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[Shusuke Kaneko/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/shusuke-kanako-x10
Shusuke Kaneko

Last week I watched my 10th Shusuke Kaneko film. Believe it or not, I hardly had a clue who he was at that time. And it's not because Kaneko lacks a clear personal style or because he acts as a director for hire. On the contrary, his body of work is quite cohesive and looking back at the films he made there are some rather memorable entries, even the ones I didn't end up liking.

It's probably because Kaneko is mostly active in fringe niches of the horror genre. He directs the kind of films that are very characteristic for Japanse cinema, but never manage to impress me that much. His kaiju films in particular are a fun distraction, but I find them quite hard to keep apart and I never seem to be able to remember the directors who made them.

Kaneko started directing in the early 80s, but I'm completely unfamiliar with the films he directed back then. While quickly scanning through the genres and plot summaries it seems to be mostly comedies with otaku-like influences, which goes a long way to explain why those films haven't enjoyed broader international interest. His first big breakthrough came about in '93, when he was asked to direct one part of the Lovecraft-inspired Necronomicon anthology where he went head to head with Brian Yuzna and Christophe Gans.

In '95 Kaneko's career took an interesting turn when he directed the first entry in the 90s Gamera reboot. If you don't know who or what Gamera is, just think Gojira, only with a flying turtle. Kaneko proved quite capable at directing kaiju cinema and he returned to work on the second and third installment in the series. Fun stuff, but if you're not really sure what kaiju is it's probably better to sample some Gojira films first. In 2001 Kaneko made the switch to Gamera's big brother and directed Gojira, Mosura, Kingu Gidora: Daikaiju Sokogeki [Giant Monsters All-Out Attack], one of the more memorable entries in the long-running Gojira series.

When Kaneko wasn't busy directing kaiju films he explored other horror niches, but to no avail. Kami no Hidarite Akuma no Migite [God's Left Hand, Devil's Right Hand] had an interesting premise but was bogged down by poor execution, Kurosufaia [Cross Fire] was an even bigger letdown and still stands as one of the worst Japanese films I've seen to date. Even when he was given popular franchises (Death Note and Azumi) Kaneko failed to truly engage.

In the latter part of the '00s he turned his back on horror cinema and tried his hand on some drama films. And just like that the little international interest there was in his work dropped off completely. It wasn't until last year, when he released Shojo wa Isekai de Tatakatta [Danger Dolls], that Kaneko popped back up on the radar. Sadly the film is hardly worth the effort.

It's hard to pin down exactly what constitutes a typical Kaneko film, but at some base level there's a connection that binds his films together. Sadly the mediocre quality of his work is part of that connection. Personally I prefer Kaneko's kaiju films, but it's hard to recommend those to people unfamiliar with the genre. His horror films, while not all that bad on a conceptual level, suffer from poor execution and lifeless direction. As for his comedy and drama work, I really can't say as I haven't seen any. It's not an easy director to recommend and since he hasn't directed any essential films you might just as easily pass him by completely (even when showing great interest in Japanese film), but to say that he isn't worth your time would be unfair. Just don't expect too much and you might end up with some decent filler.

Best film: Gamera 3: Iris Kakusei [Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris] (3.5*)
Worst film: Kurosufaia [Cross Fire] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.20 (out of 5)

Thu, 01 Oct 2015 11:33:58 +0200
<![CDATA[The Lost Art of Switchboarding/A HTML Savior]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/switchboarding-between-cms-html-css

It's been a while since I've written anything front-end related. In part that's because I've been doing a lot of second-rate css work, but the main reasons is that I've been refocussing some of my energy to get more acquainted with cmses (Drupal in particular). The era of the lone htmler is ending and to make sure that html quality levels are still guaranteed there's little else to do than familiarize oneself with the theming layer of a cms. And I must say, it's been an interesting journey leading to some worthwhile insights.


I've been working on two separate projects, one made in Drupal 7, the other one made in Drupal 8. While 8 is definitely more front-end dev friendly, I pretty much ended up using the same methodology to output the desired html. The approach I ended up with also taught me a thing or two about how I wanted to structure my css work in future projects. For a while now I've been meaning to rethink the way I handle css, the Drupal work actually showed me a proper way to go forward with that.

To better explain what I'm getting at, I'll be using the telephone switchboard operator analogy, since that's what I felt like I was doing most of the time. For those of you who don't know what a switchboard operator did (way back in the day), the operators connected calls between people. The caller dialled a number, got connected to the operator, told her who he wanted to talk to and by switching the necessary wires the operator made the connection with the recipient.

