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.

figyua na anata

date
November 08, 2013
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Figyua na Anata poster

Takashi Ishii is a unique force in Japanese cinema. Often focusing on the bizarre and the perverse, Ishii makes films that exist far outside the comfort zone of the normal. By all means his films should come off as cheap shlock, possibly interesting in concept only, but for some obscure reason Ishii has managed to produce a consistent track of high quality output throughout the years.

Figyua na Anata is his latest and pretty much fits the profile. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Video Girl Ai and Koreeda's Air Doll, the film's about a lone loser finding a doll that comes to life. It's actually a pretty popular setup in Japanese manga and anime, only Ishii's vision is a tad more perverse than usually the case. Instead of jolly encounters and fluffy awkwardness, expect dark allies, murdering yakuza and pinku influences.

But it doesn't really stop there. Ishii goes on to create a rather sad tale of loneliness and despair, hidden in a blur of fighting dolls. The film follows a young editor (Kentaro) who loses his job and goes out on a drinking spree. He ends up messing with the wrong people and while fleeing into an abandoned building, happens upon a strange, life-like doll. When his assailants finally catch up with him, the doll comes to life and saves his life. The next morning Kentaro wakes up and takes the doll home, acting as if she's become his girlfriend.

The final 20 minutes border on the absurd, giving Figyua na Anata that extra little boost to make it stand out from similar films. Takashi Ishii is a strange man, his films never really appealed to me that much but upon closer inspection there's a lot of quality hidden under their raunchy exteriors. Well worth a try if you're looking for something different.

the killing of john lennon

date
November 04, 2013
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The Killing Of John Lennon poster

Not a fan of biopics, not a fan of The Beatles, didn't even know who killed Lennon before I sat down to watch this film. So yeah, I didn't expect much of Piddington's The Killing of John Lennon, but that never stopped me before. Once in a blue moon you run into a film that completely flips around your expectations, which is exactly what happened with this one.

Fans of The Beatles or John Lennon beware. This film is about Mark Chapman and Mark Chapman only. Lennon is featured for about a minute or so, the rest of The Beatles are completely absent. People hoping to find a best-of compilation of Lennon's music here will also be disappointed, Piddington opts for a more atmospheric soundtrack.

Chapman isn't a very likeable character, but Piddington and Jonas Bal do an amazing job shedding some light on his view of the world. There's very little to sympathize with, yet the film manages to really get under the skin and into the brain of Chapman. Instead of just running through the facts, Piddington focuses more on the way Chapman experiences life, the events and the people around him. This is more of a character piece than it is a mere recounting of Chapman's actions leading up to the fatal event.

The visuals combined with the soundtrack bring Chapman's confused visions to life. The film has a little dip right after Lennon's murder (where the plot takes over for a short while) but the film quickly recovers and dishes out a pretty strong ending.

Piddington really deserves credit for his approach here, instead of making a boring biopic he brings the world of a madman to life. It's probably a tough sell for people hoping to see a good guy/bad guy type of film, but if you're interested to find out what drives certain people to commit such foolish acts, this films places you right in the middle of the insanity.

haunter

date
October 31, 2013
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Haunter poster

Vincenzo Natali is the guy behind the first Cube film, a somewhat troubled but fun movie that got by on a strong and enigmatic concept. I lost track of him ever since (though I did see his entry in Paris, Je t'Aime), but when I came across Haunter I was more than eager to give him a second chance. While still not a film that lives up to its true potential, Haunter is a pretty atmospheric trip down Natali's eerie visions and more than confirms Natali's talent.

Haunter is a pretty tough sell though. While it has many characteristics of a horror film (and thanks to its marketing it will undoubtedly draw large horror crowds), it's actually a dark, moody mystery that isn't really out to scare. Instead Natali unravels a tight and morbid secret that involves hauntings and serial killers embedded in a Groundhog Day-like loop. Little by little he drops hints and unveils smaller mysteries that all lead up to the big revelation.

Natali's Haunter is a visually pleasing film. While clearly not a big budget affair, he makes the most of his money with moody lighting, smart play of shadows and strong use of color. The soundtrack too is aptly used to further enhance the atmosphere. It sets the perfect mood for the story to unravel. Sadly the lead actress takes away from that. Abigail Breslin never really seems to get the hang of her character and comes off as a weak lead. McHattie shines as the film's villain, but he simply lacks screen time to make up for the lead's poor performance.

