

Kaien Hoteru - Buru starts off with a robbery gone wrong. When Yukio's friend Yoji doesn't show up to provide backup, Yukio is caught and is sentenced to a 7 year stay in prison. Upon his release, Yukio vows to take revenge on Yoji. He finds out his location and ends up on a small, barren island where Yoji is running a bar/hotel.

That's when things get strange. Even though there's a whole crime story slowly unravelling, the film is more interested in Rika's character, Yoji's wife. She doesn't really speak, she disappears into thin air from time to time and she transfixes every man she meets. She's the catalyst of just about everything that happens, but her exact role is never truly explained.

The film is obviously a low-budget affair, but the location is terrific and the camera does a great job capturing its alien atmosphere. The soundtrack too adds a very mysterious feel, making everything that much weirder. The only real downer is the cast. Go Jibiki (a late-Wakamatsu regular) is solid, but the rest of the actors fail to find the right vibe.

Still, Kaien Hoteru - Buru is worth a gamble, especially if you're already familiar with Wakamatsu's oeuvre. It's a moody, atmospheric and mysterious film, not the kind of thing you'd expect a 76 year old to make. It might have been easier to accept Wakamatsu's passing if he'd been making crap movies, on the other hand, at least he got productive again right before passing away.

Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong

date
October 06, 2014
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The Midnight After poster

Normally I like to use the original title in my reviews (or at least the transliteration of the original title), but in the case of Fruit Chan's (Hollywood Hong Kong) latest feature Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong Gok Hoi Wong Dai Bou Dik Hung Van it would become just a little too ridiculous, so instead I'll just be sticking with The Midnight After.

I've seen my share of Fruit Chan films through the years and even though I certainly didn't like all of them, his films are always worth a gamble. Even when one of them fails to engage there's always something to like or admire. The Midnight After is a kind of culmination of everything he has done before, yet at the same time it feels like a completely new direction for Chan.

Based on an online novel, The Midnight After is part sci-fi, part mystery. Not a very popular or common combination for a Hong Kong film. The film starts like many of its American counterparts, with a random group of people meeting on a bus, only to be transported to some mysterious, alternate version of Hong Kong a little while later. In their universe, all people have disappeared, apart from a cloaked figure wearing a gas mask who follows them around. It's a typical setup for a horror flick (think Reeker), but that's when things start to get a bit weird.

Chan's characters aren't your usual horror fodder though. They are more aware, quickly citing possible scenarios that could've been used as the film's twist ending (like "we had an accident and we're in a limbo between life and death"). He doesn't stick to one particular genre either, adding post-apocalyptic elements, some lighter comedy bits and some genuine weirdness (the Major Tom scene). And if you think it'll all make sense in the end, you're in for a neat little surprise (or disappointment if you really need closure).

The Midnight After is a film that breaks with many genre traditions, instead focusing on its group of characters and building a boundless film around them. Actors like Simon Yam, Kara Hui and Lam Suet put in a decent effort, while You-Nam Wong fares well as the film's lead. The film isn't 100% serious (even though some scenes are quite nasty to watch) so you'll have to deal with the typical Hong Kong overacting from time to time, but that's only to be expected.

Fruit Chan's latest is a peculiar film. It doesn't stick to one single genre, it doesn't really compare to other films (even though it draws inspiration from many different genres), it doesn't even strife for a homogeneous atmosphere. Instead it's a flamboyant trip that reflects the many aspects of current-day Hong Kong and makes sure to trip up the viewer wherever possible. There are some moments of genius here, at other times the film fails to truly engage. But whatever you'll be thinking when you walk out of it, it's definitely worth a shot as it is one of the more unique films I've seen all year.

The Lookout

date
October 01, 2014
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The Lookout poster

Script writers re-schooling themselves to becomes directors, it's not always an ideal career switch. But some of them manage to beat the odds and come up with a film worth watching. Back in 2007, Scott Frank (screenplay credits for Out of Sight and Minority Report) jumped at the opportunity and directed his first feature film: The Lookout.

Back then I wasn't so much interested in Frank as I was curious to see the new Joseph Gordon-Levitt film. With movies like Brick and Mysterious Skin Gordon-Levitt was making a name for himself and it was refreshing to see a young kid take up these challenging roles. But for some reason or another, I never got around to watching The Lookout and as time passed by (and Gordon-Levitt went on to star in film like 500 Days of Summer and G.I. Joe) I forgot all about this film.

Until last week that is, when it suddenly popped up again. A little hesitant (7 years is quite a long time) I sat down to see if I missed out on something back then. And sure enough, Frank's first is a more than adequate film that hooked me from start to finish. It may be a bit slow and a little too understated to conform to mainstream tastes, but it provides 100 minutes of solid drama and intrigue.

