onderhond blog - onderhond.com http://www.onderhond.com/blog/onderhond The onderhond blog is a collection of gathered thoughts about my work and my personal life. Find out about what drives me as a person and how I get about in my professional life. en-us underdog@operamail.com (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Kaige Chen/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/kaige-chen-x10
Kaige Chen

Kaige Chen (together with guys like Yimou Zhang and Zhuangzhuang Tian) has meant a lot for Chinese cinema in the 80s. Before they arrived international appeal was extremely limited, even for me pre-80s Chinese cinema is still a pretty dark, black hole. But with films like Huang Tu Di [Yellow Earth], Hong Gao Liang [Red Sorghum] and Dao Ma Zei [The Horse Thief] things slowly began to change.

To be honest though, I'm not a very big fan of China's 80s cinema. It tends to be quite political, with a recurring focus on rural drama, often surrounded by a strong whiff of propaganda (or counter-propaganda). I only watched Da Yue Bing [The Big Parade] from Chen's 80s work, but that was a pretty big disappointment, not even the fact that Yimou Zhang was responsible for the cinematography made it any easier to sit through.

Chen's big international breakthrough came in the early 90's. Ba Wang Ji [Farewell My Concubine] is one of China's biggest classics, an epic scale romantic drama that panders to the arthouse crowd without completely alienating its potential audience. It's not a bad film, but it's a little tame and quite on the safe side. Personally I prefer Chen's other 90s collaboration with Li Gong and Leslie Cheung, Feng Yue [Temptress Moon]. Not in the least because Christopher Doyle is at the top of his game in that one.

Following in the footsteps of Yimou Zhang and Ang Lee, Chen directed his own fantasy/martial arts epic in 2005. Wu Ji [The Promise] wasn't too bad an attempt, but a little heavy on the CG and simply not as good as the films it was competing against. Chen also participated in two high-profile anthology films (Chacun Son Cinéma and Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet), but failed to make a big impression in the little time he was given for each short. Clearly not one of Chen's strong points.

Like many directors struggling to find their best form, Chen reached back to the material that once made him famous. Mei Lanfang [Forever Enthralled] is another classic opera drama, substituting Gong Li with Ziyi Zhang (you can't help but feel a little sorry for Li). While not a bad film, it failed to spark much interest. The same could be said about Zhao Shi Gu Er [Sacrifice], a historic war drama once again catering to commercial demands.

Sou Suo [Caught in the Web] seemed to foreshadow Chen's seemingly inevitable demise. It's clear that Chen never felt comfortable directing a contemporary thriller, but since Chinese cinema was evolving in that direction Chen had little choice but to try and follow. Lucky for him Wen Jiang would release Rang Zi Dan Fei soon after, throwing Chen a final lifeline. An opportunity Chen grabbed with both hands, seeing as Dao Shi Xia Shan turned out to be his best film to date.

Like many of his peers, Kaige Chen started out directing rural arthouse dramas but eventually ended up catering to the masses. As Chinese cinema grew, he grew with it, trading creative freedom for bigger budgets and ever increasingly lavish productions. Chen handled it pretty well, but he was never truly able to competed with the likes of Zhang. If you're a fan of the classic Chinese dramas then Ba Wang Ji should be the best place to start, do you prefer China's more recent big budget epics then the freshly released Dao Shi Xia Shan is the one you should be looking for.

Best film: Dao Shi Xia Shan [Monk Comes Down the Mountain] (4.0*)
Worst film: Da Yue Bing [The Big Parade (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Dao Shi Xia Shan
Average rating: 2.90 (out of 5)

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Thu, 03 Sep 2015 11:53:24 +0200
<![CDATA[Dao Shi Xia Shan/Kaige Chen]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/monk-comes-down-review-kaige-chen

When Kaige Chen releases a film it's always a big deal. Chen belongs to the older generation of Chinese film makers, who first manifested themselves in the 80s. Through the years he grew out to be one of the ambassadors of Chinese cinema, though not all of his films found their way to the West. With Dao Shi Xia Shan [Monk Comes Down the Mountain] Chen proves he can still turn out a pretty great film, even after 30 years of service.

screen capture of Monk Comes Down the Mountain

Dao Shi Xia Shan follows in the footsteps of Wen Jiang's Rang Zi Dan Fei. It's not quite 90s martial arts, not quite 00s martial arts, not quite traditional action film. It's a strange mix of influences that presents itself with a rather smug smile on its face. As if the movie itself is in on the joke, seemingly uncaring of its silly posterior, but at the same time doing its utmost best to be as cool, awesome and rewarding as possible.

It's pretty great if you give the film room to explore its boundaries, but at all times Chen is working hard to maintain a precarious balance. Pretentiousness is lurking around every corner and if you're not on the same wavelength as the director then it could turn out to be a pretty horrible overall experience. Personally I don't mind a bit of ballsiness, so I ended up enjoying every minute of it, but at the same time it's easy to see how some will end up hating this film passionately.

The story is pretty much what the title promises. Based on a popular novel, the film follows a monk (He Anxia) who's being banished from the monastery he grew up in. Unaware of the world that lies outside the walls of the monastery, he descends the mountain in order to learn about the world. When he reaches the city he is taken in by a doctor who takes him as his apprentice. Things start to go south when Anxia discovers the doctor's wife is having an affair with the doctor's brother.

screen capture of Monk Comes Down the Mountain

Films like Dao Shi Xia Shan are big business in China nowadays and with a seasoned director overseeing the production you can be assured of getting first class visuals. The film looks absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. The martial arts sequences are stylish, the setting looks warm, inviting and colorful and the décors are lush and detailed. To boot, the CG that's used doesn't look out of place, which is a big win compared to many other big budget releases coming out of China in recent years.

The soundtrack is traditionally less exciting. Not bad by all means, but ultimately forgettable and hardly worth writing about. It's not that big of a problem to be honest, Dao Shi Xia Shan aims to entertain and does exactly that without the need for a strong, challenging soundtrack to set itself apart from its peers. Still, it's a constant that films like these have pretty dull scores, I wouldn't exactly mind seeing that challenged that for a change.