It's a shame because Natali does a great job setting everything up. The atmosphere is there, the plot is tight enough and opens itself up at the right times. Look past the lead actress and you have a neat little mystery.

tokyo marble chocolate

date
October 08, 2013
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Tokyo Marble Chocolate poster

Production I.G used to be my favorite anime production house (not even Studio 4C could touch them in their prime). Grown out of the Headgear collaborative (the production team behind Patlabor 2 and Oshii's prior home), I.G produced classics like Kokaku Kidotai, Innocence and Dead Leaves. Once a synonym for quality Japanese animation features, nowadays they keep on spewing out mediocre series and movies just to keep their head above water.

Tokyo Marble Chocolate is a 2-part OAV from I.G's transition period (2005-2007). It's already a lot softer in tone and style than their previous output (more in line with the kind of series Gainax used to produce), yet the unique artstyle and the Shinkai-inspired romance (Kotonoha no Niwa, Byosoku 5 Senchimetoru) make for a sweet and amusing little diversion.

The story revolves around a boy and a girl hooking up. Both are not very successful when it comes to maintaining relationships. Even though they seem to like each other a lot, they can't really commit fully to their blossoming love. The OAV is split into 2 distinct segments, each segment following one character going through the one decisive day that will shape their future as a couple.

While mostly straight-up romance, there is at least one thing setting it apart from other, more typical romances. Shiotani includes an extra character: a rather unique and feisty looking mini-donkey. Through this character some extra comedy is brought into the OAV, while at the same time making it a bit more attractive to the regular anime crowd. I'm not really sure it helped the OAV as a whole though, as it does contrast rather strongly with the romantic atmosphere.

Clocking in at around 50 minutes in total, Tokyo Marble Chocolate is a pretty safe bet for people who're into Shinkai's romances. It may be a more commercial move for I.G, but the artstyle and soundtrack make sure that there is still plenty to enjoy.

you're next

date
October 02, 2013
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You're Next poster

Adam Wingard has been struggling lately. While I thoroughly enjoyed Pop Skull and A Horrible Way To Die, his entries in ABC's of Death and both V/H/S anthologies came off as sloppy and lazy, too focused on getting cosy with his group of fellow directors (Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Simon Barrett) instead of producing good films. With the release of You're Next, things are looking up though.

Then again, You're Next was actually shot before he did the anthology projects, held back until now by a battle of rights between Lions Gate and Paramount. It's a small miracle that You're Next still ended up in theaters, especially when you consider the film isn't exactly megaplex material. At first sight it may look like a pretty typical house invasion flick (think Ils or The Strangers), but there's a bit more to Wingard's setup.

The film starts with a family reunion in a remote vacation house. Even though the family strains are obvious from the start, the quarrels and bickering between the brothers and sisters isn't all that out of the ordinary. It doesn't take too long before arrows are whizzing through the windows though, while the family feuds are quickly replaced by genuine panic and a renewed sense of survival instinct.

The killers are both deadly and creepy, but You're Next is actually a mixture of horror and dark comedy. Even though the score (pretty awesome) and visuals (atmospheric camera work) may suggest otherwise, the overly manic screams and blunt kills make it clear that this film isn't just about the scares and gore. It's a nice little twist, although Wingard never really goes 100% in, which weighs on both the horror and the comedy aspects of the film.

In the end You're Next shows a lot of potential, but is bogged down just a tad too much by its schizophrenic nature. It's a solid horror flick with some good smirks and creepy moments, but a feeling remains that Wingard could've made a better film if he'd just opted for a purer execution (either straight-up horror of unapologetic horror/comedy).

naam yi boon sik

date
September 23, 2013
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Invisible Target poster

Naam Yi Boon Sik (Invisible Target) is what happens when all the stars align for director Benny Chan. While the film still can't quite match Hong Kong's best action cinema, it's more than perfect filler with plenty of sumptuous treats for action fans.

Chan brought together some interesting young talent to fill in the main roles. Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue (Shamo) and Jaycee Chan (Jackie's son, amazing in Lee's Adventure and pk.com.cn) form a trio of good guys who are out to capture Wu Jing's band of criminals. This being a Hong Kong action film there is of course some (sub-par) personal drama to fill in the gaps, but for the greater part the action sequences dominate the film.