Gordon-Levitt (Chris) stars as a once successful kid, brought down by a car accident he caused back in high school. Suffering from frontal lobe syndrome (Dirty Mind is a good recommendation if you want a lighter take on the subject), he tries to pick up the pieces of his life , but moving on is proving a lot harder than expected. Until he meets up with Gary, a peculiar guy who offers Chris an easy way out.

The Lookout is one of those films that does everything well. There's really not a single point of critique I can give, apart from the fact that it doesn't truly excel either. The acting is solid, the pacing deliberate, the atmosphere moody. There's enough intrigue and it's far from predictable, but in the end it never truly moved or amazed me. In other words, perfect filler for those moments when you don't have anything special to watch.

Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku

date
July 07, 2014
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Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku poster

Ghibli fans, take notice! Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku isn't the first documentary to dedicate its time to the wondrous world of Japan's most famous animation company, but it is by far the most honest and direct one I've seen so far. No walking away feeling as if you've just been subjected to a promotional video or document of hype, instead you get a very good feel of what it's like to work with and for a director like Miyazaki.

Ghibli has a majestic reputation. It's often compared to companies like Disney and Pixar, featuring a 30-year track record without any critical low points. Even though different people have different favorites, it's generally believed that there are no obvious flukes in the Ghibli catalogue. But that's where the comparison ends. Where companies like Pixar (and by extension, Google and Apple) like to pretend they're a playground for their employees (appearing as cool and liberal as possible), Ghibli is still a very small, humble and down-to-earth company. It's an anomaly, a company that should not be able to exist according to modern economic laws, yet to get a taste of exactly that is pretty awesome.

Sunada follows Hayao Miyazaki during the entire production process of Kaze Tachinu. She is given access to the Ghibli studios, but she's also invited to visit Miyazaki at his home. In the meantime, Sunada hooks up with Toshio Suzuki (the famous Ghibli producer) and Isao Takahata (the yang to Miyazaki's yin) to try and get a broader view of the company. Through these different eyes you get a pretty solid idea of what it means to work for one of the best animation houses in the world.

In essence Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku is a pretty simple documentary. There's not much that will draw the attention of people not familiar with Ghibli's magic, but that's where the true wonder lies. The idea of a company that is revered around the world for its quality animation is hard to match with the small scale and subdued, familiar atmosphere you get to see in this documentary.

Miyazaki's attention to detail, his dated beliefs, his honesty when talking to and about others, his little quirks and rituals (like going to the rooftop garden of the studio to watch the sun set with the rest of his crew) are simply amazing to behold. Sunada deserves praise for documenting everything without wanting to add extra weight or polish. In that sense this would be a good companion piece to Jiro: Dreams of Sushi, as both subjects share a humbleness and dedication to their job that's almost impossible to imagine in the West.

I wouldn't recommend watching this doc if you haven't got a clue what Ghibli is or which films Miyazaki has made, but Ghibli fans get a rare and honest glimpse behind the doors of one of the greatest animation houses in the world. I wish more documentaries like this existed.

Jiu Huo Ying Xiong

date
June 16, 2014
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As the Light Goes Out poster

Chi-kin Kwok strikes back after a horrendous collaboration with Stephen Chow. While Jiu Huo Ying Xiong (As the Light Goes Out) can't match Kowk's best (Ching Toi), it's definitely on par with Da Lui Toi (Gallants). His latest also erases all fears that he may have lost his touch in his attempts to please the masses.

There aren't that many fire fighter flicks coming out of Hong Kong, which is probably why it's remarkable to see two high profile ones in just as many years. After seeing the release of the Pang brothers' Out of Inferno last year, Jiu Huo Ying Xiong takes things to the next level. While Kwok doesn't shun the typical genre clichés, there's a lot more going on than a mere genre rehash.

With guys like Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue and Simon Yam filling in the lead and main secondary roles, you know you're settling for a film that is aimed to please the crowds. Still, Kwok doesn't just dish out some slick, hollow blockbuster. Sure enough there is some unnecessary drama to fill in the gaps, but for the larger part it's a dark, tense and well-executed affair.

The visuals are grim yet stunning. There are some amazing sequences that give the film that little extra artistic merit, making sure it never becomes too shallow. The soundtrack is fitting and never too bombastic. Stylistically, this is definitely one of the better commercially oriented Hong Kong films I've seen. The dramatic side can be a little overdone though, adding some unnecessary fat to the film. It's a typical genre thing I guess, but one this film could have done without.

Kwok's Jiu Huo Ying Xiong is a step up from the Pangs' attempt at a good fire fighter flick. It falls just a little short of being truly great, but if you're looking for a sleek and tense thriller you're at the right address. Hopefully Kwok will continue on this path with this next film.