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[Rippu Van Winkuru no Hanayome/Shunji Iwai]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/bride-rip-winkle-review-shunji-iwai

Shunji Iwai is back. After a slew of documentaries and a lackluster American debut, last year's animated return to the world of Hana and Alice was the first sign that Iwai had rekindled his love for feature-length cinema. With Rippu Van Winkuru no Hanayome [A Bride for Rip Van Winkle], Iwai returns to the comfort of live action drama and he does so with style. Fans of early 2000 Iwai have a lot to get excited about, not in the least because his latest manages to stay fresh and interesting for a whopping 180 minutes.

screen capture of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

While the Japanese movie industry took a qualitative nose dive, Iwai simply moved his focus elsewhere and went on to do other things. Of course it's not like the past 10 years didn't yield any good Japanese films, but for directors, getting their films made became a much bigger struggle compared to the early 00s. And for a director like Iwai, someone entrenched in the Japanese drama genre, it just wasn't a very nice place to be. Now that things are starting to look up again, it's the ideal moment for Iwai to take back his rightful place.

Beware of the shortened version of Rippu Van Winkuru though. There's a 120 minute cut that no doubt appeals to more narrative-focused audiences out there, but Iwai fans should make sure to seek out the 180 minute director's cut. While bring back the running time without harming the plot directly shouldn't have been too difficult, Iwai's genius is typically found in the moments in between and Rippu Van Winkuru is no exception. I'm generally not a big fan of films overshooting the 120 minute mark, but it's just necessary here.

Rippu Van Winkuru follows the life of Nanami Minagawa, a young aspirant teacher who decides to settle down once she finds out that she isn't really cut out to be a teacher. Nanami submits to the typical Japanese housewife life (she gets married, drops her career and tends to the house), but forces outside her marriage are plotting against her happiness. These events drive her in the arms of Mashiro Satonaka, a free-spirited young woman who opens Nanami's eyes.

screen capture of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

Iwai is a seasoned director and it shows. His visual signature is all over this film, with dreamy camera work, a knack for catching just the right light, the occasional visual frivolities and some very nice visual compositions as the icing on the cake. His style lends grace to the film and the characters, complementing their state of mind without ever feeling too rigid or constrained. It's an approach Iwai has been honing since his very first films and he continues to improve on it with each film he makes.

The soundtrack too will be familiar territory for Iwai fans. A combination of famous classical songs and original piano tunes make up most of Rippu Van Winkuru's music. It's a proven formula and it does work well, but the actual choice of songs may come off a little lax at times. Even people who are generally unfamiliar with classical music will recognize the songs, a more adventurous selection could have lent the film some extra credibility. It's only a minor complaint, when all is said and done the soundtrack is effective and that's what counts, but there's definitely some missed potential there.

Taking up the lead role is Haru Kuroki. She does a tremendous job bringing her somewhat fleeting and wayward character to life, even so her presence had me quite confused. She reminded me a little too much of Yu Aoi and I kept wondering if Iwai picked Kuroki because of the resemblance she bares to what is generally considered one of Iwai's favored actresses. It was a little uncanny at times, though I'm sure people not familiar with Iwai's history will look right past it. The secondary cast is up to par, with Cocco and Go Ayano delivering stand-out performances.

screen capture of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

The narrative isn't exactly complex, but there's a lot of it and the film packs a couple of nice twists to boot. Kuroki's character has quite a journey in front of her and Iwai doesn't cut any corners. He does find a nice balance between atmospheric and narrative-driven scenes though, easily justifying the film's 180 minute running time. That said, you do need to be in the mood for a Japanese drama, if you're craving some simple-minded action fun then Rippu Van Winkuru isn't going to keep you entertained for the full 3 hours.

It's comforting to know Shunji Iwai is back and hasn't lost his touch. Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken was a solid indication that there was some magic left in him, but with Rippu Van Winkuru no Hanayome he returns to his core style, picking things up right where he left off back in 2004. Strong acting, an intriguing plot and a warm, dreamy atmosphere make this an easy recommend. If you're not familiar with Iwai's work this might not be the best place to start, but fans of his earlier work should make sure they don't miss out on his latest.

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Thu, 16 Feb 2017 10:55:35 +0000
<![CDATA[Gekijoban Mozu/Eiichiro Hasumi]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/mozu-review-eiichiro-hasumi

A single glance at the poster art was all I needed to decide whether I wanted to see Eiichiro Hasumi's Gekijoban Mozu. The moment I recognized Takeshi Kitano's face, I knew this film would be a worthwhile gamble. When I sat down to watch the film I was completely clueless about what exactly I was getting myself into, I didn't even know who directed the film. I have to admit that made it a little challenging at times, but at the same time I'm quite confident it made me like the film even better.

screen capture of Mozu

The thing with Gekijoban Mozu is that it follows a 2-part TV series, which in turn is based on a series of novels written by Go Osaka. That's a lot of back story missing for people not familiar with the franchise. On top of that, the film makes no effort whatsoever to properly introduce the characters or recap anything that happened before. There are some flashbacks, but they probably make things even more confusing. The film simply begins where the series left off and sets out to tie a few remaining knots, coherence be damned.  

The film received quite a lot of flack for that from non-familiars, but personally I didn't mind at all. Sure enough you're missing out on some details and several characters appear and reappear almost randomly, but considering the cast of larger than life characters and the over-the-top, convoluted plot I can only wonder what people think they're missing. Gekijoban Mozu isn't a delicately scripted affair, nor does it have subtle and/or layered characterization. Whatever gaps there are, they're easily plugged by anyone remotely familiar with the genre tropes.

The film follows Naotake, a disillusioned cop who just happens to be in the right spot when a group of black suits tries to kidnap Elena, a young but mentally disabled girl. Naotake intervenes, unaware of the fact that the kidnappers are from the very organization that killed his wife and daughter. Together with Ryota, an ex-cop turned private eye, he vows to protect the girl, but when the people behind Elena's failed kidnapping get to Ryoto's daughter, they have no choice but to submit to the wishes of the criminals.

screen capture of Mozu

One of the main reasons I tend to dislike films based on TV series is their typical lack of cinematic muscle, but that clearly wasn't a problem here. From start to finish, Gekijoban Mozu looks exceptionally slick. The most eye-catching aspect of the film is definitely the way color and light turn every frame into a flickering yet atmospheric living painting. Also notable is the abundance of horizontal camera work, moving the frame from one perfect shot to the next. There's always this slight sense of disappointment once the camera starts moving, but that quickly fades when you notice it slowly morphing into the next awesome shot. Add to that some stunning locations and you have a film with plenty of visual bravura.

The soundtrack is a little less demanding. It's actually quite decent for this type of film, rising moderately above the mostly generic background music that's expected of the genre, but memorable it is not. It adds the right amount of tension and adrenaline to each scene and it fulfils its duty effortlessly, but it never steers or dictates the atmosphere of the film. All in all it's a decent enough soundtrack, but I tend to expect just a little more.