On the actors front, Chen assembled a pretty solid cast, spear-headed by Baoqiang Wang playing He Anxia. Wang's perfect for the role and has a great part in the success of Chen's undertaking. The secondary cast is pretty impressive too, with Aaron Kwok and Chen Chang putting in great performances. Jaycee Chan also makes a notable appearance (although uncredited, probably the backlash from his real-life troubles), though it's Wah Yuen who deserves the most praise. He's the film's perfect villain, quirky and mean-spirited at the same time.

screen capture of Monk Comes Down the Mountain

A lot of the film's weight lies on the shoulders of Baoqiang Wang. Not because he has such a complex character, Anxia is little more than an excuse to set some gears in motion, but because he somewhat represents the smugness of the film. Wang plays the gullible fool, balancing his character between cutely endearing and impossibly annoying. It's a good thing Wang has these roles down to a tee, still I'm pretty confident not everyone is going to be able to stand him (and the film with him).

Dao Shi Xia Shan is above all a very amusing film. Chen made a light-hearted, fun and playful little romp, which rises above itself thanks to its tremendous production value. If you liked Rang Zi Dan Fei this is is certain recommend, otherwise there are quite a few I pitfalls where it could go wrong. It's somewhat of a tough sell, but it's worth a gamble, even if it's only to keep yourself up to date with the direction of China's popular blockbusters.

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Tue, 01 Sep 2015 11:46:03 +0200
<![CDATA[The Blair Witch Project/Myrick and Sanchez]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/blair-witch-project-review-myrick-sanchez

Back in '99, the horror scene was in complete turmoil. From out of nowhere this small, insignificant little film had surfaced and freaked out cinema goers all over the world. The hype back then was tremendous and everyone with only the slightest interest in horror cinema flocked to his local cinema to see what the fuzz was about. With no budget to speak of and with no prior experience, Myrick and Sanchez showed the big studios that a film didn't have to cost a lot of money to make a lot of money. Enter The Blair Witch Project, still one of the scariest films to date.

screen capture of The Blair Witch Project

Call it found footage, call it faux documentary, call it whatever. The Blair Witch Project started an entirely new niche in horror cinema, although with a few years delay. It wasn't until films like [Rec] and Cloverfield built upon the foundation of The Blair Witch Project that others dared to follow in its footsteps. And while The Blair Witch wasn't quite the first film to pull off this found footage trick (remember Cannibal Holocaust and C'est Arrivé Près De Chez), the presentation of the film made all the difference.

It didn't just pioneer a new style of film making though, it also marked one of the first times a film (ab)used the internet to successfully kickstart the hype machine. Not only was the documentary itself fake, many of the sites referencing the so-called "actual" Blair Witch legend were meticulously constructed to cloud the footage in a veil of mystery, prompting many to believe that it was in fact real found footage they were looking at. An ingenious trick that would prove hard to repeat as the internet matured (and become more cynical).

The setup is pretty simple (becoming a template for many of its copycats). It all starts with a group of young kids getting together to make a documentary. All packed and ready they set out to investigate some kind of weird tale, legend or phenomenon. In this case, the legend of the Blair Witch. After they conduct some initial interviews they start their hike into the woods, unaware of the dangers that lie before them. If you think you've heard this before, it's because almost every single film in this particular niche starts out this way.

screen capture of The Blair Witch Project

The camera work was probably the film's most polarizing feature. It threw all conventional rules overboard, instead aiming to mimic the typical home video camera work as closely as possible. That means the cinematography (in the traditional sense of the word) is extremely poor, the image quality itself isn't much better. At the same time, this very vague and hectic window into the film's universe is what makes it so frightening. Not only are you right there with the characters, you only get a very limited view of what exactly is going on. Fifteen years later this style of filming is still not completely accepted, but it has garnered a following large enough to sustain the niche.

The soundtrack is pretty much non-existent. Since we are supposed to be looking at found footage material, there simply wasn't any room for a traditional score. What you get is dialogues and some ambient sounds. Still, those ambient sounds make for some very tense moments, especially during the scenes at night. Just the sound of a few well-timed distant screams and crackling branches is all this movie needs to drive up the tension.

The actors are more than adequate, though as with the soundtrack, "traditional" acting simply wasn't going to cut it here. We're supposed to be looking at real people (not even movie-real, but real-real), so you don't get the typical actor vibe from the main trio. You could probably link it to the mumblecore movement, though the context of this film is pretty different of course. But the three do a pretty great job, especially when things get more tense their actions are convincing and believable.

screen capture of The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project divided film audiences into two camps. Some still believe that faux documentaries like this are a cheap and easy way for talentless hacks to earn a quick buck, others recognize the difficulties in making a film like this work. Whatever side you're on though, the effect these films have on at least a portion of its audience is undeniable. Personally I'm a fan and while a lot of bad films have passed by since the initial release of The Blair Witch Project, I consider it a worthwhile trend that brought a lot of great films with it.

The past 7 to 8 years the horror scene has been swamped with found footage films. It's hard to imagine you've seen a chunk of them without ever taking the time to watch The Blair Witch Project, it's even harder to weigh its impact once you are aware of the genre's trademarks. Watching it again though, I can only conclude the film has lost little of its initial shine. The build-up remains strong, the scares are effective and it remains one of the better films in the genre. It may not be as fancy or orchestrated as some of the newer specimen, but it actually uses that defect to its advantage. A must see if you're into horror cinema.

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Thu, 27 Aug 2015 11:34:08 +0200
<![CDATA[Tetsuo Shinohara/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/tetsuo-shinohara-x10
Tetsuo Shinohara

Japan has quite a few dedicated drama directors. From Ryuichi Hiroki to Hirokazu Koreeda and Hiroshi Ishikawa, there's really no lack of choice if you want to watch a good Japanese drama feature. Tetsuo Shinohara is one of the lesser gods, a pretty decent director who made some worthwhile stuff, but isn't as consistent as his peers.

