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.

i am ichihashi: taiho sareru made

date
May 08, 2014
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I Am Ichihashi: Taiho Sareru Made poster

I Am Ichihashi is not your stereotypical killer flick. Even though it tells the story of a real murder (Lindsay Hawker), the film isn't all that interested in getting across factual information. It's not a true to life retelling of what happened on that fateful day, instead director Fujioka tries to dive into the mind of the killer as he explores the 2+ years he was one the run from the police. In that sense, it would make a very good companion piece with The Killing of John Lennon

I definitely don't intend to downplay murder as a real life crime, but in film murder is not that uncommon, to the point where one single (basic) murder isn't going to make for a compelling plot, especially not when that murder is based on actual events. Instead it's more interesting to figure out what brought someone to actually commit a murder, or, in this particular case, how one deals with his crime afterwards. Fujioka, a first-time director, doesn't shy away from this harsh task, even going one step further and fully committing himself by playing the actual killer.

I Am Ichihashi is not a film that pretends to hold all the answers, instead it relies on impressions and feeling. That's probably why Fujioka doesn't seem too interested in plot and/or detailed realism. Instead he aims for atmosphere and intrigue, which isn't too hard when dealing with a killer on the loose for more than 2 years. There is no solid confession or a structured answer to why Ichihashi killed Hawker here, what you get is a portrait of a bewildered man who tried to run away from everyone, including himself.

When our titular character is around other people the film lacks a little punch, but when he is doing the interview or wandering around all by himself, I Am Ichihashi is a strong and powerful piece of film making that manages to evoke a bare minimum of sympathy for the killer's situation, even though Fujioka makes sure the film never becomes apologetic.

I Am Ichihashi is pretty much a testament of Fujioka's talent, which may feel a little out of place for a film based on a real-life murder. But the film is never pretentious, nor is Fujioka flaunting or trying to attract all the attention to himself. I'm not quite sure why Fujioka decided to base his film on a real event, but he does an amazing job avoiding all the pitfalls and delivers a unique and intriguing look into the mind of a sick man who can't come to terms with what he's done.

enemy

date
April 25, 2014
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Enemy poster

So far Denis Villeneuve has left me completely cold. I watched both Incendies and Prisoners and was far from charmed by their overly complex and far-fetched plot foolery. But Enemy looked different enough to give the man a third chance and I'm rather glad I did. While I don't think the film reaches its full potential, it's a definite step up from his two previous films.

Enemy is an adaptation of José Saramago's O Homem Duplicado, a book I haven't read yet (and probably never will), but which has its fair share of fans. Based on the synopsis I can say it has the perfect premise for a 90 minute mindfuck and Villeneuve exploits that rather well. The basic story is about a history teacher stumbling upon his perfect double. At least, all their external features match, emotionally they are two different people. The both of them are weirded out knowing there's another someone just like them running around in the same city and before long they're making each other's lives into a living hell.

The first hour Villeneuve does his best to keep the mystery alive. Through a strong, ambient-filled soundtrack, moody visuals, slow pacing and detached acting he creates a weird, otherworldly atmosphere that fuels the intrigue. Sadly he doesn't manage to keep the mystery alive and after the first hour the film becomes more down-to-earth and plot-driven. The final shot is a slap in the face and has the potential to turn everything upside down again, but it can't erase the 30 minutes that came before.

On the visual side of things, Villeneuve does his best but he can't hide the extensive sponsor support (including Canadian Telefilm money) that yields some less than perfect results compared to comfort of studio money. After a while the continuous use of the same old filter feels a little stale and the mediocre camera work starts to shine through. The cast is good, Gyllenhaal and Gadon clearly feel at ease with their characters, though I felt Gyllenhaal could've done more with his parts. Mélanie Laurent is the only one that feels out of place, luckily she has the smallest part of the three.

There's obviously a lot of symbolism and hidden layers to discover, the problem is that I like the film better as a mystery. Sure enough there are quite a few things left unexplained and the ending is a complete blank, but unearthing the real story feels like taking away from the core experience (I fear it will be like the underlying symbolism in Gravity making things worse instead of better). So while there's enough detective work to be done for people who are into that sort of thing, I feel fine not knowing all the explanations for the more obscure symbolism here.