As for the cast, it seems that all the important actors from the TV series returned to their parts. Leading the pack is Hidetoshi Nishijima in one of his coolest roles to date, other notable performances come from Teruyuki Kagawa and Yusuke Iseya. And then there's Takeshi Kitano of course, who revels in his part of Daruma, the film's ultimate bad guy. His role is relatively small, even so his presence looms over the film and when he finally does appear, he lives up to the promise.

screen capture of Mozu

Critic Edmund Lee wrote that Gekijoban Mozu feels like a 2-hour highlight reel of a 6-hour film. I agree, but where Lee used it as a knock against the film, I see it as something that speaks in favor of Gekijoban Mozu . I don't think the "extra four hours" would've added anything substantial to the film and the last thing I'm looking for is a bunch of generic plot filler and pointless exposition so each and everyone is on board with what is happening. Instead we get a wide range of crazy characters, some very cool action scenes and a 2-hour rollercoaster with exceptional entertainment value.

If you don't like the bewilderment of not being able to follow every small detail and you prefer your film plots nailed shut, Gekijoban Mozu clearly isn't the film for you (unless you watch the series first, but I'm not even sure that clears up everything). But if you like 120 minutes of stylish showdowns, explosive action scenes and over-the-top characters, Eiichiro Hasumi delivers one of the best films in ages. It's a terrific ride and one of the best live-action TV series adaptations I've seen.

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Mon, 06 Feb 2017 11:01:53 +0000
<![CDATA[Richard Linklater/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/richard-linklater-x10
Richard Linklater

He was once the voice of a young generation, but nowadays Richard Linklater is a lot harder to define. Going through his oeuvre can be a somewhat bewildering experience, especially when picking the wrong films (or picking them in the wrong order). That's not to say his oeuvre houses a random collection of styles and genres. Linklater does keep to a somewhat limited set of approaches, it's just that each one is wildly different from the next. It makes him an interesting director to explore, but it also increases the chance you might run into some stinkers along the way.

Linklater started out in the 80s, but very few have seen It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, his very first feature film. People only started to notice Linklater when he directed Slacker and Dazed and Confused, two films that focused on young kids growing up, doing very little of anything at all. Dazed and Confused in particular grew out to become a real cult favorite, though I can't say I found much to like there. The clichés and stereotypes are so thoroughly American that it became impossible for me to relate to Linklater's 70s nostalgia.

In '95 Linklater started the Before trilogy, probably his most broadly appreciated set of films to date. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy take on the parts of two fated lovers, with each film running through different key moments in their relationship. While very dialogue-heavy, there's a certain lifelikeness and spontaneity to the films that makes them quite irresistible. The first two films (Before Sunrise - 1995 - and Before Sunset - 2004) are more romantic in nature, the last one (Before Midnight - 2013) is a bit more dramatic. Watching them in order of appearance is recommended, though not absolutely required.

I lost track of Linklater during the late '90s, but early on in the '00s he gave his career a surprising twist. Waking Life is a daring experiment that delivers 100 minutes of philosophical meanderings in animated form. Linklater made use of early rotoscoping techniques to transform live action footage into animation, effectively turning the whole film into a painfully long trip into uncanny valley. It didn't really help that the philosophical topics were quite weak and were never explored in any meaningful way. Linklater would revisit this setup five years later. A Scanner Darkly would add some more explicit scifi elements (and Keanu Reaves), which ended up only making things worse. A Scanner Darkly is by far the worst film he ever made.

But Linklater also tried his hand at some more commercial projects. School of Rock is a Jack Black comedy aimed at a younger audience, Bad News Bears a sport flicks with a post-Bad Santa Billy Bob Thornton looking to repeat his success and Bernie is another Jack Black comedy, though with a slightly darker edge to it. These film are quite variable in quality, but it's clear that Linklater fares better when he can do more personal projects.

In 2014 Linklater put himself back on the map with Boyhood, a project he worked on intermittently for 12 years. The idea was to follow a family, with the actors aging in real time. While the setup is intriguing and the execution was clearly geared at providing a grand dramatic experience, the mediocre drama and overly long running time stood in the way of Boyhood becoming a great film. I found it rather lifeless and overdone, which is a shame as the idea did appeal to me. The film was received extremely well though, so your mileage may vary.

Linklater's career isn't finished yet. Just last year he directed Everybody Wants Some!!, a more "modern" version of his early films, this time harking back to the 80s. Not quite as successful, but Linklater's entire career is characterized by ups and downs. I'm not the biggest fan, but I do keep an eye on him and I do try to watch his films whenever I get the chance. If you're looking to break into his oeuvre, the Before trilogy is probably the best place to start. If you're a bit more seasoned, films like Boyhood and Walking Life might be more to your liking, but there's just no guarantees with Linklater.

Best film: Before Sunset (4.0*)
Worst film: A Scanner Darkly (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.35 (out of 5)

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Fri, 03 Feb 2017 11:10:14 +0000
<![CDATA[Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu /Yoshio Kuroda]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/dog-of-flanders-review-yoshi-kuroda

The time was right to give Yoshio Kuroda's Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu [The Dog of Flanders] another spin. It's been ages since I last watched the film and late 2016 a brand new statue dedicated to the memory of Nello and Patrasche was revealed right in front of Antwerp's cathedral. A perfect excuse to revisit this tragic story, on top of that I was also pretty eager to find out how well Kuroda's version had held up over time. Luckily the film didn't disappoint.

screen capture of Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu

The original book was written by Ouida, a 19th century British novelist. The story is set in Flanders, but never really got much love over here until a popular comic book series (Spike and Suzy - Suske & Wiske in Dutch) picked it up and rewrote history to include its main set of characters. More importantly though, the Japanese heard of the tale and fell in love with its premise. Nowadays just about everyone who ever attended school in Japan knows the story of Nello and Patrasche by heart.

There's a Japanese animated series that dates back to the 70s, Kuroda's film is best seen as a modernization of that series. This explains why the art style looks a little outdated (think Candy Candy or Spoon Obasan), but underneath that simple exterior lies a very tragic and touching story, so don't let its innocent looks fool you. The story and execution put Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu firmly into Watership Down and Hotaru no Haka territory. While those films enjoy broad recognition though, Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu's lack of general availability has made it way more obscure.

The plot of the film stays pretty close to the original. Nello is a young boy who lives with his grandfather on a farm. He is best friends with Aloise, but she was born into a rich family and Aloise's dad doesn't like Nello hanging out with her. Things take a turn for the worse when Nello's grandfather is forced to pay off Nello's dog Patrasche, a setback that leaves the two with little money to survive. Not long after Nello's grandfather falls ill, putting the burden of survival on the shoulders of Nello and his faithful dog.

screen capture of Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu

The simplistic character art takes a while to get used to, but 30 minutes in I hardly noticed it anymore. For a feature film it looks pretty bare and basic, luckily Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu is helped by its more elaborate background art and a pretty decent level of animation. The animation in particular helps to bring the characters to life. It may not be as in-your-face or detailed as your average Disney feature, but it does capture the actions and emotions with surprising subtlety. Sadly the ending features some very out of place (and technically limited) CG. There's only one such scene, but it does happen smack in the middle of the emotional payoff. A strange decision maybe, but I guess that's just a sign of the 90s.