Shinohara started out as a film director in 1989, but if you're hoping to see any of his pre-2000 work, better prepare yourself to dig deep. It wasn't until 2000 that Shinohara's films started to see any international exposure. With Hatsukoi [First Love] Shinohara landed Rena Tanaka for the lead role, an actress who comes with her own cult following. It's not a bad film, just don't expect anything more than a basic romantic drama. Shisha no Gakuensai [Schoolgirl of the Dead] lies closer to the J-Horror wave, but ended up being more of a mystery. Both films are decent enough, just nothing to get excited about.

Between 2002 and 2006 Shinohara made his best work, starting with the short he produced for the Jam Films anthology. A year later he would score his first modest international success with Showa Kayo Daizenshu [Karaoke Terror], a unique drama comedy combo featuring Ryuhei Matsuda and Masanobu Ando. It's not all that accessible, but it falls snugly in the category of films people were hoping to see when they were looking at Japan's output in the early 00's.

But Shinohara's best film to date is Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo [Breathe In, Breathe Out], a light-hearted, chill and charming little drama. It's not a very grand or spectacular film, but it's soothing and upbeat, at times resembling a live-action version of Isao Takahata's Omohide Poro Poro. It's no doubt one of Shinohara's more traditional films, but the execution is flawless.

Shinohara would go on to direct a short for anthology film Fimeiru [Female] and he would peek once more with Metro ni Notte [Riding on the Metro], but in 2007 he imploded with the rest of the Japanse drama genre. The result are some cheesy, local market first dramas that are overly long and pretty hard to sit through. Films like Yamazakura, Ogawa no Hotori [At River's Edge] and Manatsu no Orion [Last Operations Under the Orion] eroded Shinohara's good name, making it hard to recommend any of the films he made the past ten years.

It's a shame, because Shinohara did show a lot of promise. It seems though that he is one of those directors who rather rides the flow than carve out his own path. With that in mind, it's not very surprising that his best films were made in the mid 00's, at a time when Japanese cinema was doing pretty well for itself internationally. If you haven't seen any of Shinohara's films, that's probably the ideal place to start.

Best film: Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo [Breathe In, Breathe Out] (4.5*)
Worst film: Yamazakura (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.90 (out of 5)

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Wed, 26 Aug 2015 11:34:09 +0200
<![CDATA[Kotoba no Nai Fuyu/Atsuro Watabe ]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/echo-of-silence-review-atsuro-watabe
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.

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Thu, 20 Aug 2015 11:19:59 +0200
<![CDATA[Mulholland Dr./David Lynch]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/mulholland-drive-review-david-lynch

It's time to revisit one of my old favorites. Mulholland Dr. was one of the first films to truly capture my imagination, a film that showed me movies weren't just about story, characters and acting, but could also be driven by atmosphere and instinct. Mulholland quickly established itself as a modern classic and many consider it to be David Lynch's best film (to date, one can only hope), so I was quite curious to see how well it held up after all those years.

screen capture of Mulholland Dr.

David Lynch is one of the go-to names for people wanting to make the switch between commercial and arthouse cinema. When you grow tired of the Nolans, the Spielbergs and the Sandlers, the name Lynch is bound to pop up, no matter what road you take to explore the further realms of cinema. Those first encounters can be pretty special and overpowering, but their appeal isn't always lasting. I already rewatched Rabbits and Eraserhead and, while still great films, they didn't quite live up to their memories.

Sadly this is also the case with Mulholland Dr. It isn't that the film became bad all of a sudden, there are still a couple of truly exceptional scenes buried inside, but overall it lost some of its shine. Lynch remains a master in constructing atmosphere out of thin air, but in some ways his films just aren't as polished as they should be, the result being that they age a little faster than you'd expect them to. But don't let that deter you if you haven't seen Mulholland Dr. yet, it's still a trip worth experiencing.

The film follows Betty, a young aspiring actress who just arrived in Hollywood. Her aunt hooked her up with an apartment, but when she gets to the house she finds it occupied by a woman who introduces herself as Rita. Rita ended up at the house after a car crash, which is about everything she remembers. When Rita opens her bag and finds a truckload of money, Betty and Rita team up in order to find out what happened that fateful night.

screen capture of Mulholland Dr.

Visually things aren't as impressive as I remembered. There are definitely good parts, the camera work in particular is still strong and deliberate, but the editing and photography let the film down. It's not that it's ugly, but the images can be a little plain and lifeless. Some very crude effects (like the intro, or the old couple at the end) don't really help either. It's a shame, because even though it's obvious Lynch spent a lot of time on the look of Mulholland Dr., the result is blander than it should be.

The score on the other hand is still as blissfully amazing as it was the first time I heard it. Angelo Badalamenti is at his best when writing scores for Lynch and from what I know of him I consider Mulholland Dr. to be his best work. The Mulholland Dr. main theme is epic and pulls you right into the film from the very first notes. The other notable soundtrack moment is the Club Silencio scene, not surprisingly the absolute high point of Mulholland Dr. Even when the visuals might let the film down from time to time, the soundtrack is always there to soften the blow.

The acting is another strong point. While the delivery and stoic performances of the first half may rise a few eyebrows, they're at least functional and put into context by the second half of the film. Mulholland Dr. was also Naomi Watts' breakthrough film and it's not all that hard to see why. Her performance is stellar, the "acting" scene in particular stands out as one of the finest performances in her career. The secondary cast is solid too, with no weak links or miscasts.

screen capture of Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr. is one of Lynch's more accessible mind benders, though it may still confuse people on their first viewing. The clues are there though and repeated viewings will clear up most of the uncertainties. Whether you actually choose to care is up to you, personally I prefer Lynch for the atmosphere he manages to create, not so much the puzzle he lays out before you. The cool thing about Mulholland Dr. is that it offers both in equal measures.