Naam Yi Boon Sik is a surprisingly violent film. While Benny Chan is known for his action cinema, usually his films tend to be a bit lighter in tone. Here he opts for darker colors, grittier characters and only a select few moments of comic relief. It's a choice that turns out to be surprisingly effective, giving the film a welcome edge over his other work.

From start to finish, the film is littered with various long-winding action sequences. There are some cool fights, some crazy chases (the rooftop chase is amazing) and a healthy selection of glass-shattering explosions. The breaks in between action scenes are few and far between and while the film is a little lengthy (128 minutes is a bit much for a film like this), it never really stalls or becomes boring.

Benny Chan finds the right balance between fun and grit. Naam Yi Boon Sik may well be his best film so to date. While no match for the best Hong Kong action films out there, it's a great diversion should you want a bit of brainless entertainment.

home sweet home

date
September 17, 2013
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Home Sweet Home poster

In the wake of the French horror wave, David Morlet released Mutants, a more than decent zombie flick which showcased the man's talent, but also bared some of his weaknesses. We had to wait a while before Morlet presented his second effort, but five years after Mutants, Morlet's second baby is finally here for us to enjoy.

Home Sweet Home is a pretty straight-forward home invasion movie, still Morlet manages to give the film its own, unique feel. Rather than follow the victims, the first part of Home Sweet Home focuses on the perpetrator. Well before a young couple returns home from their night out, the killer is already inside the house, exploring the premises and preparing his traps. He is meticulous and in control, leaving nothing to fate.

When the couple finally returns he hides in the shadows, waiting for the right time to strike. The pacing is slow yet deliberate. The camera work strong and precise, while the soundtrack makes for a great atmosphere. Sadly Morlet can't quite keep it up. The second half of the film switches perspective and follows the struggle of the victims instead. The killer loses some of his cool and the stand-off between him and the couple isn't as existing as it could have been.

It's not that the second half is bad, the exquisite styling remains and there are still some stand-out moments, but I felt the film would've been better if the mystery (and the supremacy) of the killer had been maintained until the very end. The detailed start of the film and the untouchable air of the psycho make for a superb setup, so it's a shame to see him fall of his pedestal later on. Still the film is much better than most horror flicks out there, Morlet has a great sense of style and dares to innovate, even if it's just in between the genre clichés. Horror gluttons will no doubt appreciate Home Sweet Home, others might not see the appeal.

hk hentai kamen

date
September 09, 2013
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Hentai Kamen poster

Superhero films are hot property these days, but what happens when you mix the superhero myths with some Japanese exploitation? Well, the result is not entirely what you might have expected. Hentai Kamen (which very roughly translates to perverted mask/disguise) is more comedy than it is exploitation, forgoing cheap female nudity and horrible plot lines (think Iguchi's Oira Sukeban) for ... well, cheap male nudity and horrible plot lines, but delivered with a great sense of humor. In a sense, Hentai Kamen is a loving parody on the Sushi Typhoon style of film making.

The story of Hentai Kamen revolves around Kyosuke, a descendant of two of the biggest perverts ever to grace Japan. The problem is that Kyosuke seems to lack the family genes, until one day, completely by accident, he puts on a pair of used girl's underpants on his head. This triggers something inside Kyosuke, unleashing his true potential. Even after his transformation, Kyosuke doesn't consider himself a true perv though, so he uses his power to protect the nice people of Tokyo.

Now, where other directors would no doubt use this setup as an excuse for gratuitous nudity, Fukuda reverses expectations. Expect man butts, crotch attacks and lots of male nipple flicking. Kyosuke's tanned appearance (sporting stockings, girl panty masks and one of those horrible Borat-like swimsuits) is hilarious, but not exactly genre material. A great twist that makes the film a lot funnier.