The soundtrack is rather present and can be a little sentimental at times. It walks a fine line between emotional and sappy, but never overreaches. Your mileage may vary of course. If you demand absolute subtlety from a drama soundtrack, then the music will no doubt be a bit too much, but all in all there are way worse offenders out there. The dub is a little trickier. The film is set in Antwerp, so you'd think a Dutch dub would make sense here. Sadly Dutch/Flemish subs are quite atrocious and to add insult to injury, they even changed the names of the characters to Martijn and Marieke. There's also an American dub out there, which makes no sense at all, and then there's of course the original Japanese dub. While it's a tad weird to hear Belgian characters speak Japanese, it's by far the best dub and in combination with the art style it's probably the sanest option available. Finding the Japanese dub with English subs will be quite the challenge though.

screen capture of Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu

The story of Nello and Patrasche is incredibly sad. Very little goes right for the boy and his dog and when luck is finally on their side there's always standing something in the way. The outcome of the story is inevitable and knowing what is to come actually makes repeated viewings more depressing. The strength of this film lies in the sweet and innocent portrayal of Nello and the love he shares with his dog Patrasche. There's not much complexity there, but it does feel extremely genuine and truthful. This setup was very deliberate too, as is illustrated by the way Kuroda worked this reasoning into the plot itself. It's not quite often that you see a film arguing its own choices within its own narrative. 

Ideally I would advise against watching a Dutch or English dub, but if you're able to stomach it this film is just too rare and too beautiful to pass up simply because a Japanese dub isn't readily available. The character art takes a little getting used to, but lush background art, smart animation and a good score make up for that. And when you strip all that away, what remains is a very touching, very dear yet very sad story about a boy that got a lot less out of life than he deserved. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you can watch this film, make sure you do.

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Wed, 01 Feb 2017 10:53:05 +0000
<![CDATA[Tai Bei Piao Xue /Jianqi Huo]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/snowfall-taipei-review-jianqi-huo

If by now you still don't know who Jianqi Huo is, you haven't been paying attention to my reviews. The past few years I've been busy plugging the gaps in his oeuvre and discovered a director with an excellent nose for traditional Chinese romance. In a rare change of pace, Huo travels to Taiwan to helm a more contemporary Japanese production. The result is Tai Bei Piao Xue [Snowfall in Taipei], a vintage Huo with a little twist, but still bearing all the perks I've come to expect from his films.

screen capture of Snowfall in Taipei

Huo is someone who loves to incorporate China's traditional cultural customs and values into his films. They are typically set in a somewhat idealized China, which functions as a cosy background to the romantic or filial relationships that take center stage. I don't feel Huo's work is intentionally soft on China's more extreme policies, but it's safe to say that Chinese censors probably prefer his films to those of some of China's more internationally recognized directors.

Tai Bei Piao Xue feels more like an outlier in Huo's body of work. Not so much thematically, but stylistically. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Yibai Zhang's films, in particular Zhang's short in About Love. That's not a bad thing mind, Zhang is Huo's modern counterpart and one of China's best directors when talking about romantic cinema. It was actually quite nice to see Huo break outside of his usual confines as it allowed him to showcase his broader talents, while still operating within a familiar genre.

The film follows Xiao Mo, an orphan collectively raised by the people in a small village. Xiao Mo grew up a nice young man who spends his day helping out the older people in his neighborhood. His life is turned upside down when one day May, an up and coming singer, arrives in his town. May is running away from the stress and pressure of stardom and the two immediately hit it off together. But they both realize that their relationship is doomed to fail, as May can't stay in the village and Xiao Mo isn't willing to move away.

screen capture of Snowfall in Taipei

Despite the change of scenery, visually not so much has changed for Huo. The small village amidst the Taiwan mountains isn't as oldskool or strikingly rural as its Chinese equivalents, but it's still cosy and romantic enough to evoke that typical Huo atmosphere. From time to time the film moves to the big city, but those moments are actually quite sparse and don't take too much away from the film's rustic feel. Colors are striking, the lighting is moody and the camerawork is fine, making for a great-looking film.

The soundtrack is fitting, meaning it makes no effort at all to break from the mould. There are some poppier tracks dispersed throughout the film, mostly relating to May's character, but the larger part of the soundtrack is just mellow string and piano music that feels appropriate, but is also a little boring. I prefer a more daring soundtrack, then again the music never irritates or becomes too sentimental, which at least maintains a nice status quo.

The cast too is adequate. Bo-lin Chen does a fine job. Once hailed as one of Asia's biggest talents, he never quite made it to the top but he fares well in more commercial films and the part here fits him like a glove. Yao Tong also does a commendable job in her first ever feature film. Her film career never truly took off, but she seems to pick her parts with care. The two of them make a fine couple, the rest of the cast is solid too, but they clearly play second fiddle to the central duo.

screen capture of Snowfall in Taipei

Tai Bei Piao Xue is a pure genre film, so don't go expecting many surprises. The ending might not be 100% fan service, especially when comparing it to Western romance/dramas, but that's actually not too uncommon for an Asian film. More importantly, the execution isn't too melodramatic or cheap, making for a nice romance with likeably characters and just enough depth. If romance isn't your thing this film most likely won't change your mind, but genre fans should find little to dislike here.

While there are clear differences with Huo's earlier films, Tai Bei Piao Xue still looks and feels like a vintage Jianqi Huo film. Whether that's good or bad depends on how tolerant you are towards romantic movies. The film looks great, the actors do a good job and even though the soundtrack is a little inconspicuous the atmosphere is warm and inviting. It's a pleasant, sweet and endearing film that might not leave an enormous footprint, but should be easy enough to love nonetheless.

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Thu, 26 Jan 2017 10:49:27 +0000
<![CDATA[Natural Born Killers/Oliver Stone]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/natural-born-killers-review-oliver-stone

It was such a long time ago since I last watched Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers that I really didn't know what to expect. I remembered it as a pretty wild, energetic, experimental and explosive film, but I had no idea whether these memories would hold up 5000+ films down the road. There was only one way to find out of course, so I sat down to revisit Stone's masterpiece once more. And guess what? It turned out to be pretty amazing still.

screen capture of Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone is known for producing somewhat divisive films, often based on slightly risqué subjects. He also has a knack for political portraits and biographies, but nothing you've seen from his hand could possibly prepare you for the madness that is Natural Born Killers. The script was written by Quentin Tarantino (and while heavily revised later on, you can still expect it to be pretty violent and over the top), but the real draw is Stone's monumental and energetic direction. I don't think Hollywood has seen a similar film since.

Stone and Tarantino take a serious stab at the mediatization of reality, with the media being presented as an insatiable beast, pushing the boundaries of morals and good taste in order to show the most gruesome and spectacular footage possible. In a way this is still quite topical, only nowadays we've shifted from reality TV and live TV reporting of war, death and accidents to live-streaming vileness on Twitter and uploading torture videos on YouTube. Maybe Stone should consider a sequel.

The film follows Mickey & Mallory Knox, America's most popular mass murderer newlyweds. While they divide their time between keeping themselves out of reach from the police and keeping their killing spree alive and kicking, their popularity turns into a veritable hype amongst viewers at home. So much in fact that popular TV personality Wayne Gale sees it as an opportunity to further his career. He gathers a TV crew and starts live-broadcasting his hunt on the crazy couple.

screen capture of Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers is an extremely visual film. By modern standards it may appear a little crude and/or unfinished, but the experience is so energetic and in your face that it hardly matters. Stone incorporates every visual trick in his repertoire. From stark color filters to severely over-exposed scenes, crazy camera angles and manic editing, it's all there. Add to that a couple of animated shots, some black and white moments and a dash of handheld camera work and you might begin to grasp the visual onslaught on display here. And best of all, it never slows down, not even a little.

