personal blog - This part of my blog is dedicated to articles about my personal life. What moves me, what interests me, where I'm going and what I'm doing. en-us (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Marco Mak/x10]]>
Marco Mak

Directing ten films is no simple feat. It's not actually unheard of either of course (otherwise I wouldn't even have this feature), but not every director reaches this magical number. In Hong Kong they do things a little differently though. Marco Mak directed 18 films so far, but that's just in between his job as editor.

Mak's work as a director may not be very well-known in the West, his work as an editor didn't go by quite as unnoticed. Amongst his most famous editor credits are the Once Upon a Time in China series, the Young and Dangerous series, Iron Monkey and a handful of other high-profile 90s flicks. After 25 years of stitching together the films for other directors, Mak finally saw his chance to switch to the director's seat.

He quickly found out that being a director comes with its own set of challenges. His first two films (Ji Fat Faan Fat [Cop on a Mission] and Yat Goh Laan Diy Dik Chuen Suet [A Gambler's Story]) are typical Hong Kong affairs, somewhat hastily produced films with very limited international appeal. With people like Daniel Wu, Francis Ng, Lam Suet and Eric Tsang on board though, Mak had at least enough star power to draw in the crowds.

Things picked up for Mak when he joined hands with Jing Wong (off all people). Hak Bak Sam Lam [Colour of the Truth] is a stylish, slick and fun police flick, nothing too exceptional or memorable, but awesome filler fleshed out by an all-star cast. This collaboration with Jing Wong was just a one-off though, after that Mak returned to directing utterly forgettable and average genre fodder.

Until he teamed up for a second time, this time with actor Francis Ng. Their first collaboration was Sing See [Dancing Lion], a rather poor comedy that didn't really do it for me, but two years later they would have their revenge with Zhui Ying [Tracing Shadow], a fun throwback to the nineties. Stylized martial arts and self-aware comedy make for an entertaining action film.

Mak's latest film is Naked Soldier, the third instalment in the "Naked" series (Naked Killer, Naked Soldier). While light and fun and sporting some flashy action sequences, the film was a critical and commercial flop. Even though Mak hasn't done anything since (Naked Soldier was released more than 2 years ago), he could resurface with a new project any day. That's part of the beauty of Hong Kong cinema. You can fail pretty hard, but there will always be opportunities to get back into the game.

Marco Mak is a very typical Hong Kong director. The quality of his work varies, but pretty much his entire oeuvre is aimed at a local market that doesn't have a large fanbase outside of Hong Kong. Unless you're already quite versed in Hong Kong cinema, there's really no reason to seek out Mak's films. If you are still interested though, start with Mak's collaborations as they are the highlights of his oeuvre.

Best film: Zhui Ying [Tracing Shadow] (4.0*)
Worst film: Sing See [Dancing Lion] (2.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Zhui Ying
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)

Mon, 22 Dec 2014 11:59:58 +0100
<![CDATA[It's Such a Beautiful Day/Don Hertzfeldt]]>
It's Such a Beautiful Day poster

Don Hertzfeldt may not be well known to the general public, his short animation Rejected did the rounds and became an instant cult favorite. With simple animation techniques and a wacky, often absurd sense of humor he courted his audience, setting them up for an immense pay-off in the second part of the short. It seems Hertzfeldt set out to recreate that same feeling with It's Such a Beautiful Day, only on a much bigger scale.

Even thought It's Such a Beautiful Day is listed as a 60-minute film, it's actually an aggregate of three different short films (Everything Will Be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It's Such a Beautiful Day) stitched together back to back, all involving the same main character. The separate shorts were already extremely detached and fragmented, so pasting them together to create a big one hour feature didn't pose that much of a problem.

Hertzfeldt's sense of humor is a little hard to describe. It's a combination of mind-bending logic, plain absurdity, utter mundanity and astute, recognizable observations. A bit like the beginning of Amélie, only a lot more cynical and absurd. Still, there's warmth in there, hidden among all the other weirdness that's flying towards you. There's also a more philosophical layer that starts to shine through around halfway each short, making it an even stranger experience.