My only problem with Mullholland Dr. is that it just isn't as special anymore as it used to be. Some films manage to remain unique and exciting no matter how many times you watch them and no matter what other films you watch in between. But roughly 4000 films down the line Lynch's most popular film has lost some of its glamour. Not so much that I have to adjust my original vote though, it's still a superb film with its fair share of memorable scenes, and if you haven't seen it yet it comes warmly recommended.

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Tue, 18 Aug 2015 11:37:24 +0200
<![CDATA[Keizoku/eiga/Yukihiko Tsutsumi]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/keizoku-review-yukihiko-tsutsumi
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.

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Mon, 10 Aug 2015 12:07:19 +0200
<![CDATA[Um Fa/Tat-Chi Yau]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/longest-nite-review-tat-chi-yau
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.

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Thu, 06 Aug 2015 11:16:06 +0200
<![CDATA[Billy Wilder/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/billy-wilder-x10
Billy Wilder

Much like Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa, Billy Wilder ended up here because of his general popularity, mixed with a little randomness. If you start watching classic cinema there's really no escaping the films of Wilder. Pair that with a girlfriend who likes Dean Martin and Marilyn Monroe and before you know it you've seen 10 of his films.

I haven't seen Wilder's oldest films yet, like many others I started exploring his oeuvre with Double Indemnity, generally considered to be Wilder's magnum opus. I'm not a big noir fan though (understatement!), so needless to say the film didn't do much for me. I generally find the wooden acting and so-called spiffy dialogues a pain to sit through. The same could be said about Sunset Blvd. and The Lost Weekend, though that last one gets an extra thumbs down for the lousy portrayal of a drunk man (the lead no less), another thing I'm quite allergic to.

From the mid-50's, Wilder turned his back on thrillers and switched to directing comedies. And with great success too, as films like One Two Three, Some Like It Hot and Stalag 17 are broadly cited as classics. Once again though, Wilder failed to impress me. The once so edgy dialogues are terribly outdated and the farcical, fast-paced comedy is simply not funny. That and the fact that most of these films are almost 2 hours long made them hell to sit through for me.

That's not to say all Wilder's comedies are bad though. I kinda enjoyed The Apartment, fronted by an enjoyable performance of Jack Lemmon. But it's Marilyn Monroe's The Seven Year Itch that amused the most. Not so much because of Monroe, her scenes are actually kinda cheesy, but the constant meanderings of Tom Ewell were quite fun indeed. If you only ever see one Wilder film, make it this one, since the film also yielded Monroe's most iconic image (in a white dress on top of a subway grate).

Around the mid 60's Wilder's popularity started to wane a little. I've seen only Kiss Me Stupid from this period, with Dean Martin playing a character that very much resembled his real-life artist persona. It's a somewhat awkward comedy that started off half decent, but turned out to be quite a fluke. Wilder kept going until the early 80's, but I haven't seen any of those films. And since they aren't all that popular, chances are slim they find their way into my queue any time soon.

If you're into classic cinema then Wilder is a name you simply cannot ignore. Almost all of his noirs from the mid 40s and comedies from the mid 50s to mid 60s are high-ranked classics, but his films have aged considerably and for someone with a general lack of interest in classic cinema there's little left from their former glory.

Best film: The Seven Year Itch (2.5*)
Worst film: The Lost Weekend (0.5*)
Average rating: 1.00 (out of 5)

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Mon, 03 Aug 2015 12:52:18 +0200
<![CDATA[Insidious: Chapter 3/Leigh Whannell]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/insidious-3-review-whannell
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.

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Thu, 30 Jul 2015 12:24:55 +0200
<![CDATA[Horsehead/Romain Basset]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/horsehead-review-romain-basset

A couple of years ago films like Haute Tension, À l'Intérieur and Martyrs took the horror world by storm. French horror was all the rage, but its fame was rather short-lived. The second batch of films didn't live up to people's lofty expectations and that was pretty much that. But from its ashes new directors are slowly starting to rise. Romain Basset is one of those directors, leaving behind quite the calling card with his first ever feature film, Horsehead.

screen capture of Horsehead

Some films demand that you allow them some time to sink in, others don't take more than a single scene to convert you into a fan. It turned out that Horsehead was a clear match for the latter category. That first scene, while not very complex or even all that original, revealed enough of Basset's stylistic prowess to convince me I was about to watch a great little horror film. And sure enough, Horsehead ended up being one of the better horror films I've seen in years.

While Horsehead is a horror film pur sang, it's not a simple genre film that hurls itself from one horror cliché to the next. Basset takes full control over his film, mixing in different influences and steering it into unexpected directions. There are some visual nods to Argento coupled with Livide-like fantastical elements. And with the horsehead parading across the screen, Miike's Gozu is never far off. But ultimately this film reminded me a lot of Zoetrope, an excellent yet terribly overlooked short film/music video directed by Charlie Deaux and scored by Lustmord.

The plot of Horsehead revolves around Sarah, a psychophysiology student who suffers from feverish visions and dreams. When she returns home to visit her parents the dreams start to intensify and Sarah is convinced her deceased grandmother is trying to contact her though her dreams. Sarah's mom appears to know more about the origin of these visions, but she keeps her lips tightly sealed. And the closer Sarah comes to revealing the secrets that lie in her past, the sicker she becomes.

screen capture of Horsehead

It's fair to say that Basset's first feature takes a few visual cues from Dario Argento's earlier films. Beautiful use of color (lots of strong reds and blues), expressive camera angles, a maiden in a nightgown and a gothic-like setting make for a very atmospheric whole. Even so, it's not the defining feature of Horsehead's visual style. The editing makes a bigger (and even better) impression, with quick and sharp cuts forming the basis for a very rhythmic visual experience.