The soundtrack is a little less daring, though I must admit that the classic rock 'n roll sound goes well with the setting. The south-western USA vibe is one of the cornerstones of the film and the juke-box rock is a perfect fit for the characters (who look and sound like modern-day cowboys). It's not a soundtrack I would listen to separate from the film and for the most part it's more background noise than a real driver of atmosphere, but all in all it's a fitting selection of tracks that doesn't do the film any harm.

If the visuals weren't crazy enough, brace yourself for some larger than life characters. Both Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis deliver career-defining performances. I'm not a big fan of either actors (Lewis in particular can be more than a little grating in lesser films), but both are completely nailing it as Mickey and Mallory Knox. The secondary cast is equally impressive, with Robert Downey Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones as most notable additions. Tom Sizemore and Rodney Dangerfield are the cherry on the cake.

screen capture of Natural Born Killers

The first hour of the film is mainly focused on the hunt, but the real meat of the film is reserved for the second part. One year after their inevitable capture, Gale returns to prison for a live interview with Mickey Knox. It's the setup for an insanely hectic and bloody finale that explores how far Stone can push the concept of live TV beyond the norm of the acceptable. It's not for the squeamish and Stone really pulls out all the stops, but at the same time it's pretty refreshing to see an American film that goes full in rather than hit the brakes during its final act.

Despite its surprisingly high average on IMDb and general critical acclaim, Natural Born Killers isn't a very accessible film. It's a pretty crazy ride that revels in the violence on display, while at the same time lashing out at the media's sensationalism and the audience's lack of critical standards. If that isn't enough, the presentation itself is also quite taxing, resulting in a film that's possible a bit much for mainstream audiences. That said, I was impressed with how well the film held up after all this time. The execution may be a little crude, but the heart and soul of the film haven't aged a single day. Not the easiest film to recommend, but if you don't mind extremes, make sure your give this one a shot.

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Wed, 18 Jan 2017 10:22:06 +0000
<![CDATA[Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen/Tatsuya Oishi and Akiyuki Shinbo ]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/kizumonogatari-2-review-oishi-shinbo

The first Kizumonogatari was the best thing I watched last year. It was an original mix of all things anime, a film that took me completely by surprise. This is a luxury Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen didn't have. I came in with similar expectations, which might have been unfair for a sequel that aims to be little more than a mere continuation of the first film. Nekketsu-hen wasn't a big disappointment mind, but it never raised the bar like follow-up episodes of FLCL (its spiritual twin) managed to do.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

Nekketsu-hen is the central part of a 3-part story arc. Even within the context of a traditional feature film, that middle part is always the toughest to get through. The beginning of a story is supposed to be novel, fresh and exciting while the finale holds all the big build-ups and emotional payoffs. The middle part functions as the connection between start and finish and that's exactly what this film aims to be, though Oishi and Shinbo do their best to add some extra spice where possible.

This second film is a direct continuation of the first one, meaning you can't really treat this as a series of stand-alone films. Order is of utmost importance here. While the story itself could maybe stand on its own (at least to a certain degree), there are too many references and unexplained parts to make sense (or as much sense as possible) of the events in Nekketsu-hen. If you want to counter the mid-arc lull you could possibly wait and watch the films back to back, but I simply wasn't that patient.

Now that Koyomi has become a vampire and with Kiss-shot still yearning for her lost limbs, the stage is set for a little battle count-down. If Koyomi wants to become human again, he has to return all stolen limbs to Kiss-shot. In order to do that he needs to defeat the three esteemed vampire hunters who stole the limbs from Kiss-shot. While any normal person would try to focus on the task at hand, Koyomi still finds the time to hang out with Tsubasa, the girl he has got an enormous crush on.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

Visually Nekketsu-hen is pretty much on par with its predecessor. While that's definitely good news, it's also a little disappointing at the same time. The upside is that all the awesome parts of the first Kizumonogatari are still here. The zany editing and ridiculous pacing, the varying visual styles and the lush animation all add up to a superb visual experience. The downside is that nothing really new was added. The first film introduced all these cool visual tricks, this second film does very little to build on that. It's still a sight to behold, but the wonder and surprise of the first film are definitely gone here.

The same can be said about the music. The strange mix of jazzy and electronic sounds hasn't lost any of its appeal and still functions as a great differentiator, but it doesn't really offer anything extra compared to the previous film. It's still a great score and it fits the film like a glove, but it didn't quite exceed my expectations. And of course the voice actors are the same too, though that's only natural considering it's a direct continuation of the storyline, with pretty much the whole cast of characters intact. The only notable addition to the cast is Hochu Otsuka, a man with a very unique and instantly recognizable voice, but he has a pretty limited part. No English dub is available for now, which is a blessing as the film is so entrenched in anime culture that anything besides Japanese audio wouldn't make sense.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

I compared the first film to FLCL, based on novelty value, creativity and surprise. But where a series like FLCL tried to improve upon itself with every new episode, Nekketsu-hen tries to consolidate the strengths of the first film. Oishi and Shinbo are treating the three films as a single entity, which makes for a slightly different experience. It's difficult to fault them for their decision, as right now the anime industry isn't as open to experimentation as it used to be, but personally I would've preferred a more daring approach.

If all of that sounds a bit negative, it's because the first film set the bar pretty high. Nekketsu-hen is still a jolly bundle of weirdness and a breath of fresh air compared to most other contemporary anime productions out there. And with this middle part out of the way, the road is wide open for a sprawling finale. I'd wager that seeing the three films back to back is probably going to be the best way to enjoy Kizumonogatari, seeing how connected the films are, but I still found a lot of greatness in this second part. This film series is a real treat for people with a soft spot for anime, though I'm not sure I would recommend it to others.

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Thu, 12 Jan 2017 10:58:41 +0000
<![CDATA[Zhangke Jia/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/zhangke-jia-x10
Zhangke Jia

Pre-2000 China didn't have much in the way of arthouse cinema. There were the Zimou Yangs, Kaige Chens and Tian Zhuangzhuangs of course. They all made films that appealed to the arthouse crowd, but those films were mostly poverty porn dramas that followed very similar outlines. Along with the industrialization of China a new generation of film makers rose to the top, both on the commercial and the arthouse side. Nowadays Zhangke Jia is China's biggest arthouse representative, though not quite a personal favorite.

While Jia is no stranger to poverty porn cinema, most of his films have a more contemporary and/or urban feel. No more films about poor people in faraway rural villages being supressed by the government, but films about city youngsters or the older Chinese generations adapting to the industrialization of their towns and cities. It may sounds like a rather small variation on an existing theme, but it does have a strong impact on the overall feel of his films.

Jia started in the mid-90s, though his first film never made much of a splash. Xiaoshan Huijia [Xiaoshan Going Home] is very much a student film. It shows traces of Jia's trademark style, but it's also severely lacking in execution. It's little more than a badly preserved personal experiment that will only appeal to the very biggest of Jia fans. In the following years Jia would hone his skills, with films like Xiao Wo [Artisan Pickpocket] and Ren Xiao Yao [Unknown Pleasures] showing clear improvements upon is first effort.