Enemy feels like a short intermission between Villeneuve's more ambitious and prestigious projects, but at the same time I liked the film a lot more than his regular work. The first hour in particular is amazing, the final 30 minutes are a small let down but the closing scene is one that I'll fondly remember for years to come. An intriguing little film that deserved a little better in the direction department, but has everything for a nice evening of puzzling looks and unworldly atmosphere.

saitai

date
April 23, 2014
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Saitai poster

After producing some of the more interesting and unique films coming out of Japan these past 10 years (Tony Takitani, In Za Puru, Kame Wa Igai to Hayaku Oyogu), Naoki Hashimoto takes the director seat to bring his vision to the big screen. While Saitai (Birthright) is actually his third film already, it's the first to hold some international appeal. And even then, it's a film that will only cater to people with a very specific taste in films.

How dry and lifeless can a film really be? How slow can it be and how little information can you give your audience before they zone out? Hashimoto plays with these elements without abandoning the realm of commercial cinema (after all, Saitai isn't some experimental video installation). Saitai is by nature a revenge flick, but fans of the genre should do well to read up before sitting down. There is little to no violence, hardly any blood, no noticeable action to speak off. Instead Hashimoto focuses on tension and atmosphere.

The entire first hour is practically void of music and dialogue. We witness a kidnapping but aren't given any information beyond what we see on screen. A young girl starts off by stalking a family, soon after she kidnaps their daughter. She locks her up and together they wait. Through static camera work and subdued ambient noises, Hashimoto creates a dreamy, dark, distant and entrancing atmosphere.

The second hour reveals the mystery and brings everything to a grim yet satisfying conclusion. Saitai is a diamond in the rough, because even though the pacing, the editing and the overall atmosphere are enticing, the film lacks visual punch to make it truly outstanding. Hashimoto definitely deserves another chance though, because what he delivers is truly unique and pretty much impossible to compare to other films out there.

A film suited for people who love minimalism, slow (glacial) pacing and apathetic characters. That's a very limited group, but those who think they can handle it would do well to seek this one out.

in fear

date
March 10, 2014
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In Fear poster

In Fear is the kind of genre film making that you don't see too often. It's one thing to want and make a pure genre film, it's something entirely different to make a good one. Genre films have a bad name because of the many terrible, lazy and amateurish attempts of untalented directors hoping for a break, yet Lovering demonstrates that there is still a lot that can be done even when working exclusively with genre clichés.

The premise is the same one as hundreds of like-minded films. It starts with a car, two young kids and a journey to a festival. And of course they're taking a detour, of course they end up lost and of course someone is after them. That's what a true genre film is, a collection of clich&eactue;s that is known to work. In the end, the execution is what really matters with these kind of films.

From the start it's clear that Lovering's direction is a little out of the ordinary. The combination of the dark cinematography, quick and sharp editing and brooding soundtrack make for an eerie atmosphere that transcends the clichés and puts them back in working order. The first 45 minutes of the film are gripping, even when there isn't anything new or original to be seen.

Once Lovering starts to reveal parts of the mystery the film inevitably loses some of its charm, as is often the case with these kind of films, but there are some neat twists that keep the atmosphere tense and chilling. Lovering doesn't try to explain too much, leaving a lot to the imagination of the audience, but it's safe to say that most of the mystery is resolved during the second part of the film.

If you're in a "well, that's a silly thing to do" know-it-all mood it's probably best to avoid this film altogether, but if you're looking for a genre film that cherishes the genre clichés yet moulds them in a gripping and effective way then In Fear is a pretty safe bet. Looking forward to Lovering's next film.

fune wo amu

date
February 03, 2014
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The Great Passage poster

Yuya Ishii is one of Japan's more interesting drama directors of the moment. While I haven't seen a truly great film from his hands, the four films I have seen so far are all worth investing in. Fune Wo Amu (The Great Passage) is his latest feature and while quality-wise up to par with his previous efforts, I was quite surprised to find out Ishii was the director behind this film.

Ishii never really conformed to the boundaries of traditional Japanese dramas. He likes to combine dry comedy with bitter drama to form an awkward but positively challenging blend of atmospheres. The characters in his films are usually not the nicest and/or most likeable people, but they do try to earn our respect throughout the course of his films. Well, there's none of that in Fune Wo Amu, which strictly adheres to the rules of the traditional Japanese feel-good drama.