The only problem I had with It's Such a Beautiful Day being a feature film is the lacking technical side of things. The simple art style works for Hertzfeldt in his shorter work, but over a timespan of 60 minutes it becomes boring real fast. The animation itself is surprisingly livid and emotive, but looking at black and white almost-stick figures left me a little wanting. The DIY special effects and poor quality stop-motion real-life backgrounds didn't make things any better. And it's not that I think Hertzfeldt lacks the technical skills, the details in the animation betray a much higher skill level, it's just that I don't really agree with the choices he made here.

The soundtrack on the other hand is a clear asset, together with the inventive editing it makes for a fun, challenging yet rather inaccessible experience. Add to that Hertzfeldt monotonous and dry voice-over delivery and you'll quickly see why his films are not intended to be enjoyed by a large audience. Still, It's Such a Beautiful Day is a million times better than the average CG animation drivel that usually comes out of the US.

If you're looking for something different, It's Such a Beautiful Day is a solid introduction into the warped brain of Don Hertzfeldt. And if you think the 60-minute format is a bit too demanding, you can always watch the three shorts separately without missing out on anything except the full-length experience.

Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:26:26 +0100
<![CDATA[Wu Qingyuan/Zhuangzhuang Tian]]>

On paper, Wu Qingyuan isn't the type of film that should appeal to me. Biopics aren't really my thing, Go isn't really my sport (if you can even call it that) and pre-WWII Japan isn't my favorite place and time in history. On the other hand, Zhuangzhuang built up plenty of credit with Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun and Lang Zai Ji and with Chen Chang leading the film I didn't have to think twice to give it a go. Watching the film a second time around, I'm still incredibly happy I made that jump all those years ago.

screen capture of The Go Master

Go isn't the most exciting of games, but it is a perfect embodiment of some very typical Asian mental models and ideals. There's the obvious contrast between the simplicity of the rules and the complexity of the actual game (it is said that no two games of Go have ever been the same), then there is the tranquil, almost spiritual disposition of its players, almost in trance and sometimes stretching out a game over multiple days. It's a very pure game, played with honour and urging the players to test their strategic limits.

The film is named after the biggest Go player that ever lived, Wu Qingyuan (or Go Seigen if you prefer his Japanese name) who just passed away last month at the respectable age of 100. As a young kid he was named a prodigy by the local Go players, but Qingyuan was born in China and all the important Go competitions were held in Japan. Qingyuan persevered and travelled to Japan to master the game, but with World War II approaching his social position wasn't an easy one.

The film follows Qingyuan on his travels throughout Japan. About a quarter of the it is spent on actual Go-related matters, the rest zooms in on Qingyuan's love life, his struggles with faith, the way his frail physical condition saved him from going off to war and the friends he made as a Go player. There's quite some jumping around in time, but that's to be expected from a biopic. Those expecting a rare insight in Qingyuan's private life will be left disappointed though, as the film's subject remains quite vague and enigmatic throughout.

screen capture of The Go Master

The visuals mimic the film's peaceful, zen-like core. The camera moves slowly, deliberately and meticulously through the sets, observing the world in a very rigid, stern yet respectful manner. But there's also a grim and gloomy side to the cinematography. Even though there are some brighter outdoor scenes, colors are often muted, hanging over the film like a dark veil. This is a reflection of Qingyuan's inner struggles as he tries to find a good balance between his passion (playing Go) and the personal issues he has to deal with.

The soundtrack is the perfect companion to the visuals. It's more outspoken compared to Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (but then every soundtrack is), yet it remains a very introverted, subtle selection of tracks, surfacing only when it's able to add something substantial to a particular scene. The rest of the film is accompanied by slightly accentuated ambient noises, more in line with stilted Japanese dramas.