Essentially, a switchboard operator functions as a mid-layer between two different systems that connect to each other in a many-to-many relationship.


A system like Drupal, which has been around for 15 years or so, has a lot of history that its carrying with it. Things get fixed between versions and many improvements are made with each increment, but in the end what happens in the Drupal back-end has little or no connection to the front-end it should eventually produce.

There are many ways to solve a problem in Drupal and each of those solutions renders its own html output. There are views, blocks, content types, panels, fields and layouts all intertwining to create a mashup of unlegible, impractical html code. And I'm sure I've only scratched the tip of the iceberg so far. In the end though, all a front-ender wants is a list, a container, a content type or whatever component is needed. For years, that's been the constant struggle between front-end and back-end developers, but as it turns out it's mostly unnecessary friction.

Drupal 7 and 8 gives you ample tools to separate the front-end from the back-end. Drupal 8 does a way better job with Twig imports and extends (greatly improving your DRY rating), but it's not exactly impossible to achieve with 7 either. In the end all you have to do is write the different front-end output options using the correct variables and use whatever view/block/panel id you have to connect it to the wanted output option.

/* switchboarding code */ {% if view_id='1' %} {% set viewOuput='list' %}{% endif %} {% if view_id='2' %} {% set viewOuput='container' %}{% endif %} /* html output */ {% if viewOutput== 'list' %} /* list code */ {% elseif viewOutput== 'container' %} /* container code */ {% endif %}


The past few years I've been battling a similar problem when writing css code. Design and semantics don't always match. Sometimes instances of the same semantic element are styled differently, sometimes different semantic elements are styled exactly the same. It's a big issue that we've been facing ever since we first started writing css, eventually leading to the hollowing of semantic html and resulting into the success of various css frameworks.

Solutions like less and sass provide us with the means to keep our html sane and our css clean though. Just write your html the best way imaginable, write abstract mixins/classes for your designs and couple them together in a layer in between. It's a bit different from the Drupal example in the sense that it will generate more css than necessary (compared to the css you need when you litter your html with senseless classes), but that's a trade-off worth examining I think.

So far I haven't had the time to try this out for real, but preliminary tests seem to indicate there's little standing in the way of working with css in this way (probably just some organizational challenges).


Even though we've been trying to decouple back-end, html, css and javascript for the past 20 years or so, we've never made much effort to do so properly. In the end people have always focused on doing their part as well as possible, demanding from others to adapt to fit their needs. Looking at the switchboarding principle, it allows us to move forward in a way where everybody could feel comfortable doing their job without compromising on the quality. And if anything, the middle layer could serve as an extra layer of documentation that makes the code that much more understandable.

From what I've experienced so far, it's pretty easy to accomplish and doesn't require excessive skills, nor does it make a project excessively more complex. Food for thought.

Tue, 29 Sep 2015 13:04:54 +0200
<![CDATA[Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho/Makoto Shinkai]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/place-promised-early-days-review-shinkai

Ten years ago Makoto Shinkai was making a name for himself with his DIY animes. Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho [The Place Promised in Our Early Days] was his first feature film, a prestigious project that faced some very stiff competition upon its release. Somewhat surprisingly it rose above many of its peers, ending up as one of the top animes of 2004, a notoriously great year for Japanese animation. And just like that Shinkai had launched himself as one of the top Japanese animation directors.

screen capture of Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho

Instead of facing the challenge alone (as he did with Hoshi no Koe), Shinkai gathered a small team of trusted animators around him in order to be able to finish Kumo no Muko on time. It's one thing to finish a 30 minute short on your own, making a 90 minute feature film when people's expectations are towering above you is something else entirely. Still, looking at the result, it's nothing short of a miracle Shinkai was able to release such an impressively detailed film with such a limited crew.

A long time had passed since I last watched Kumo no Muko and I must say I was kind of surprised to see how much science there was. I remembered the film as a rosy fantasy/romance, but there's quite a lot of tech talk about alternate universes and building planes. Clearly we're not talking Oshii-level sci-fi/philosophy talk here, but if you're averse to sci-fi stuff in general it might end up in your way of fully enjoying the film.