HK Hentai Kamen never really escapes its low-budget background, with plenty of bad CG, bad acting and bored camera work to fill in the filler parts of the story, but all of that is quickly forgotten whenever Hentai Kamen appears, destroying the bad guys as he trots through Tokyo. It makes you wonder if this film is going to find a sizeable audience, though people with a little love for (and a little knowledge of) the Sushi Typhoon scene should be able to appreciate the clichés that are being demolished here.

yo ni mo kimo na monogatari

date
September 03, 2013
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Yo ni mo Kimyo na Monogatari poster

Yo Ni Mo Kimyo Na Monogatari (Tales of the Unusual) is one of the many Japanese anthology films out there, though it's not just your average horror anthology. Instead the stories focus more on mystery and weirdness, at times resembling a condensed version of The Outer Limits (if anyone still remembers that series). Masayuki Ochiai (Kansen) and Mamoru Hoshi ((Boku To Tsuma No 1778 No Monogatari) are the directors to keep an eye on, Masayuki Suzuki (GTO) and Hisao Ogura complete the quartet.

Ochiai kicks off this anthology with "One Snowy Night", a pretty straight-forward horror short about a small group of plain crash survivors stuck high up the mountains. With a fierce blizzard running wild and only a small cabin to protect them from the cold, it doesn't take too long before cabin fever takes over. Or at least, that's what seems to be happening. Ochiai is clearly in his element here and delivers a moody, somewhat twisted short that serves as a good introduction for the anthology.

The second short is Suzuki's "Samurai Cellular", a rather odd tale about a samurai who one day finds a cellular phone. The man on the other side is a desk clerk burdened with the task to verify the accuracy of certain historic events. As he walks the samurai through the events, history is being shaped. A bright and funny short, Samurai Cellular makes it clear that this isn't just a horror anthology, but directors were given enough room to take the concept wherever they pleased.

With Chess, Mamoru Hoshi delivers the best of the bunch. His short is high on concept, sharply executed and boasts an impressive finale. A lauded chess champion loses his championship match against a computer, in front of a large, dismissive audience. He can't cope with his defeat and falls in a dark void. Until one day a wealthy businessman kidnaps his wife and forces the champ to play against him. Hoshi flaunts his skills and demonstrates just why I like watching these kind of anthology films.

The final segment is Ogura's The Marriage Simulator, a more romantic take on the concept. The title pretty much gives it all away. A young couple who's about to get married is offered a unique chance. They can peak at their own future using a special machine, giving them a glimpse of their married life. Of course things turn out sour when the bluntness of everyday life hits the young couple, the question is whether they can survive the coming hardships. Ogura's attempt isn't half bad, but the romance never really catches fire and it's probably the weakest offering of the anthology.

Still, Yo Ni Mo Kimyo Na Monogatari is definitely worth a gander if you can handle these type of anthology films. Hoshi's Chess alone is worth the gamble, but the other ones aren't find behind and offer a nice variety of styles and genres.

insensibles

date
September 02, 2013
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Insensibles poster

Spain. There is no other country where drama and horror are so often linked together. It's not that Spanish directors can't produce straight-up horror films (rec 2), but often they seem to prefer a more stylish approach, blending horror with drama (and sometimes a dash of mystery). Insensibles (Painless) joins films like El Orfanato, Los Ojos de Julia and Intruders, though it can't quite compete with the best.

Juan Carlos Medina takes a flying start though. The first five minutes of Insensibles are extremely promising. The film tells of a group of young children who are unable to feel pain. Sounds like a fair deal, until people around them start to realize that the children can't even grasp the concept of pain, constantly hurting themselves and other kids in the neighborhood. To protect the village they lock up the group, keeping them hidden from the outside world.

A parallel story develops about a man who needs a bone marrow transplant to save his own life. When he confronts his parents it turns out the man is adopted. Cue a long and mysterious search that will eventually connect both stories together. While Medina keeps the tension high during the first half of the film, most of the intrigue is spoiled once Insensibles hits the halfway mark, eventually slowing down the second part of the film. It's a shame, because it takes away too much of the atmosphere that is needed to keep a mystery like this going.

While still skilfully made, the second part of the film is more about explanations than it is about mystery. Medina shows a lot of promise though, as the film looks and sounds amazing, cooking up several scenes that will stick even after the end credits have faded. For a freshman effort Insensibles is an extremely well made drama/horror/thriller/mystery, way better than your average run of the mill horror flick and a far cry from the cheap shlock that so often swamps the horror genre. If only he'd spread the mystery a bit wider, it might've been a modern classic.