Chen Chang (Yi Dai Zhong Shi, Zui Hao De Shi Guang, Soom) is without a doubt one of the best Asian actors of the moment and it's always a joy to see him in a challenging role like this. Qingyuan isn't the most emotive character and even though Zhuangzhuang isn't out to unravel all his mysteries, the person you see on screen is someone who makes perfect sense. The supporting cast is commendable too, but this really is Chang's moment of glory.

screen capture of The Go Master

Wu Qingyuan differs from more traditional biopics in the sense that even though Zhuangzhuang allows you to get close to his main subject, the audience still has to do most of the work. Apart from some more direct quotes appearing onscreen, Zhuangzhuang prefers to show rather than tell. Qingyuan remains a somewhat opaque and mysterious character throughout, even though by the end of the film I felt a very clear and strong connection to the man. It's an approach that many other biopics could learn a thing or two from.

Go really isn't the most exciting of sports, but even the matches are filmed with enough integrity and mystery to make them appear tense and interesting. Zhuangzhuang Tian may not have made the most coherent biopic here, but when it comes to capturing a person as a whole he did a splendid job. Wu Qingyuan is a rather slow and moody film, but there's beauty pouring from its seams. With the real Qingyuan passing on just last month, it's a shame not more was heard from this film.

Tue, 16 Dec 2014 13:03:18 +0100
<![CDATA[Tusk/Kevin Smith]]>

Kevin Smith, possibly one of USA's biggest enfants terribles, is back to court the audience with his latest film. He simply picks up where he left off with Red State, blending his typical sense of humor with dashes of absurdity and morbid horror. The result is Tusk, a film that sways between comedy and horror, never quite settling for either one genre but succeeding in both. That is, if you're willing to let yourself be carried away by Smith's warped ideas.

screen capture of Tusk

Smith has entered a new phase of his career. He worked himself up from nobody (Clerks) to somebody (Cop Out), but he clearly wasn't too happy with who he'd become in the process. So he rebooted himself, went back to producing films on his own (Red State) and started his battle against the industry all over again. While this meant fighting hard to get his films out there, it gave him back all creative control and that's really paying off here.

Tusk carries all the signs of Smith's older comedies. A strong focus on dialogue (mostly useless but funny banter) blended with a few extreme caricatures and some utter absurdity layered throughout the plot. What's new here is the slide from traditional horror to morbid perversity. What starts off with a curious old man living alone in a secluded house quickly turns around to become a tale of past regrets, full of demented weirdness.

Tusk's about a young, successful podcaster (Wallice) travelling to Canada to interview the latest internet sensation. Things don't go as planned and unwilling to go back home empty-handed, Wallice takes a chance when he bumps into a strange ad in a local cafe's restroom. He drives out to the Howe estate for a talk with the estate's owner, but what he finds there defies his wildest dreams. Sadly for Wallice, he is about to become Howe's latest victim.

screen capture of Tusk

Visually Smith made some important strides forward. The comedy bits may still look a bit plain, but once the horror sets in Smith does great things with the setting, lighting and camera angles. The special effects aren't half bad either, especially considering the overall tone of the film. Not that they are 100% life-like or frighteningly realistic, but I definitely expected less. The fact that Smith was able to visualize everything in plain view without having to hide behind a less is more approach is quite the feat in itself.

Just like in Red State, the soundtrack plays a big part in building up the atmosphere. Comedy and horror are two genres that are tough to combine in one single film, especially when keeping them (mostly) confined to their own separate scenes. That's where the soundtrack steps in. Whenever the horror takes over Smith makes sure there's a strong surge of atmosphere coming from the music. I never really noticed this in his earlier films, but since he rebooted his career Smith has shown his smarts by betting heavily on a solid soundtrack.

One advantage Smith has over other indie directors is that he can land a pretty decent cast if needed. Justin Long and Haley Joel Osment (yes, the Sixth Sense kid) are pretty good leads, Michael Parks truly excels as the bad guy and Johnny Depp pops in around the halfway mark for one of his crazier parts in the past few years. It's a pretty random collection of actors, but somehow, much like the film itself, Smith manages to mould it into a fitting whole.

screen capture of Tusk

The first part should be well-received by long-time Smith fans, as the comedy happily dominates the film. The middle part finally introduces the horror elements, and while it's somewhat unsettling, Smith continues to hide Tusk's premise remarkable well, building up very slowly to the big turnaround. Once Smith is ready to reveal what Tusk is really all about, the final part spirals wildly into absurd and morbid dark comedy territory.