Zhantai [Platform] was Jia's first internationally acclaimed film, but I couldn't stand it. It's just too ugly, too obvious and impossibly slow. Its most defining scene is the one where a car drives down a dusty hill, just to find out the road is closed, reversing its way up the hill again. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes and all Jia does is register the event in real time. Your mileage may very though, seeing as many people ended up liking Zhantai, but this just isn't my kind of cinema.

The first Jia film I did like was Shijie [The World]. The battle between rich and poor/old and new is still very much present, but this time it's happening in an urban environment rather than a rural one. For a Chinese film, it was an overdue variation on an overused theme. For the next couple of years Jia would remain pretty consistent, with films like Sanxia Haoren [Still Life] and Hai Shang Chuan Qi [I Wish I Knew] doing pretty well at film fests around the world. In 2008 he made Er Shi Si Cheng Ji [24 City], a fake doc that felt more honest and real than most other documentaries out there and ended up becoming my favorite Jia film so far.

In recent years Jia has been branching out a little. The themes and characteristics of his films haven't really changed, but he's been trying out different genres. Tian Zhu Ding [A Touch of Sin] contains crime and action elements, whereas Shan He Gu Ren [Mountains May Depart] plays with slight sci-fi influences. These genre elements do little to change his films though, if anything it highlights that Jia is still telling the same story and is still making the same point as he did 20 years ago.

Even though things were looking up in the mid-00's, it's clear that Jia and I will probably never agree on what makes a great film. As he's the sole (consistent) representative of the Chinese arthouse scene I'll probably keep an eye on his future work, but my expectations are rather low. If you're into poverty-indulgent cinema and films reminiscing about a nicer past then Zhangke Jia might be worth checking out. The man has a pretty decent arthouse following and is regarded highly by the festival crowds, so there's definitely some appeal there. Start with his mid 00s work though, his later films don't really benefit from the added genre influences and his earlier films are crude and clunky.

Best film: Er Shi Si Cheng Ji [24 City] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zhantai [Platform] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.45 (out of 5)

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Tue, 10 Jan 2017 10:29:05 +0000
<![CDATA[Next Generation Patoreiba: Shuto Kessen/Mamoru Oshii]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/patlabor-tokyo-war-review-mamoru-oshii
The Next Generation Patlabor: Tokyo War poster

Some ten years ago I stopped looking at the films Japan was producing, instead focusing on Japanese films that were actually ready for Western consumption. I got tired of setting myself up for disappointment. That doesn't mean I'm completely unaware of what's happening over there though. When Oshii revealed his new Patlabor live action project, my Facebook wall lit up with trailers. I left it for what it was, well aware of the slim chance I'd ever get to see it. But lo and behold, sometimes luck is on my side and when the option to see Mamoru Oshii's latest Patlabor film presented itself I jumped at it right away.

The Next Generation Patoreiba: Shuto Kessen [The Next Generation Patlabor: Tokyo War] tails a 13-episode series, very much like the original setup of the franchise. In theory it's a sequel to Kido Keisatsu Patoreba: The Movie 2, but in reality it feels a lot more like a live action remake of said film. The plot is a continuation of the Tsuge storyline introduced in the second Patlabor feature, but Oshii revisits so many landmark moments of his '93 animation classic that it becomes impossible to look at it as a mere sequel. 

Oshii has been going through some rough patches the past couple of years and those struggles are still apparent in Tokyo War. Adapting anime to live action is no easy task, regardless the film has some problems with pacing and tone. Anime-specific comedy doesn't mix well with real-life actors and the jumps between comedy and contemplative moments come quite sudden. It just feels a little awkward at times, especially when comparing it to original film, where pacing and tone were stand-out elements.

That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to enjoy though. Once you get past the weirdness of seeing all those recognizable Patlabor 2 moments redone in live action, there's plenty of vintage Oshii to soak up. From the elaborate camera work to the excellent use of music and some exquisite action scenes, there's hardly ever a dull moment. And if all the Patlabor 2 nods weren't enough, Oshii is also referencing some of his other films (the Ash basketball and of course the famous basset shot - with Oshii's very own silhouette next to it if I'm not mistaken).

There are times when Oshii's genius shimmers through, but those moments are too often interrupted by short comic interludes. I did find out afterwards that I watched the short version (there's also a director's cut that lasts an extra 30 minutes), which is a bit of a bummer since those extra 30 minutes could go a long way towards fixing the pacing problems. Whether you should watch Patlabor 2 first is also a tough question. It's a direct sequel so knowing the plot of its predecessor is definitely helpful, but there are so many references to the original that you might get stuck comparing the two rather than enjoying this film for what it is. I'm sure to give it another go when I get my hands on the director's cut, but for now it isn't quite the masterpiece I'd hoped for. Still a very good film though, especially if you're partial to the work of Oshii.

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Mon, 09 Jan 2017 11:11:41 +0000
<![CDATA[Adaptation./Spike Jonze]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/adaptation-review-spike-jonze

How do you turn a book about flowers into a big cinematic success? The answer is simple: you get Charlie Kaufman to do your adaptation. But what if Kaufman himself is struggling to do justice to the source material? Well, then you get something that looks a lot like Adaptation. The Inception of screenwriting, an absurd window into the mind of one of America's greatest screenwriters. A film that is sure to leave you baffled about what you've just witnessed, especially when you're watching it for the first time.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The source of all this weirdness is The Orchid Thief, a book written by New Yorker journalist Susan Orlean. The book is about John Laroche, a rather peculiar horticulturist who got arrested for taking a rare ghost orchid from a Florida state reserve. He did it with the help of a group of Seminole natives, an important caveat as Laroche claimed the Seminole natives were allowed to take flowers out of the state reserve. As Orlean starts warming up to the peculiarities of Laroche, she slowly becomes an integral part of the story.

Adaptation was supposed to be just that, a film adaptation of Orlean's book. It turned out to be something entirely different. I would've loved to have been there when Orlean was reading the script for the very first time, it must've been quite a shock for her. Instead of seeing Laroche and herself rewritten for the big screen, she found herself tucked away inside a story about Kaufman struggling to adapt the book. The Orchid Thief was still there somewhere, but more as a diversion than anything else.

Normally I'm not a big fan of people too wrapped up in their own problems (and a screenwriter writing a script about his own difficulties adapting a book is probably one of the most self-centered scripts that could ever be written), but Kaufman adds a welcome dose of humor that makes it that much more enjoyable. He pokes fun of his own persona, gives himself a fictional brother who's more successful than him and still finds a way to spend some quality time with Laroche and Orlean. The structure might appear messy at first, but multiple viewings reveal a tightly knit script.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The visuals take a bit of a backseat to the narrative. Jonze isn't the most visually inclined director to begin with, but it's clear that the visual aspect was deliberately kept low-key so it wouldn't take too much away from Kaufman's writing spectacle. There is some visual trickery (two onscreen Cages and of course the famous filmed-from-inside car crash, which Adaptation helped popularize) but nothing too special or out of the ordinary. It never looks sloppy or dull either, just a little average.

The score is ultimately forgettable. So much in fact that I had to skip through the film once more while I was writing this review, just to hear what music there was. I can't say I really missed it either and I wouldn't be surprised if Jonze figured that most people would feel the same. Then again, a good soundtrack is always a pre and as time passes by it could've become a great differentiator to keep the film attractive. For now though, I can live with the stylistic choices Jonze made.