It's not just the editing that adds rhythm to the film either. The soundtrack is a superb collection of electronic tracks, ranging from soundscapes and eerie illbient to more beat-driven pieces. I've always wondered why not more directors dare to make use of the abstract qualities of electronic music and a film like Horsehead only strengthens my beliefs that the potential is definitely there. The soundtrack adds an intensity and rhythm that propels the film forward, in combination with the lush visuals it makes for a magnificent audiovisual package.

The quality of the actors is less homogeneous. The leads are strong, with Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux making a good impression as Sarah and Catriona MacColl really making the most of her part as Sarah's stern yet loving mother. The supporting actors on the other hand are quite weak. I'm not sure if it's the result of a French director making an English-language film, but some characters (like the old caretaker) are so stilted and over the top that at first I thought something went wrong with the dub. Philippe Nahon's cameo is a nice little extra, but he too sounds a little awkward delivering his lines in English.

screen capture of Horsehead

While Horsehead goes on to reveal some of its mysteries, there's plenty of room left for a second viewing to fill in the gaps. There's not really a clear lore or a tightly knit ending that ties everything together, instead the viewer gets flashes of information and is left to complete the puzzle himself. Or maybe I just missed some things because I was so entranced by the film's amazing atmosphere. Ultimately, that's what got to me the most. The horror and mystery don't really originate from what is told, but from the way it is presented. It's probably a bit too abstract for most horror fans, but that's what sets this film apart from the rest.

Basset shows tremendous potential and doesn't waste any time cashing in on it. Horsehead is an audiovisual marvel, featuring an amazing soundtrack and stellar cinematography. The supporting cast may not always be up to par and those looking for a clear cut plot may be a little disappointed, but if don't mind that, Horsehead is one of the must-see horror films of the past few years. I can't wait to see what Basset will come up with for his next film.

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Mon, 20 Jul 2015 12:33:51 +0200
<![CDATA[Somatic Responses Interview/20 years]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/somatic-responses-20-years

It was 14 years ago that Somatic Responses opened up my palette to a richer and broader taste in electronic music. Up until that point I was only interested in straight-up rave and hardcore tracks. The first time I listened to Augemented Lines I had a hard time grasping what I was hearing. but the album kept pulling me back in and before I knew it I was wading into the darker depths of the web to find out more about things like IDM, broken beats and breakcore. I never stopped exploring since.

Somatic Responses aka Paul and John Healy

Throughout the years Paul & John Healy traversed many different electronic subgenres, pumping out albums and EPs at a frightening rate. The brothers seem unstoppable, never settling down, never conforming to the status quo, always finding new sounds and influences to push their music forward. 2015 is the year when they celebrate the 20th birthday of their Somatic Responses project, the perfect opportunity to ask them a couple of questions about their past, present and future.

Niels Matthijs: Let's start with an impossible question. Twenty years of Somatic Responses: out of all the albums and EPs you've made, pick a favourite and explain why that particular one?

Paul Healy (P): I suppose the first few were pretty special because of the new experiences of underground exposure and connecting with people far and wide when the internet or sending digital files wasn't so easy. My favourite ep/record is usually the last thing we did. I personally don't reflect so much on the past other than to start to re-connect with the concept of physical manipulation of sound through analogue gear. So depending on when you print this it's the last release we did :)

John Healy (J): For me, I'm really proud of what we've done with our net label Photon Emissions, especially a charity compilation we did back in 2014. Each release is still exciting, however, some of the stand out releases would be early IST, Drop Bass Network & Praxis coupled with what we've done on Hymen and Component.

Similarly, out of all the gigs you did, which is the one that stood out the most?

(P): It's usually about the whole experience: cool organisers, cool crowds and interesting places. We've been very lucky to experience some great (and some not so great) places and people. We continue to enjoy travelling together as brothers and have some chilling time together as well as being noisy bastards. Each time it feels quite unique. What excited and amused us before e.g. Sleeping in a huge bass bin in Austria isn't what we would enjoy now e.g. being treated to nice food, a comfortable hotel and Belgian beer. Some stand out places would have been Dead by Dawn Brixton, Various gigs in Belgium, Rome/Italy and Playing in the States (especially the West Coast). Being on a roster with friends or artists we respect is always an attraction.

(J): Two gigs stand out to me and both couldn't be more opposite. First there was an experience just outside Rome where we were basically lied to in order for us to play in the most horrendous free party I've ever been to. I lost a massive amount of money as expenses and fees weren't covered and we didn't sleep for something like 30 hours, fucking horrible. The flip would have been a gig in LA for Dark Matter a few years ago, it was so cool being back on the US west coast and hooking up with friends in SF & LA, however, the LA party just had that edge and it was mental fun. Loud, busy, full of familiar faces (and a few famous ones) and we really enjoyed ourselves.

Ah, how can I not mention the Detroit Hotel Rave, but that's another story ...

Somatic Responses is a pretty peculiar project. It's part of many scenes, at the same time it's part of no scene at all. You guys have done hardcore, acid techno, IDM, broken beats, breakcore, dark ambient, at one time even incorporating traces of dubstep in your work. Even so, the Somatic Responses sound has always come first, borrowing from different genres rather than bending to genre's conventions. Was this something that came naturally or was it very much intentional?

(P): I think it's natural, it's a mutation of sound that happens as we experiment. I suppose a genre/influence as an input is almost intentional but the output is organic and hopefully without a border.

(J): What he said.

How does it feel to be an outsider in an outsider's niche? I mean, even though you guys are respected throughout the underground electronic scene, I get the feeling you don't end up in many favourites lists. Is that the price you pay when you do your own thing rather than conform to a particular scene?

(P): The last thing I think of when I am writing a track is being on someone's favourites list. The amount of "well known" artists that state they loved our early work or continue to follow us but just write the same old shit track after track is something that bemuses me. Some people get on a hype machine and ride it but I don't think that's for us. We started listening to music as outsiders, searching for new sounds and going against the grain, long may it continue.

(J): It feels normal, it still amuses me that we're seen as quite leftfield as we don't fit a particular genre, quite a few people can't relate to the fact that you can write music on how you feel not how you'd like to make people feel.