The mix of styles and genres won't be to everyone's liking. Tusk is not a traditional horror/comedy, Smith keeps the genres more separate from each other and once he does bring them together, there's a huge "what the fuck" factor that is sure to alienate a lot of people. The fun thing is that Smith can do this without worrying too much about anyone telling him not to. His newfound independence is a true blessing, one he exploits to the fullest. I thoroughly enjoyed Smith's new film and I surely hope he can keep this up for a while longer.

Thu, 11 Dec 2014 11:29:21 +0100
<![CDATA[Jean-Luc Godard/x10]]>
Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard ... if you're getting serious about cinema there's really no escaping this man. And yet, he may be more famous for his influence on cinema than for his actual films. As one of the spiritual fathers or the Nouvelle Vague he played a big part in 60s (French) cinema and even though the movement's influence can still be felt to this very day, Godard's films aren't exactly the most accessible films around.

It takes a special mindset to enjoy Godard's work. His willingness and eagerness to break with conventions make his films rather experimental in nature. But what sets Godard's films really apart from other experimental/arthouse directors is the way he deliberately seeks out ways to mess with his audience. Not that his films are all one big farce (that would be closer to Takashi Miike's territory), but Godard clearly loves to take advantage of people's expectations.

The 60s were Godard's most productive years. He made a total of 24 films in a mere 10 years time, including his most famous ones. It all started with films like À, Bout de Souffle, Vivre Sa Vie: Film en Douze Tableaux, Le Mépris and Bande à Part. And while things started off mildly normal, it didn't take long before the weirdness took over. If you're planning to dig into Godard's oeuvre, this is probably the best place to start.

While his first few films were still driven along by plot and characters, the films he made during the second part of the 60s are more random and strongly dependent on themes and ideas. Films like Alphaville, Week-end, Pierror le Fou and 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d'Elle see Godard playing around with politics, art, dialogue, music ... classic film structures were torn down with minute precision, in return Godard constructed films that were near impossible to predict and packed surprises around every corner.

I haven't seen anything from Godard's 70s, 80s and 90s period and from his recent films I've only seen his entry in the Ten Minutes Older: The Cello anthology and Notre Musique, a more tradition feature film. While interesting in their own right, it seems that Godard did lose some of his playfulness along the way. Where a director like Seijun Suzuki never lost his knack to surprise, Godard is edging closer and closer to more traditional arthouse territory.

There's only one other 60s director I can name that comes close to Godard's free-spirited approach to cinema (and that's Koji Wakamatsu, though he lacks Godard's gleeful playfulness. The 60s is clearly where it's at if you're interested to get familiar with Godard's films. Even though his older work has aged visibly, it still has a remarkable air of freshness and wonder.

Best film: Le Mépris (3.5*)
Worst film: Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

Tue, 09 Dec 2014 12:20:19 +0100
<![CDATA[Bullet Ballet/Shinya Tsukamoto]]>

If you've been following my journey through the world of film, it probably won't come as a big surprise when I say Shinya Tsukamoto (Rokugatsu no Hebi, Soseji, Haze, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, Akumu Tantei 2) is one of my favorite directors. His films have almost infinite rewatch value, he made only one or two duds and his vision on film is still as unique as it was when he made Tetsuo. So I eagerly sat down to watch Bullet Ballet for a second time, one of the final Tsukamoto films on my list of films that needed freshening up.

screen capture of Bullet Ballet

Bullet Ballet is a typical early Tsukamoto film (Tokyo Ken, Tetsuo, Tetsuo II) in almost every conceivable way, apart from the point where Tsukamoto distanced himself entirely from his favored body horror themes that characterized his first couple of films. There is still plenty of fetish and obsession to go around in Bullet Ballet, but you won't see any mutating bodies or flesh/metal biomechanics here.