That said, there's still plenty of typical Shinkai romance and fantasy left to please his hardcore fans. The story follows Hiroki and Takuya, two young boys sharing a common dream. During their school breaks they work long hours in a factory, the money they earn is then spent on building a plane. Their ultimate goal is to fly the plane to a mysterious tower that has the ability to connect to alternative universes. When they meet up with Sayuri their dream finally seems within their grasp, but when she drifts off into an endless sleep Hiroki and Takuya abandon their dream and each go their own way.

screen capture of Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho

Kumo no Muko is visually astounding, something you might not immediately expect from a film created by such a small production team. The only area where the limited size of Shinkai's crew is really noticeable is the character design, which is quite basic and stylized, especially when characters are far away from the camera. It's doesn't look bad or even out of place, but it's clearly a shortcut for Shinkai and his men, giving them more time to work on the magnificent color gradients and elaborately detailed settings. The former in particular is what give Shinkai's film its distinct visual impression, setting it apart from other popular anime styles. Shinkai also loves to play around with various light sources, something that only adds to the already rich color palette. The result is a lush and abundantly beautiful-looking film that still holds its own today.

The soundtrack is more traditional in nature, as if scored for a typical Japanese drama. It's not bad, quite light and warm and well-equipped to underline the film's romantic and dramatic feel. There's a slight disconnect with the more scifi-oriented moments and at times it can be a bit too sentimental, then there's also the J-Pop track that will probably ruin the ending for some. But all in all it's not a bad soundtrack, just not as great as the rest of the film. The dub on the other hand is more than adequate, adding a slightly dreamy and idyllic vibe to the early scenes. There's also an English dub available, but as always it should best be avoided as it simply destroys a big part of the film's atmosphere.

screen capture of Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho

When Kumo no Muko approaches its finale, romance, sci-fi and fantasy are so intertwined that it can only be described as thoroughly anime-like. If you're not really used to inflated anime plot lines it might be a bit much to take in on your first viewing, though underneath all the extra complexity lies a simple, typical Shinkai story about love and loss that fuels the basic atmosphere of the film. The finale itself is gratifying enough, aptly combining a tiny bit of action with more dreamy emotions and reflections.

For a 10-year old animation film Kumo no Muko , Yakusoku no Basho still looks and feels remarkably fresh. Visually the film has hardly aged a bit, the somewhat convoluted plot still manages to intrigue and even though Shinkai tries to combine some seemingly polar elements, the film never feels forced or disjointed. It's not Shinkai's best, but for a first feature film, made with such a small team, it's a majestic effort that still stands as one of the greater and more unique anime fantasies to date.

Mon, 28 Sep 2015 11:38:10 +0200
<![CDATA[Eric Tsang/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/eric-tsang-x10
Eric Tsang

Most people will think of Eric Tsang as an actor (he's the small, somewhat chubby, high-pitched voiced guy playing Hon Sam, one of the Triad bosses in the Infernal Affairs trilogy), but there's much (much) more to his career. Sure enough he's first and foremost an actor, with almost 240 acting credits to his name and still going strong. But 27 directing credits is nothing to sniff at either and with some worthwhile (and meaningful) production work behind his name I think it's fair to call him one of the driving forces behind 35 years of Hong Kong cinema.

Though he mostly worked in comedy, Tsang started out his career directing martial arts flicks in the late 70s. That may be a little hard to imagine if you are familiar with his style, and truth be told, watching Zei Zang [The Loot] and Ti Guan [The Challenger] does reveal little of Tsang's trademark characteristics. Still, they're both decent enough martial arts flicks with plenty of action and some lighter moments in between. Good fun if you're in the mood for some classic non-Shaw Bros martial arts cinema.

With the rise of Hong Kong comedy during the early 80s, Tsang quickly found his niche. In 1982 he released the first Zuijia Paidang [Aces Go Places] film, a cornerstone release that would mark the start of one of the more popular Hong Kong action/comedy franchises. Tsang would also direct the second film, a sizeable upgrade and my personal favorite. The other sequels were directed by Hark Tsui, Ringo Lam and Chia-Liang Liu, a prime selection of Hong Kong directing talent.

Tsang would continue to direct and act at a frightening pace, but most of his 80s films are hard to come by nowadays. The only other 80s release that really stands out is Zui Jia Fu Xing [Lucky Stars Go Places], a mash-up of My Lucky Stars and Aces Go Places, with Sammo Hung and Karl Maka leading the pack. Hong Kong comedy is quite peculiar and hard to recommend, but films like these are worth a gamble if you're curious enough.