Hymen, Ad Noiseam, Component, Sublight, Dark.Descent, Zhark. If I would have to come up with a list of labels that would represent the harsher side of experimental electronic music of the past 20 years, that'd be a pretty great start. You guys have releases on all of those labels. Do you care about things like that or are you just glad to put stuff out there, no matter what label it appears on?

(P): It's always good to have a mutual respect, if the label has a good approach and they are friendly we tend to make it work. We aren't in the habit of hunting down labels for cool points. We combine with people usually because we are on the same page at a given time.

(J): The older we get the more important it is to work with people we connect with and I feel that we do try to achieve this as much as possible. On saying that it's still exciting to be approached by a new label looking for a vinyl release.

Are there any labels you wish you had a release on? Any regrets in that regard?

(P): Initially I would say No, we may regret some of the ones we have worked with though. I think we move too quickly to chase a specific label, I personally don't have time for sending a demo and a label asking for it to be more X or Y.

(J): I always wanted to release on Industrial Strength (back in the 90s) but we did the next best thing with IST so that's cool. Also, Warp or Rephlex (again MANY years ago now) would have been nice but it wouldn't have changed out flight path in life.

Somatic Responses has always been very productive, often releasing multiple albums and EPs per year. You guys both have regular jobs and I assume you do spend some time listening to other music, watching a movie or generally doing stuff besides crunching sounds. Where do you find the time to make so much music?

(P): I'm a constant fiddler, maybe bordering on having a short attention span. Usually I turn the gear on just to try something out and ideas just flow. I am also not much of a perfectionist so the output is a direct link to ideas and wanting to move onto the next thing. I'm usually tired of the track I'm working on before it's finished, because during the process I've found another idea.

(J): For me it's a mix of writing music on my lunch break, in my car or grabbing a wee hour here or there in the studio. It feels like I'm not writing enough :). However, I can see this improving going forward.

Do you have many unreleased tracks lying around? Can we expect post-career Somatic Responses albums or is that too much to ask for?

(P): I'm not sure we can be arsed :)

(J): If we're releasing we're Somatic Responses.

After 20 years you'd think that your output would slow down a little, but the opposite seems to be true. In 2014 you released no less than 4 full-length albums. Has this something to do with the move back to traditional hardware, or is there another well of inspiration?

(P): Yes, pretty much so. Each track is a learning experience, a trial of something. There have been some cool changes in the last period.

(J): Hardware, especially Modular Synths have inspired me to the point that I've rediscovered the art of creating new sounds via real synthesis and have fallen in love with it all over again.

The abstract nature of electronic music lends itself perfectly well for movie scores, even so it's not a very common choice. Apart from some recent horror films that seems to have discovered droney dark ambient, there aren't many films out there who dare to go full electronic with their soundtrack. Is that something you'd be open to?

(P): 100%. There are some great soundtracks being made, we would love to do one, one day.

(J): This is one of my unfulfilled objectives in writing music, so YES!

If you had complete carte blanche, what existing film would you like to rescore.

(P): That's a hard question because I guess I need to pick a film that I like but dislike the soundtrack. Some of my favourites films are directly because of the soundtrack and link to imagery: Blade Runner, Drive etc. I would probably pick a scifi with crap soundtrack, Let's go for Edge of Tomorrow for now! Actually I don't want to associate with Scientologists, forget that. On second thoughts, lets go for Elysium, cool film, shit music!

(J): 2001 and all of David Lynch's films as well.

Are there any official music videos for Somatic Responses songs? I found a few but they looked unofficial to me. Chris Cunningham is probably a bit expensive by now, but I'd see that working out for your music. Or do you prefer a different kind of music video style?

(P): Yes his style is great, the more abstract the better! There are no official videos, it's not something we have made the time to venture into to be honest.

(J): I'd echo the above, we're so busy with writing music we don't really focus on video and other avenues of multimedia. We really ought to though :) and are open to ideas.

Do you still live in the same industrial miner's community? If so, do people over there know who you are and what you represent, or are people completely oblivious of the music you make?

(P): Yes we are still local to our original home. Our friends and family know what we do even if it's not to their taste, but generally it passes people by.

(J): I'd say on the whole oblivious which I'm really quite comfortable with.

About 25 years ago electronic music finally started to make headway into the commercial music scene through various forms of electronic dance music. I often feel that many people still can't accept it as a valid form of music though, especially the more complex variants. You think it just needs more time, or is electronic music simply too abstract to appeal to a large crowd?

(P): There will always be resistance, that in itself is good. I remember making music 20 years ago because I hated something, or thought something was lacking. Unless music divides opinion it's worthless in terms of creativity.

(J): Electronic music has seeped into modern culture over the last 20 years, albeit the nicer and more commercial genres. If you're talking about the sort of thing we do I doubt it as it's just too abstract and harsh for most "normal" people.

For the first time in 25 years or so I don't see anything particularly new or fresh on the horizon of the electronic music scene. Somatic Responses has always had a pioneering function, so tell me, where are we headed in the next couple of years?

(P): When we know, you will know.

(J): We'll be using more hardware again but in different ways than we did in the past, especially via Modular Synths. Other than that who knows, I personally don't want to know as sometimes it's the journey rather than the destination that is the memory and most important event.

Is there a certain appeal in pioneering for you guys, or is it just a part of who you are and what you like to make?

(P): I'm not sure, which leads me to the answer that it's part of who we are and what we like to make. I should be more self aware.

(J): It's who we are, we're luckily that we've built a construct of total creativity in our music, there is no failure only creativity and an end project.

Final question: does Somatic Responses have any specific goals for the future? Things you haven't done yet and would still love to do?

(P): Close the cupboard doors more often in the kitchen (one for my wife) and get a modular setup (although I doubt I will catch John up).

(J): more live hardware gigs would be great and I do miss that satisfaction when you're jamming and everything just clicks together - such a great feeling! Also doing a film score would be the realisation of a life long dream for me.