Instead, underlying the manic exterior, there's a more traditional drama about a man who lost his wife to a gun accident. He becomes fascinated by these metal killing machines and ends up obsessed with owning a real gun. Even though this puts a slightly bigger focus on plot and characters, Bullet Ballet is still a film focused primarily on style, atmosphere and experience and less so on the more common emotional execution of traditional dramas.

Bullet Ballet follows the mental and social decline of a man (Goda) who lost his wife to a misfired gun he didn't even know she owned. While trying to figure out precisely how his wife came to die, he gets entangled with a group of young delinquents. At first they see him as an easy target as they try to blackmail him for all he has, but when they themselves mingle with the wrong crowds Goda jumps to their aid.

screen capture of Bullet Ballet

With Bullet Ballet Tsukamoto reaches back to the grim and grizzly black and white imagery of Tetsuo. The camera is extremely agile, the lighting expressive the editing manic yet razor sharp. It's vintage Tsukamoto, creating a tense, explosive visual style that slowly wears you down over time. And Tsukamoto does take his time. Where Tetsuo clocked in just under 70 minutes, Bullet Ballet goes for the full 90 minute visual assault.

But Tsukamoto's film is more than just a visual attack on the senses. Chu Ishikawa is present again to provide the film with a banging soundtrack, a nifty mix of powerful industrial tracks with softer, more ethereal sounds (obviously referencing the titular ballet). It adds a lot of extra flair and together with the visuals it creates an amazing atmosphere unique to the films of Tsukamoto.

Tsukamoto takes up the lead again and while he isn't the world's most gifted actor, he is well aware of what his films need in terms of acting performances. The problem isn't so much Tsukamoto but the rest of the cast, which clearly underperforms. Kirina Mano in particular looks ill at easy in front of the camera, unnecessarily bogging down the dramatic part of Bullet Ballet. It's a shame because it does detract a little from the overall experience.

screen capture of Bullet Ballet

Bullet Ballet is a film that weighs. The gritty black and white photography, the extroverted soundtrack, the fast edits coupled with a running time of almost 90 minutes and a complete lack of fantastical pressure releases make Bullet Ballet a film that is probably one of toughest in Tsukamoto's oeuvre. The grim ending probably doesn't help either, but if at that point you're still fully invested in the film I'm sure that you'll be able to cope. Fans of Sogo Ishii's early work should feel right at home though, as the punk/rock vibe is probably the biggest in this Tsukamoto film.

The second time around I was little let down by the acting performances of the secondary cast. For a film that puts more focus on drama than usually the case, that's somewhat of a problem. Luckily Tsukamoto's stylistic prowess masks this particular flaw extremely well, making sure it never dominates the film. Still, it's one of Tsukamoto's lesser films and probably not a good entry film if you're not familiar with his work. Unless of course you don't care about fantastical elements and are more susceptible to down-to-earth drama, but even then films like Kotoko or Vital might be better suited to get to know Tsukamoto's oeuvre.

Thu, 04 Dec 2014 11:30:41 +0100
<![CDATA[The Boxtrolls/Annable and Stacchi]]>

In between all the typical CG animation features that are released year after year, a small bubble of stop-motion animation films survives. These films aren't plenty, but they have a strong following both in front and behind the camera. The Boxtrolls is the latest in the series and while its stop-motion origins might not be too heavily advertised, it belongs right up there with films like Frankenweenie and Coraline. Fans of stop-motion, rejoice.

screen capture of The Boxtrolls

Stop-motion may be (moderately) alive and kicking, but it's clearly not where the big money is. Even though these films are expensive to make, you need good marketing power to sell them (Frankenweenie had Burton, Coraline leaned on Gaiman). The Boxtrolls may also be based on a book (Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow), but it lacks the broad recognition to boost ticket sales. So they simply rebranded the film in trailers and other advertising material. Gone are the dark edges, hello family-friendly entertainment.

I expected some kind of childish CG feature reliant on poor comedy and annoying sidekicks, what I got was a fun children's tale with some grim linings and darker moments. The Boxtrolls is not unlike Coraline in that respect, but the marketing department seemed frightened that people would actually find out. They even tried to correct this when they localized the film for international markets, so make sure you get the original dub for an ideal experience.