The films tells of Majime, a young social outcast who is transferred to the dictionary department of the print company he works for. There he finds his true calling and as the people around him start to leave the project one by one, Majime overcomes his fears and limitations to shoulder the project himself: create a dictionary for the people of today (which ends up being a mix between the Webster Dictionary and the Urban Dictionary).

The film is helped by a stellar cast. Matsuda shines as Majime (and resembles a young Tadanobu Asano), Jo Odagiri assists him where necessary and Aoi Miyazaki is cast as his supporting love interest. A strong trio that brings the needed depth and subtlety to the core characters. Still, they cannot prevent that the film itself is a tad plain. Visually modest and traditionally scored, Fune Wo Amu never becomes much more than an endearing and warm drama with its heart in the right place. It's a nice film that leaves you with a smile, but lacks that extra something that would've made it truly special. Still, if you have two hours to spare you could do much worse.

contracted

date
January 29, 2014
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Contracted poster

There are so many young directors trying to break into the film business that it's sometimes hard to filter out the worthy ones. Especially the horror genre is swamped by eager, self-appointed talents who all think they are the next best thing as they try to leverage the power of posters and trailers to convince you to watch their life's work. While Contracted had me a little worried at first, I'm glad that I went ahead and watched it anyway.

I knew England from Madison County, a pretty decent attempt at a slasher flick, but one that was bogged down by genre clichés and simply didn't add enough to them. He made some serious strides forward though, as Contracted shows a lot more promise. Not that England managed to get past all of the usual low-budget problems, but he made the film work regardless.

Apart from the lead, the acting is horrendous. Some of the actors are pretty awkward (the mom and the girl playing Alice), luckily Townsend does a decent enough job as Samantha, the main character. The visuals too are a little plain at times, though the camera work and editing are actually pretty satisfactory. The settings can be a bit dire and boring though, but that is to be expected.

On the upside, the soundtrack is actually really neat. A good selection of atmospheric tracks that complement the film really well. The gore is limited but effective. It's nothing you haven't seen before (unless you're new to the horror genre of course), but the effect is definitely there. The film grossed me out a couple of times, which doesn't happen all that often.

Last but not least, England delivers a strong build-up to a fun ending. It's not quite clear from the start what exactly is going on with Samantha, only around halfway through did a real suspicion start to form about the true nature of this film (it ended up being correct too, still, I thought it was a neat little twist). It's hard to be more specific without spoiling things, don't go in expecting a big twist at the end, but England sure did put a nice spin on an old concept.

Contracted is a solid horror film as long as you can look past some of its low-budget unpleasantries. In a way the film reminded me of Deadgirl, though it never quite reaches those heights. Still, if you're looking for a good diversion, this one is sure to please a broad range of horror fans.

the secret life of walter mitty

date
January 20, 2014
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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty poster

For a while now, Ben Stiller has been growing on me. He's not a superb actor or first-class director, but there's obviously more to him that the quick and simple comedies he's usually known for. His previous directorial effort (Tropic Thunder) was one of the better American comedies of the past few years, which was all I needed to know when I went out to watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

If you see people comparing this film to Forest Gump, it's because there aren't too many other feel-good films featuring a simpleton going out into the world and meeting up with a cast of strange people. That's where the comparison ends though, as Stiller manages to make a film with a character of its own. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film that lives in a unique universe, not really bound to genres or conventions, though not too out there or alienating as to turn away the big crowds.

During the first part of the film Stiller's outlandish daydreams take center stage. They provide a fair few laughs, making it pretty easy to get into the flow of the film. Once Stiller starts his journey the daydreams lose importance and are replaced by some pleasant oddballs he meets along the way. The switch is a little sudden and while the comedy remains, the absurdity of the first hour never really returns. The film takes a small hit right there, but recovers quickly.