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Tue, 14 Jul 2015 11:39:18 +0200
<![CDATA[La Cite des Enfants Perdus/Jeunet and Caro]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/city-lost-children-review-jeunet-caro

When Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro work together, magic happens. Sadly they only directed two films as a team of equals and one of them has been slowly slipping through the cracks of history. To be honest, it's been a while since I watched La Cité des Enfants Perdus (The City of Lost Children) myself and even I couldn't quite remember what it was exactly about, so I was eager to find out if it would be able to stand the test of time. The answer was a resounding "Yes!".

screen capture of La Cité des Enfants Perdus

People who have seen Delicatessen should have a pretty good idea of what to expect. La Cité des Enfants Perdus follows a very similar setup, it's just a bit more fantastical overall. In part that's because there's a group of young children central to the storyline, but that's not all. Where Delicatessen was still grounded in something closer to reality, with only the secondary characters being outlandishly freaky, La Cité des Enfants Perdus is a little weirder, darker and crazier at its core.

Once again the film is set in a non-specified future (though it could just as well be an alternative past or a complete fantasy world for that matter). The world is mostly in shambles and creepy organizations are ruling the city. A group of young kids led by a local teacher pull elaborate heists in order to survive, but one by one the kids are being kidnapped and shipped off to a refurbished oil rig out in the sea. Their luck turns when they befriend a big man-child who performs on the local fairs as a strongman.

Meanwhile on the oil rig a mad scientist is trying to regain his ability to dream. Aided by five clones (not his mind) and a brain trapped in a water tank, he tries his best to cure his own condition. The story is a bit of a mess really, but as long as you accept the premise it makes enough sense while watching. I bet there's also enough material here for those who like to come up with deeper layers, but that's not really why I watch a film like this.

screen capture of La Cité des Enfants Perdus

Visually an stylistically, La Cité des Enfants Perdus is pretty much impeccable. Jeunet and Caro improved on Delicatessen to make their world look even more fantastical without having to resort to unnecessary CG aid. The world they created is so detailed it's almost exhausting. Lighting is dark an moody, the camera work is expressive and even the costumes are a perfect fit. It's one of those film that hasn't aged a lot visually even though it's already celebrating its 20th birthday.

The soundtrack is surprisingly dark and abstract for a Jeunet film. There's a slightly classic vibe to it, but the thoroughly French sound that usually accompanies his films is nowhere to be found here. It's a nice change of pace that suits the film, giving it a gloomier edge and adding a little extra darkness to an already demented universe, without ever compromising the fantasy atmosphere or having it spill over into horror territory.

The acting is somewhat of an acquired taste, but that's only to be expected when looking at the larger than life characters that inhabit the film. Daniel Emilfork does a tremendous job as the mad scientist, Dominique Pinon is excellent as comic relief and Judith Vittet inexplicably stopped pursuing her career as an actress soon after she finished this film. Good child actors are rare and while one great role doesn't guarantee a successful future, it's definitely a loss of potential. As a bonus, Ron Perlman plays one of the better parts of his career, to the point where the film wouldn't really be the same without him.

screen capture of La Cité des Enfants Perdus

La Cité des Enfants Perdus is a film that revolves around the elaborate and strange universe that Jeunet and Caro created. The story is merely a hook to visit and explore the different characters and set pieces. It's a trip through a strange, magical yet surprisingly violent world that demands a little lenience whenever the story skips from plot point to plot point. It' something I appreciate in a film, but not everyone will like the somewhat loose and incoherent structure.

If you're a fan of Delicatessen and you haven't seen La Cité des Enfants Perdus it's really a no-brainer. If you liked Jeunet's other films you can't really go wrong with this one either, but if you've been stumped by Jeunet's style before then it's probably best to just ignore this film. In a way I think it's one of his purest films, with Caro's influence splashed around everywhere you look. It's a great little film that survived its first 20 years remarkably well, but it will forever be a film for a niche audience, always on the verge of slipping out of sight. So if you're a Jeunet fan and you haven't seen it already, make a little effort and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

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Thu, 09 Jul 2015 11:08:29 +0200
<![CDATA[Antarctica: A Year on Ice/Anthony Powell]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/antarctica-year-on-ice-review-powell

You may or you may not have noticed, but ever since I started this blog and got to reviewing films, only a single documentary (Chandmani Sum) ever made it onto these pages. Nowadays the documentary "genre" (if you can call it a genre) is quickly gaining both popularity and credibility and after countless near misses and dead ends I finally found one worth reviewing. Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a unique journey to one of the most remote, untouched places on our planet.

screen capture of Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Most documentaries are either trying to sell you an idea or they focus on human drama. I'm not particularly fond of either kind. I tend to favor factual documentaries that set out to broaden the understanding of a certain topic. In turn, these documentaries are often a little too stale and functional for me to fully appreciate. Luckily there are exceptions to the rule and Antarctica is one of them. It's factual, it's personal and there is plenty of room for building up a mystic yet grounded atmosphere.

The film isn't so much about the continent of Antarctica as is it about what it means to live there and how we are trying to cultivate and protect it at the same time. Several bases are scattered around the land, each one claimed by a different nation, inhabited by only a handful of people throughout the year. The biggest village is called McMurdo, about 1250 people strong in summer, reduced to a mere 250 in winter. That's where this documentary takes place.

The thing about Antarctica is that you can't really wake up one day and decide to go live there. The people who inhabit the small bases are either there for science or for supporting the base itself. Whether they stay throughout the winter seasons seems more of a personal choice, although that wasn't made entirely clear. In any case, Powell seeks out several different people occupying the McMurdo base and follows them around for an entire year, documenting their experiences.

screen capture of Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Part of the strength of the documentary is the wide range of impressions Powell managed to collect, even amongst such a small population. While the continent itself has a major pull, housing many impressive sights and emitting an almost tangible sense of otherworldliness, it quickly becomes clear that living there can also be quite boring. Everybody is there to work and these bases aren't exactly vacation resorts. So while McMurdo might be right in front of an impressive mountain (the perfect setting for gawking at the splendour of nature), the people who live there are sitting inside for 12 hours, no windows in sight, handling phone calls with equipment that looks like it survived there since the 80's.