Acting-wise I really can't complain. Nicolas Cage is somewhat of a gamble, but his less than charming portrayal of Charlie Kaufman (and brother Donald) is hilarious. Cage eclipses all the other actors, which is quite a feat as Chris Cooper is also giving it his all as Laroche. Even Meryl Streep is okay, though she'll never become a favorite of mine. The secondary cast is nice too, with Keener, Swinton and Maggie Gyllenhaal in notable parts. And if you're the type that loves cameos, you can spot director David O. Russell in a very minor part.

screen capture of Adaptation.

The film's finale is just as genius as it is divisive. I have to admit that it didn't gel with me the first time I watched it, even though I did get the idea behind it. But consecutive viewings left me prepared for what was to come and made it a lot easier to get on board with Kaufman's vision. That doesn't mean it'll work for everyone, but it's a pretty slick and unique twist and a smart take on Kaufman's own struggles. You may even call it prophetic in 2017, as in he end Donald trumps (hah!) Charlie.

Jonze's sober presentation puts Kaufman in the spotlight and looking at the stellar script he wrote that might have been a good call. The acting is top notch too, but having seen the film a couple of times now the novelty has worn off and the somewhat simple presentation does make Adaptation a little less appealing than it could've been. It's still a great film with lots to enjoy and quite a few stand-out moments. People who haven't seen it should definitely try it out, but over time it just got a little less special than it used to be.

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Wed, 04 Jan 2017 10:58:53 +0000
<![CDATA[Movies 2016/The highlights]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/movies-2016-top

There's no escaping it. Another year is coming to an end and so I've been pretty busy compiling my list of the 10 best films I've watched this year. 2016 didn't differ that much from the previous ones. I watched a lot of crap, but there was also plenty of magnificent, inspiring and uplifting cinema. I won't be dragging out the introduction too much, but if you're wondering what films made it the previous years, here's a quick recap that might be helpful: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008.

10. Umimachi Diary (2015)

Hirokazu Koreeda is back to his former self. Umimachi Diary is a very welcome addition to Koreeda's oeuvre, at least for those who prefer his mellower side. Not that the film lacks drama, but ultimately Umimachi Diary is more about the gentle, laidback, summery vibe that permeates its every single frame. It comes warmly recommended, though I'd suggest you keep it for a pleasant spring evening or warm summer day to get the most out of it.

09. Bai Ri Gaobie [Zinnia Flower] (2015)

Tom Lin Shu-Yu returns with a more solemn endeavor. Bai Ri Gaobie is a film about loss and mourning, inspired by personal tragedy. It's going to be a change of pace for fans of Lin's previous films, but in the end quality prevails and Lin slowly reveals a strong, moving and intricate drama about the process of mourning. Well-acted, beautifully stylized and very pure, Lin's third feature only strengthens his status of one Taiwan's most promising talents.

08. Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken [The Case of Hana & Alice] (2015)

I didn't quite know what to expect from Shunji Iwai's return to the world of Hana & Alice. Iwai's previous feature was a pretty severe flop and I didn't quite get why he was turning Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken into an animation feature. Turns out there was nothing to worry about. This prequel turned out even better than the first film. It's a smart blend of animation and traditional live-action drama that keeps its intentions hidden until the second half of the film, but delivers in spades if you allow it its freedom. Welcome back Mr Iwai.

07. Ten no Chasuke [Chasuke's Journey] (2015)

Hiroyuki Tanaka (SABU) is back to his old self. After Usagi Drop and Miss Zombie, Ten no Chasuke is his third gem in a row. It's a vintage Tanaka though, meaning it's not the most coherent of films as Tanaka still gets side-tracked quite easily. But if you're used to his style of film making, Ten no Chasuke holds plenty of genius. it looks magnificent, it's original and it entertains from start to finish. And any film that reunites Ren Osugi with Susumu Terajima deserves an extra accolade.

06. Soredake [That's It] (2015)

Closing off the list of directors returning to their former glory is Gakuryu Ishii. Even though he changed his name (from Sogo to Gakuryu) to break with his (cyber)punk past, Soredake is a film that feels like a mix of his old and new persona. The film takes its inspiration from a punk song and Ishii revisits his energetic style of filming, but he also throws in some novel elements. The result is an explosive combination of everything that made and makes Ishii great.

05. III [III - The Ritual] (2015)

If you need proof that films don't really need a big budget, look no further than Pavel Khvaleev's III. This young Russian DJ/producer is a self-thought director, but delivers one of the most impressive horror/mysteries of the past few years. Wildly imaginative, visually gorgeous and creative in its solutions to deal with its limited budget, the film is a testament to how vision and talent can make up for lack of funding. An amazing film and I'm happy to report that Khvaleev is already working on his next film. 

04. Pusong Wazak! [Ruined Heart] (2014)

When Tadanobu Asano signs up for a Pan-Asian project, you better take notice. Luckily for me Third World Films did, otherwise I would've completely missed Khavn's Pusong Wazak! With the help of Christopher Doyle behind the camera and Asano in the lead, Khavn delivers a classy, off-center and fizzling film that defies description. It's pretty experimental and freeform, but I'm quite certain that those with a taste for originality won't be disappointed.

03. Shoto Pisu [Short Peace] (2013)

It took me a while to finally catch up with Shoto Pisu, but boy was it worth the wait. I'm pretty big on anthology projects, especially when they're comprised of anime shorts. Somehow these films always end up being a playground for trying out new and original styles of animation. Shoto Pisu is no exception. It's bloody gorgeous, really creative and offers plenty of variety. None of the shorts are disappointing, with the final one being just absolutely mind-blowing.

02. Hardcore Henry (2015)

Remember the insanity that was Crank (and its sequel)? You've been craving something equally insane and adrenaline-inducing? Well, it's Russia to the rescue. Ilya Naishuller delivers the most manic actioner in years. Entirely shot from a first person perspective, this blend of action, scifi and fantasy thunders on from start to finish. It's probably a bit much for some people and if you're looking for a solid plot there won't be much here for you, but those yearning for an immersive rollercoaster ride will find themselves overwhelmed.

01. Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen (2016)

Japanese animation is going through some rough times, but there are shimmers of hope. Kizumonogatari is a film not unlike Furi Kuri. There is no fixed visual style, no obvious storyline, but there is a rhythm and a deeply rooted passion for creativity and originality. The film may be a bit easier to grasp for those who saw the preceding TV series, but they are by no means a prerequisite to enjoying this 64-minute long work of art. And best of all, there are two more films in the works.

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Thu, 29 Dec 2016 10:51:03 +0000
<![CDATA[Spectral/Nic Mathieu]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/spectral-review-nic-mathieu

2016 is coming to an end, which means I'm spending my free time assembling a traditional end of year list, on top of my yearly top 250 update. Those things take time, which is why I tend to prefer films that are a little lower on my priority list, in an effort not to interfere with the work I've already done. And so I turned to Spectral, a decent enough looking Netflix Original that seemed like a fun way to pass the time. Turns out it's a pretty awesome genre flick, the kind that only comes around every two years or so. Oh well ...

screen capture of Spectral

Netflix has been pretty busy building a solid library of Originals. So far they've failed to produce any stand-out films, but even their weakest entries have managed to reach at least some basic level of quality. So far I've enjoyed Netflix' support of smaller genre films, which has yielded some interesting projects (like I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House), but they never reached the point where I was intrigued enough to dedicate a full review to their films. Spectral changed that.