Stiller puts in a great performance, as does Adam Scott (the perfect bad guy you'll love to hate). Even though the film doesn't make any serious missteps, I did feel Stiller doesn't cash in on the film's full potential. His solutions and choices may work well enough within the context of the film, I still felt that at some points he should've taken a few more risks (the last scene for example, did we really need to see the photograph?). Nothing serious though, there's plenty to like here, there are no false notes and a few very neat touches that make this one of the most original films I've seen coming out of Hollywood for quite some time.

princess and seven kungfu masters

date
January 17, 2014
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Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters poster

Saturation is a word that doesn't appear in Jing Wong's dictionary. The man simply doesn't seem able to stop making films. Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters is his latest feature, although I suspect Wong acted more as a mentor for Venus Keung Kwok-Man, who received co-direction credits. It wouldn't be the first time Wong launched someone's career like this.

The film is a throwback to the kung fu comedies of the early 90s. It's a mix of martial arts and outrageous comedy bits (not quite unlike Stephen Chow's Kung Fu), sporting typical Hong Kong (over)acting, simple but functional CG and some genuinely original gags. Add to that the more than competent action sequences (though they can't really compete with the best the martial arts genre has to offer) and you have a fun-filled yet rather basic film.

As always, Wong gathered a legion of familiar faces to fill out his cast. There are the older work horses, including Sammo Hung, Sandra Ng, Eric Tsang and Yuen Wah. Then there are some younger talents, like Jiang Lu-Xia, Dennis To and Philip Ng. On top of that, Wong is also apt at introducing new talent, as is the case with Kimmy Tong Fei, clearly one of Wong's rising stars.

Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters is entertainment in its purest form. It's a welcome update of the old classics, missing that little extra to turn it into a real gem (for that I'd recommend Tracing Shadows) but making up with sheer vigour, enthusiasm and pacing. Unless you're allergic to Hong Kong comedy or martial arts, it's a warm recommendation that's certain to put a smile on your face.

antisocial

date
January 03, 2014
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Antisocial poster

I've got to hand it to Calahan. Even though I'm completely done with virus/outbreak/zombie flicks, Antisocial worked for me. I've seen so many similar films these past few years (ever since the Dawn of the Dead remake rekindled people's interest) that calling it a genre of its own is almost an understatement.

So many directors have tried to come up with new angles and different spins that that in itself has become a cliché. Yet Calahan's approach still felt like a fresh take on the subject. Antisocial is definitely not a perfect film and while it's easy to critique the film for some of its weaker aspects, in the end the outbreak atmosphere simply hit all the right notes.

The acting is quite subpar at times and some of the plot points can be pretty far-fetched, but get over that (I'm sure some of you won't be able to, but that's okay) and underneath you'll find a film that plays around with conventions in a rather unique way. So much that I actually started to doubt some of the clichés that have been part of the genre for decades.

The social network spin on the outbreak theme feels a bit flimsy at first (like a doom scenario cocked up by an older generation that simply isn't capable of dealing with modern times), but in the end it proves to be a valid excuse for a much needed breath of fresh air, which is then explored quite aptly. Add to that a pretty gruesome finale and a spot on finish and what you have is an interesting little genre film, not too far out there to venture in author land, but nifty enough to circumvent many of the worn down clichés that are putting the genre in a slump.

lai li bu ming

date
November 19, 2013
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Unidentified poster

If you're looking for cinematic novelty, China is the place to keep an eye on these days. Even though some patterns are slowly emerging, almost every new film coming out of China is a new adventure. Some good, some bad, but never stale or uninspired.

Lai Li Bu Ming (Unidentified) is part of a movement of Chinese films that combines a typical Chinese, rural setting with modern (urban) fantasy, romance and comedy elements. The first time I encountered this was when I watched Hu Guan's Cow, now it seems like more and more films are trying to follow in its footsteps.

The story of Unidentified is about a recluse living in the middle of nowhere. He has no money or worldly possession, apart from the home-made tools he uses to watch the skies. One day his peaceful live is turned upside down when a mute ends up on his doorstep. It's the start of a series of strange events, involving the mute, an archaeologist, a group of tree planters and a local triad gang.

Unidentified is weird mix of styles and genres, held together by impressive visuals, solid acting and the feeling you're watching a film that doesn't lets itself be easily compared to every other film you've seen. When put next to Cow Guan's film does a better job of balancing everything together, but Unidentified stands well on its own and leaves me hopeful for the immediate future of Chinese cinema. It may be a little hard to come by, but it's definitely worth checking out if you happen upon it.