The film follows Egg, a human child who was brought up amongst boxtrolls (trolls dressed up in boxes). They all live in a cave underground and only come out at night to pick up the trash humans have left behind. Naturally, the people above are scared of the trolls and they are looking to abolish them from their little city. Snatcher and his lowly henchmen vow to get rid of the pest as it will earn them a place in the city council.

screen capture of The Boxtrolls

Even though the film isn't 100% stop-motion (some CG was used to smooth things out), it's immediately clear that this is not just some regular CG animation flick. The handicraft is unmistakable, giving the characters and its surroundings that much more identity. Annable and Stacchi also had a hefty budget to play around with and it shows. The designs are incredibly detailed, the camera work is spectacular and the sets looks lush, extravagant even. There are even some lavish steampunk-like contraptions at the end of the film that earned it some extra fetish-points.

The soundtrack on the other hand is a little dull and pointless, but not to the point of actually becoming annoying. It's just generic kids movie fodder, though the film gets away with it. The dub on the other hand is amazing. Rather than go for an all-American voice cast, The Boxtrolls went for juicier, more fitting and more amusing English talent. The band of bad guys (Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade) is superb, Simon Pegg and Jared Harris fill out the rest of the cast quite well. In comparison Isaac Hempstead Wright and Elle Fanning fail to reach the same heights, but their characters are lot slicker too, so it's not that big of a deal.

screen capture of The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is a film aimed at kids, but it's not just a fluffy comedy. There's a slightly darker edge to it that may not align with people's expectations of a children's film. If you're Burton or Gaiman you can get away with that, but when your film doesn't have that same backing and you're dealing with big budget productions, these "risks" tend to be hidden from view until after the audience actually paid to watch the film. I loved this darker edge, but people expecting a pure comedy may be disappointed when going in with the wrong expectations.

On a technical level The Boxtrolls is an absolute masterpiece. The whole film looks lavish from start to finish. The dub is fitting and fun, the story isn't too moralistic (though the underlying message is impossible to ignore) and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. Annable and Stacchi succeeded in making a film that holds a good balance between commercial appeal and artistic integrity and that alone is quite a feat these days.

Wed, 03 Dec 2014 11:19:44 +0100
<![CDATA[Woody Allen/x10]]>
Woody Allen

With a little dedication, it's not all that difficult to watch 10 Woody Allen films. The man has a broad and varied oeuvre spanning as much as six different decades and even though he's about to hit 80, he shows no signs of slowing down. So unless you're completely averse to Allen's persona, there is something for everyone there.

I'm usually in two minds about Allen's work. There are definitely some parts I enjoy, like the the manic dialogues, Allen the actor, the atypical plot structures and the somewhat cynical musings that make up most of his films. But there are also elements that prevent me from truly enjoying his films, like his somewhat lacking stylistic skills, the fact that he likes to wear his adoration of the classic arts on his sleeve and his choice of cast.

So far I've been focusing on the post-2000 films Allen made, simply because that's where my main focus lies anyway.

Best film: Anything Else (3.5*)
Worst film: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.70 (out of 5)

Mon, 01 Dec 2014 07:58:36 +0100
<![CDATA[Lucy/Luc Besson]]>
Lucy poster

It's been a while since Luc Besson made a truly great film (that would be Angel-A in 2005) and Lucy isn't the film to end Besson's brave quest for renewed excellence. But it is the best film he has made in a long time and it's not unlike Besson's own The Fifth Element: a colorful sci-fi flick that may look like a crowd-pleaser from afar, but delivers exactly the opposite.

Lucy isn't an easy film to explain as it constantly hides between ideas and pretences it doesn't really care about. In essence, it's just a crazy roller coaster that aims to amuse and to incite wonder. To accomplish that, Besson digs up an old (and popular) scientific misinterpretation and goes from there. He dresses up the original theory with layer upon layer of scientific half-truths and uses that increasingly silly premise to have a little sci-fi fun.