Mind you, this is a pure-blooded genre flick. Don't go in expecting some kind of elaborate plot or a well-developed squad of characters, because you'll be left behind empty-handed. Mathieu aims for sci-fi grit and explosive action and that's pretty much what you'll get out of Spectral. It's the kind of film 30-something year olds will reminisce about 20 years from now, in the same vain my generation is swooning over simple genre fare from the 80s. It isn't the classiest of cinema, but it's damn great fun nonetheless.

The plot revolves around a war zone in Moldavia, where soldiers, civilians and rebels alike are being murdered by some unidentified entities. A genius scientist (Clyne) is summoned to uncover the true identity of the enemy, but his squad is annihilated and Clyne, together with a just couple of survivors, finds himself alone in a deserted, foreign city with an army of killer entities on the loose. Shakespeare it is not, but the plot provides all the necessary hooks for an explosive sci-fi spectacle.

screen capture of Spectral

I'm not quite sure how much money Mathieu had to his disposal, but Spectral doesn't look cheap at all. The CG is way better than your average B-film, the camera work is elaborate and immersive and the settings are pretty detailed. The war-torn city looks nothing less than impressive and the colossal labs and industrial scifi designs give the film a raw and brutal edge. Add a muted color palette with lots of green/blues and you get a pretty fine-looking sci-fi flick.

The soundtrack is a much more generic affair, with little or no memorable pieces of music. It's mostly functional background noise that simply fills the gaps between conversations and sound effects. Score-wise that's pretty much all you can expect from a pure genre film, even so a slightly more outspoken selection of background music wouldn't have hurt the film. As it is now, the music is pretty bland, but chances are you'll hardly notice.

The same goes for the actors. James Badge Dale and Emily Mortimer aren't bad considering what little they had to work with, but most characters here are pretty generic and apart from a pretty nasty kill halfway through there isn't much room for bonding or actually caring about the fate of the cast. Most of them are simply cannon fodder anyway. Some people will consider this a negative, I see it as a necessary evil to allow for more dedicated sci-fi/action entertainment.

screen capture of Spectral

Spectral isn't all that original. It starts off with a serious dash of Black Hawk Down, gradually adds layers of Terminator Salvation and finishes off with an extra dose of Eden Log. Add to that a structure that would translate perfectly well to an FPS game (the Metro franchise came to mind) and you get a pretty simple film that's clearly more about execution and fan service than it is about creativity and originality. But that's exactly what good genre cinema is supposed to be.

Spectral isn't the blow-out hit Netflix needs to convert the masses, nor is it the classy arthouse hit that it needs to attract a more hardcore film fan audience. But it is a stellar genre film that hits all the right notes and it is a breath of fresh air amidst 5 or 6 years of failed sci-fi revivals. If you're looking for a sci-fi actioner that aims to deliver the goods rather than tries to tick all the necessary "good film" boxes, Spectral is one of the easiest and fairest films to recommend.

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Wed, 28 Dec 2016 10:54:16 +0000
<![CDATA[Les Filles du Botaniste/Sijie Dai]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/filles-du-botaniste-review-sijie-dai

Ten years ago I managed to catch Sijie Dai's Les Filles du Botaniste in a local theater. Back then that was still a reality, nowadays it's almost unimaginable to go see a Chinese film (or even China-related, like this one) in a movie theater. Ten years is a long time though and I honestly couldn't remember too much of this little gem, except that I liked it a lot. I hadn't seen the film since, so it felt like an appropriate time to revisit my favorite Dai.

screen capture of Les Filles du Botaniste

Even though Les Filles du Botaniste takes place in China, the film is listed as a French-Canadian co-production. Not too surprising when you know that Sijie Dai relocated himself from China to France at a relatively young age, but I imagine the subject matter also played some part in the decision. The film is quite critical of China's stance on same-sex relationships and that critical attitude is exactly the kind of thing that can get you banned from making films in China. I guess Dai just didn't want to be bothered too much with censorship perils.

While the production has the feel of a genuine Chinese film, Dai shopped around and rounded up a more international crew, with some French picks (soundtrack, cinematography and lead actress) and a few Vietnamese actors in secondary roles. A risky move as the film might have lost some of its impact should it have come off as an outsider's critique, but except for the casting of Mylène Jampanoï Dai is pretty successful in hiding the film's international roots.

The film follows Min Li, a young orphan who gets selected for a prestigious internship in one of China's most renowned botanical gardens. Once there Li runs into An Chen, the daughter of the botanical master. The two grow fond of each other, but they also realize their love has to be kept secret from their surroundings. When the master's son returns, Li figures that marrying his son is her best shot at staying inside the botanical gardens after finishing her internship. But leading a double life isn't as easy as she imagined.

screen capture of Les Filles du Botaniste

The cinematography was handled by Guy Dufaux, who did a truly amazing job. He had of course the luxury of working in a magnificent setting, but even then the film looks stunning. With overwhelming dark greens and piercing reds (a popular Chinese color scheme) and subtle, hypnotizing camera work the visuals construct a magical place that feels like it exists in a reality of its own. It just oozes atmosphere, which makes the drama that more accessible.

The soundtrack too is top notch. It resembles the music of Jianqi Huo's films, blending traditional Chinese sounds and instruments with smooth, relaxing ambient. It creates a very solemn, soothing atmosphere that goes hand in hand with the visuals. It's clearly an outlier in composer Eric Levi's oeuvre, but he handles it with deceptive ease. Not the most memorable of soundtracks maybe, but a very strong and loveable one nonetheless.

Aside from the ending, the casting is probably the most controversial element of the film. Even though Mylène Jampanoï is half-Chinese, she really doesn't look the part. It takes a bit of getting used to, but she does well with her character. That said, I wouldn't be too surprised if they picked Jampanoï mainly because she feels comfortable doing nude scenes. For some reason those very scene didn't end up destroying Xiaoran Li's career, but it's nonetheless a very risky move for a Chinese actress.

screen capture of Les Filles du Botaniste

Les Filles du Botaniste might be a very gentle, subdued and soothing experience, the final act is pretty brutal. Not in presentation, all its gruesomeness happens off-screen, most of it is just implied and Dai doesn't even linger for maximum sentimental impact, but the vileness is unmistakeably there. It's a deeply tragic ending, but it never comes off that way. A rather unique feat that I can't really link back to any other film I've seen. I'm sure it's quite polarizing, but I loved it.

Sijie Dai made an impressive film. Its gentle nature might make it a little too inconspicuous, it never really demands to be loved and cherished, it's also a film that quickly drifts to the back of your mind, but it's a powerful experience and one that keeps its value even after multiple viewings. It's a film without any obvious weak points and with plenty to love, but I guess it just misses that little sparkle that makes people put it into their lists of absolute favorites. Still a very worthy recommend though.