A Year on Ice isn't just 90 minutes of talking heads though. Powell himself has a soft spot for time-lapse photography and Antarctica proves a perfect location for some amazing lapses. To see the sun shoot around the sky for 24 hours without ever dipping beneath the horizons is quite amazing. To see the stars and Aurora Borealis in winter, when the sun doesn't rise for almost 4 months, is as haunting as it is beautiful.

What I liked best though is that Powell has a great eye for abstract beauty. It's not just simple shots of nature like in most other documentaries, the close-ups of the fiery sky when the sun is setting have a abstract painting-like quality to them. So do the close-ups of the thick icecaps, or the motion patterns of the sea shore when it's slowly freezing over. It's a beautiful way to show nature in motion while creating a very transfixing atmosphere that transcends the factual part of the documentary.

screen capture of Antarctica: A Year on Ice

A good film is able to make you love something you'd hate in real life. I'm definitely not the person to go to a cold, barren and far-away place like Antarctica and live there in isolation for a full year, but during these 90 minutes I loved spending time with the people who built up their lives over there. I really got a feel for the place, without ever getting the feeling I was looking at an elaborate advertisement.

Finally, what truly sealed the deal for me was Powell's fair and open approach to its subject. With the material at hand, it would've been so easy to push through an eco-message, or a commentary about how humans mess up our planet. And it's not that Powell strays away from those subjects, they are mentioned once or twice when appropriate, but it never felt forced or preachy. The effect is all the better for it.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a template for what I look for in a good documentary. It's factual, it's fair and it has strong filmic qualities. It's able to condense the feeling of spending a year on Antarctica in 90 minutes without ever feeling rushed or half-arsed. Kudos to Powell and the people who were involved with this documentary (both in front and behind the camera), because they did a mighty fine job.

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Mon, 06 Jul 2015 12:03:23 +0200
<![CDATA[Akumu Tantei /Shinya Tsukamoto]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/nightmare-detective-review-tsukamoto

If you're looking for an easier entry into Shinya Tsukamoto's oeuvre, Akumu Tantei [Nightmare Detective] is it. It's one of the few films where he doesn't dissect an entire genre just to reassemble it and make it his own. Akumu Tantei is a horror film with recognizable traces of J-Horror scattered left and right. On the other hand, 85% Tsukamoto is still a whole lot of manic, in your face craziness that should probably be approached with caution, especially when you're not all too familiar with his other films.

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

When Akumu Tantei was first released, people were a little too quick and eager to label the film as part of the J-Horror wave. Sure enough, the digital look might have tricked some and the larger focus on plot was a clear departure from earlier Tsukamoto films, but there are no long-haired ghosts, no classic scares and no grudges or revenge-themed plots. Instead Tsukamoto made things a bit more mysterious and fantastical, carving out his own niche in the genre.

The story about a mysterious phone call seemingly killing people triggered another false positive (Takashi Miike's Chakushin Ari [One Missed Call] was quite popular back then]), others tried to link the dream aspect of the killings to the Nightmare on Elm Street series. While those references are factually correct, Akumu Tantei as a whole has little to do with those films. The psychological and dramatic angles weigh much harder on the film, letting it transcend the horror genre.

The story is told from Keiko's point of view, a police young but accomplished detective. Transferring from a desk job, the suicide of a young 20-year-old is her first assignment in the field. When a second suicide turns up not much later, they discover that both victims killed themselves in their sleep. Hitting a dead end, Keiko's last resort is to contact Kagenuma, a young boy rumoured to be able to enter people's dreams. Convincing him to do so isn't that easy though, as Kagenuma considers his gift more a burden than a blessing.

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

While definitely not as crazy and extreme as Tsukamoto's older work, Akumu Tantei still carries clear markings of his trademark style. The dream attacks are filmed from up close by a camera that tries to bolt in all directions at once, while the ending has plenty of semi-abstract imagery. The rest of the film looks pretty great too, but never as outspoken compared to what he did in the past. I also remembered it as being a little grainier, but that might just be me spending the past 10 years getting used to the DV look.

The soundtrack follows the same toned-down pattern. Chu Ishikawa is still allowed to go completely wild during the dream-induced attacks, but the rest of the score is pretty timid for his doing. Again, it's definitely not a bad score, there are some very nice, moody tracks that invoke exactly the right atmosphere, it's just that it's way more accessibly than Ishikawa's earlier work.

Main attraction on the actor's list is without a doubt Ryuhei Matsuda. His part is actually quite limited, both in duration as in reach, but it's always a pleasure to see him appear on screen. Leading lady Hitomi does a decent enough job too, some well-known names (Ren Osugi, Masanobu Ando, Tsukamoto himself) in supportive roles round off a solid cast. The acting is nothing too out of the ordinary, but it more than meets the requirements for a film like this.

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

While the first part of the film is more horror-oriented, things get a bit more mysterious when Matsuda's character is introduced. The dream sequences aren't as abstract as you may expect from a Tsukamoto film, but slowly the horror aspect of the film is replaced with a darker, more intricate layer of mystery. It all builds up to a very gratifying finale, but it's just too little, too late for Akumu Tantei to be counted as one of the best Tsukamoto films.

It's still a great film though. Even a slightly watered down Tsukamoto film is way better than most of the J-Horror films released in the past 15 years. In that sense, Akumu Tantei is a great introduction to Tsukamoto's films for people not familiar with his work. It gives you enough slices of trademark Tsukamoto madness in order to get a feel for his work, but it also leaves enough traditional horror fun for the rest. Akumu Tantei may not be one for the ages, but it's still a superb diversion to pass the time.

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Mon, 29 Jun 2015 11:42:05 +0200