The premise that humans only use 10 to 15% of their brain has been dismantled years ago, but that's not important. The point is that it's the kind of premise that makes people gaze up into the sky, maybe take a sip of their whiskey and has them pondering out loud about what humanity could be capable of if we unlocked our brain's full potential. It's the kind of premise that, when brought up in a film, asks for a "meaningful philosophical exploration" of the subject, possibly assisted by some equally thoughtful quotes and existential meanderings.

But no, Besson runs with the premise, states that the extra brain power will allow us to control our own body, other people's bodies, all matter and finally time itself, feeds his main character a drug that miraculously unleashes her brain's true potential and spirals everything into a gleeful mix of high-octane action and outrageous sci-fi, including big and bold percentage statistics in between the various stages of evolution. That's a big bummer for people who were already stroking their chin in anticipation, but it's all the more fun for people like me who enjoy the grotesque and shameless direction this film takes.

The premise of the film has another interesting side effect. Since Lucy becomes super powerful mere minutes after she has taken the drugs, there really isn't anyone on this planet who can stop her. So even though there are a few nifty action sequences, there's never any real threat from the bad guys or any sense of urgency besides the fact that Lucy has a limited time to live. Again Besson crushes the expectations of the audience, working his way to an almost Akira-like finale.

The final blow is probably Johansson's performance. As the film progresses she quickly loses her (presumed - I'm not a fan) charm and becomes this blank-eyed, transcendent, super-rational entity. Instead of this charming, sexy, ultra-cool killer you're looking at an all-knowing, all-powerful god-like creature who doesn't give a damn about who's after her, only interesting in sharing the knowledge she's gaining before she burns up.

Sadly Besson misses the mark when things get truly frantic. The CG isn't really up to par and the aesthetic qualities of the sci-fi bits are a bit meagre. While the idea and direction of the film is amazing, the execution isn't on the same level. That's my only real complaint. Besides that Lucy is a hell of a ride, though you have to be prepared to follow Besson's path rather than get stuck in your own preconceptions of where Besson should've taken this material.

Thu, 27 Nov 2014 11:14:43 +0100
<![CDATA[[Rec] 4: Apocalipsis/Jaume Balaguero]]>

Seven years is a long time to handle a series of four films, but that's exactly how long it took Plaza and Balaguero to bring [Rec] to its (temporary?) conclusion. The fourth instalment in the series ([Rec] 4: Apocalipsis) has finally found its way to the masses, eager to unleash its Spanish zombie horde for one final, explosive finale. The film delivers in spades, though people expecting the unexpected might end up with a serious hangover as Balaguero plays it safe.

screen capture of Rec 4

Back in 2007, [Rec] was something truly special. A zombie film from Spain fully embracing the found footage style, that was something nobody had even seen before. [Rec] 2 built upon that same premise, going for the traditional bigger and bolder sequel approach. The third and fourth film were announced simultaneously, with the added twist that both films would be solo projects. Plaza helmed [Rec] 3 Genesis, adding a dose of humor to the mix. Balaguero was responsible for the fourth film, taking the series back to its roots.

Fans of the first two films will immediately notice Balaguero dropped the found footage style for a more traditional style of filming. There's still no lack of shaky cams and manic camera action, but Balaguero stopped wasting time on trying to explain where the actual footage came from. The switch isn't entirely successful, but at least it differentiates [Rec] 4 from the millions of cheaply produced found footage films that have swamped the marketplace.

The film also moved away from the apartment building setting, opting for a little sea adventure instead. The survivors of the apartment complex (paired up with one wedding survivor) have been put in quarantine, undergoing several tests to verify if they are infected with the virus. When everything appears to be fine, the survivors are set free to roam the boat. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that things won't stay calm for very long.

screen capture of Rec 4

Even though Pablo Rosso proved himself a worthy cinematographer in the first three films, I wasn't 100% convinced by his work here. The shaky cam sequences just aren't up too par compared to the first two films. There's a fine line between showing just enough at just the right time and sloppy shaky cam camera work and Rosso regularly misses the mark. The rest of the film looks fine though, I just wished the zombie/action bits were shot a little better.