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Tue, 27 Dec 2016 10:45:05 +0000
<![CDATA[The Neon Demon/Nicolas Winding Refn]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/neon-demon-review-nicolas-refn

Like him or not, Nicolas Winding Refn is someone with a firm opinion on what a film should be and whenever he announces a new project, the world takes notice. When The Neon Demon was first revealed I simply sat back and waited. Apart from some vague notion that it was about the modelling world I had no idea what to expect. Sometimes I end up loving Refn's films, sometimes they leave me completely cold. I'm happy to say The Neon Demon put an end to Refn's recent lull.

screen capture of The Neon Demon

While watching Refn's latest I was reminded of many other films. There's a bit of Mulholland Dr. in there, some Beyond the Black Rainbow and a serious dash of Heruta Sukeruta. If The Neon Demon has one big weakness, it's that it wasn't obviously better than any of the films it reminded me of. Refn comes close, matches some of these films' good points, but it never quite comes together to create something better. There's no shame in that, especially considering how high I rank the films I mentioned, but it does leave the film struggling for an identity.

The Neon Demon gets off to a flying start though. The first 15 minutes are dazzling, a feverish neon dream driven by pulsating beats, extremely stylized settings and almost abstract characters. It all comes together in a mesmerizing strobe-like sequence, the kind that's right up my alley. It riled me up for a superb 120 minutes, but when the scene's final flash fades from the screen Refn switches gears and starts a narrative part that kind of left me hanging. It's not as if the film makes a complete U-turn, but the intensity is dialled back a notch or two and the plot is given a bigger focus.

Jesse is a young, 16 year old girl who moves to LA to make a splash as a model. In a world of manufactured beauty, she gets noticed because she's an all-natural. Jesse enters a cold and harsh world, but she quickly hardens to the shallow and exploitative nature of her work and the people surrounding her. The envy of the other girls is enormous though and as Jesse shoots to the top others are determined to undermine her success.

screen capture of The Neon Demon

The cinematography is superb. There are no random shots, no sloppy sequences between money shots, nothing left up to chance. The poisonous neon colors drip from the screen, the editing is minute and the camera work is exquisite. You could say the film has two different visual speeds, but that's merely a result of how much narrative is in the way of Natasha Braier's stand-out work. It's no secret that Refn like a well-stylized film, but The Neon Demon is by far his most accomplished visual work to date.

The soundtrack too is a serious step up from his two previous films. The 80s synth aren't completely gone, but their presence is less dominant and demanding. Instead Cliff Martinez serves a more thumping soundtrack, where grit and atmosphere seem to meet in the middle. Refn is also very meticulous in the way the music is incorporated into the film, feeding off the visuals to create an even more immersive experience. I don't think I'd like the music as much outside of the film, but if anything that's a testament to the skill involved here.

The cast is decent, though I'm not a big fan of the almost robotic way of acting Refn aimed for. It's clearly intentional, but the awkwardness at times overshadows the intended effect. Fanning is good as the lead, the models around her effectively capture the distorted and mutated beauty ideals that are the norm in the modeling world, but you can question whether Fanning provided a big enough contrast with the people around her. Acting-wise it sufficed, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. The supporting cast is decent too, even Keanu Reaves is bearable.

Would
screen capture of The Neon Demon

After the blazing start it takes until the halfway point for the film to shift gears again. The mid-film sequence that illustrates Fanning's metamorphosis is just as stunning as the beginning and seemed to kick-start a feverish rush to the finale, but again Refn steps on the breaks and lets the narrative back in. What's worse is that the finale itself lacks the same visual impact seen in the middle and at the start of the film. I appreciate Refn's choice to avoid the typical "descent into darkness" path, but his alternative just isn't quite as powerful.

The final act is quite brutal though. The first part of the film is pretty PG, with no nudity and few extremes, the ending turns that around. Still, the violence and perversities are so stylized that it would be quite a stretch to think they were added for mere shock value. Deplorable as some of these actions might be, they never really repulsed me or grossed me out. Mainstream audiences might see it differently of course, because what Refn shows isn't your everyday drama, but a seasoned film fan isn't going to be too offended.

There is some greatness in The Neon Demon, but quite often it is bogged down by too much narrative, somewhat fickle acting performances and (unfair?) comparisons with better films. There's a lot to like here, the film never bores or gets stale, it's extremely stylized from start to finish, but two key sequences show a glimpse of what could have been. Still, it's a return to form for Refn and one of the best films released this year. It gives me hope for the future, but The Neon Demon is still some way removed from Refn's best.

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Thu, 22 Dec 2016 11:00:50 +0000
<![CDATA[Darren Lynn Bousman/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/darren-lynn-bousman-x10
Darren Lynn Bousman

The '00s saw a very large uptake in horror films, but unlike the directors of the '80s (or their Asian counterparts) very few Western directors stuck with the genre. Most of them saw it as a springboard to enter the film business and either failed or went on to do work in other genres. Not Darren Lynn Bousman. Even though he started out by taking over an existing horror franchise, he's been releasing his own work on a regular basis for the past 10 years. Not everything is great, some of it is extremely cult and niche, but at least Bousman shows heart for a genre that many other left to die.

The world got to know Bousman when he took Saw out of James Wan's hands. A hefty assignment as the very first Saw was quite the runaway hit. Bousman would direct episode 2 to 4 and it's due to his outstanding work the series managed to run as long as it did. Episode 3 in particular managed to match the quality of the first, with 2 and 4 trailing slightly behind. Before his Saw adventure Bousman directed Identity Lost, but much like Wan's first film (Stygian) it is considered (or made to be considered) "lost". 

When Bousman left the Saw franchise he turned his back on mainstream horror for a while and dove headfirst into a quite peculiar niche. I'm not even sure there are enough rock opera horrors to call it a niche, but if you're a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show then Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil's Carnival are two films worth checking out. Bousman even has a sequel to The Devil's Carnival planned called, though I can't say I'm looking forward to it. Rock opera horrors really aren't my thing, that said Repo! is goofy enough to warrant some interest for people with a more general interest in splatter horror.

He also tried his hand at remakes. Mother's Day is a reimagining of Troma's 1980 film. It's darker in tone and really more of a companion piece to Funny Games. People expecting a remake true to the original are bound to be disappointed. It's not a bad film though, but it lacks any defining qualities. In that respect Abattoir is a much better adaptation (adapted from a graphic novel this time). Quite dark and atmospheric but also a little freakier and weirder, in a way that it leaves you guessing where it is going for most of the first hour. That is, if you haven't read the graphic novel of course.

It's not just all sequels, remakes and niche cult though, Bousman also has a few more mainstream horror films fleshing out his oeuvre. 11-11-11 is a nice mystery, a more horrific version of The Number 23 if you wish. The Saw-like ending wasn't quite necessary, but apart from that it's a fun little genre film. There's also The Barrens, which is probably his best film outside of his work on the Saw franchise. What starts out as a pretty common 'lost in the woods' horror becomes a pretty tense and claustrophobic affair. Nothing too unique and out of the ordinary, just very solid genre fun.

Add to that a good short in the Tales of Halloween anthology and you get a director who lives and breathes horror. He may not be a stand-out director or a name that draws flocks of people to the movie theater, but at least he's true to a genre and keeps on investing time in money in what he loves. He's more Stuart Gordon than he is John Carpenter, but in a time when there's a clear lack of dedicated horror directors that is more than good enough.

Best film: Saw III (4.0*)
Worst film: The Devil's Carnival (1.5*)
Average rating: 3.15 (out of 5)

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Thu, 15 Dec 2016 10:34:10 +0000