Like many of his peers, Tsang flourished during the early 90s. In '91 he co-directed Wu Fu Xing Chuang Gui [Ghost Punting] with Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen. A simple action/comedy, built almost entirely on the reputation of its stars (Hung and Tsang also starred as leads). Fun filler but only meant for the hardcore Hong Kong fans. One year later Tsang set out to do things a little differently, failing horribly. Fan Dou Ma Liu [Come Fly the Dragon] is a disastrous action flick starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung. It may sound like a golden combination on paper, but the film is a worthless piece of Z-flick garbage, unworthy of the people involved.

Ironically Tsang also produced his best film that year by once again straying from the beaten path. Jue Dai Shuang Jiao [Handsome Siblings] is a sprawling fantasy/martial arts combo starring Andy Lau and Brigitte Lin. It isn't quite up there with the best films in the genre, but it comes close enough and if you're looking for lesser known films resembling the Chinese Ghost Story series, look no further.

Soon after Tsang's directorial career started to wane, so he put more focus on his acting jobs and he started to spend more and more time producing films, paving the way for new talent. The two films he directed during the late 90s bombed, the three he directed after the turn of the millennium were all co-directed films where he clearly took on the role of coach. Guang Hui Sui Yue [7 Assassins] is a pretty fun flick if you're interested in Tsang's more recent work, just know that his input was probably quite limited.

If you're into Hong Kong comedy (admittedly a tough niche to crack) then Tsang's films will have some appeal. But even though he directed 27 films so far, there's little in the way of a signature style to tie his oeuvre together, apart for Tsang's affinity with comedy. He's a tough director to recommend, but if you like him as an actor it wouldn't hurt to try some of his films. Quality varies wildly, but you're bound to find some pleasant surprises along the way.

Best film: Jue Dai Shuang Jiao [Handsome Siblings] (3.5*)
Worst film: Fan Dou Ma Liu [Come Fly the Dragon] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.45 (out of 5)

Thu, 24 Sep 2015 13:10:51 +0200
<![CDATA[Sinister 2/Ciaran Foy]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/sinister-2-review-ciaran-foy
Sinister 2 poster

In 2012 the first Sinister was one of the surprise horror hits of the year. While a decent enough film, I have to admit the positive buzz surrounding it surprised me a little. I felt the jump scares weren't really up to par, the bad guy was kinda lame and with a running time clocking in at 110 minutes, it royally overstayed its welcome. Normally I would simply watch the sequel because I'm one of those people who likes to finish what he starts, but when I heard Ciaran Foy (Citadel) was attached to the project, my interest was piqued.

In many ways Sinister 2 is a pretty typical horror sequel. The reveal of the bad guy happens a lot faster, there are more scares per minute, the film is shorter in length and lacks a famous lead to draw in the crowds. Sinister 2 was made to cash in on the name of the first film without spending too much money in the process. The result could've been pretty dire, if not for Foy's talent pulsating underneath the film's tangibly commercial setup. For all its faults and shortcomings though, I actually ended up liking Sinister 2 better than the first one.

For one, the scares are way more effective compared to the first film. From the very start Foy builds up the tension without ever dropping the pace. There's no long introduction, not too much character development and very few breathers in between, instead Sinister 2 jumps right into the action and keeps the rope tight. That saves about 15 minutes in the end, making for a much more economic running time.

The highlights of Sinister 2 are without a doubt the short found footage segments interspersed throughout the film. They are nasty, vile and gruelling without ever becoming too gory or in your face. The soundtrack is what truly sets them apart though. Heavily distorted, electronic-based soundscapes and music that at times overpowers even the visuals. The kitchen murder in particular is a bit of film that's best experienced in front of a really big screen with a very capable sound system. It's in these moments that Foy's influence is felt the most.

The acting is decent enough, the plot suffices. A bit too much time is spent on the custody case and the father of the kids could've used some extra acting lessons, but those are just small annoyances that aren't allowed enough time to spoil the rest of the film. The bad guy is also still a bit silly-looking, luckily he only plays a secondary role in this sequel.

Foy seems well aware of the film's strengths and weaknesses and tries to focus on what makes a good horror flick tick. That said, it's clear that Sinister 2 is more than just a Foy product and at times the call for commercial success clashes with its purer genre aspirations. It's a shame because the potential was there to make this even better, on the other hand it's always good to see a sequel improving on the first film and to see an upcoming director confirming his talent with his follow-up. I just hope Foy returns to original projects sooner than later.

Tue, 22 Sep 2015 11:31:02 +0200
<![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)

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.

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

Thu, 30 Jul 2015 12:24:55 +0200