The soundtrack too is lacking when laid next to the previous films. Not so much the music itself, but the extra layer of tension created by the muted and distorted sound effects is mostly absent here. Now whenever a zombie attacks, there's a sudden burst of noise, but that's about it. The actual music is decent enough but hides too much in the background. For a horror flick that's somewhat of a missed opportunity.

Manuela Velasco rejoins the cast for this fourth instalment. It's good seeing her again, though it's kind of obvious that the make up artists had a hard time covering up the 7 years that passed between the first film and this one. Considering the short timespan that sits between the events in the film (all of the story happens within the same week), it's just a little awkward. Ismael Fritschi (think a Spanish Dan Fogler) is a nice addition and provides some comic relief without being too obvious, the rest of the cast is somewhat interchangeable but good enough for the job.

screen capture of Rec 4

Moving the setting to a boat on open sea works both for and against Rec 4.On the one hand it's a little random, just a different (yet very convenient) destination to keep things fresh, but not at all related to the original Rec universe. On the other hand it does avoid staleness from setting in. Returning to the original setting might have been fun for about five minutes, but they would've ended up with exactly the same film all over again (and we've already had that sequel).

I always assumed Rec 4 was going to be the last film in the series, but Balaguero didn't really wrap things up after all, leaving plenty of room for possible sequels to come. The fourth film borrowed some comedy elements from Plaza's film, kept the action touch from the second one and moved everything to the open sea. It's not a very surprising nor original film, but the quality is still there and once things get going it's one hell of a roller coaster.

Wed, 26 Nov 2014 12:33:42 +0100
<![CDATA[Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna/Katsuhito Ishii]]>

This is where it all started for Katsuhito Ishii. Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna (Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl) is a manga come to life, a thoroughly Japanese crime/comedy that somehow managed to land a broad international release even before Asian cinema semi-boomed in the early 00's. It's also a great place to start for people not familiar with Ishii's films, as it captures the various aspects of his style quite well.

screen capture of Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl

Back in the day Katsuhito Ishii (Party 7, Sumagura: Omae no Mirai O Hakobe, Cha no Aji, Yama no Anata) was often linked to the work of Tarantino and Ritchie. Sure enough, Samehada Otoko contains some silly gangsters who like to quarrel about nothing much at all, but that's where the comparison ends. Those original statements were probably a combination of a marketing ploy not to be taken too seriously and a lack of familiarity with the manga/anime scene, so don't go expecting a Pulp Fiction/Snatch rip-off or you'll be quite disappointed.

Samehada Otoko is a lot weirder and more focused on the comedy aspect. There are plenty of Yakuza hanging around of course, but they are far removed from the cliché image of the movie gangster. The rest of the characters are equally insane, in particular the private investigator called Yamada who stands out for his otherworldly behavior. There are also various slapstick-like scenes you'll never see in the hipper crime/comedies of the '90s, so it's best to just expect an anime turned live-action, helmed by one of Japan's better comedy directors.

The film follows Samehada, a bold gangster who just cheated his own gang out of a lot of money. By chance he bumps into Toshiko, a young lady on the run from her perverted uncle. The both team up, but soon enough they have to hit the road to outrun Samehada's former gang members. To make things worse, Toshiko's uncle hires a private investigator in order to find Toshiko and bring her back to his motel. Toshiko is turning 18 soon and her uncle plans to marry her on that very day.

screen capture of Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl

Visually I'm very much in two minds about Samehada Otoko. On the one hand there are plenty of quirky camera angles and there's no lack of playful editing, but everything looks just so damn grim and grainy. Maybe it's the transfer, I admit the DVD I watched was of pretty poor quality, but even then the film could've used some vibrant colors to brighten things up. When you start to compare it to films like Survive Style 5+ or Donju it's just hard to ignore how Ishii could've improved on the visuals.

The soundtrack is pretty typical fare. Upbeat pop/rock with some jazzy influences makes up most of the soundtrack. It creates a happy, pleasant vibe but it's not really my kind of thing. Then again, a comedy like this doesn't really need a unique soundtrack to shine, as long as it doesn't hamper the light-hearted, good-natured atmosphere it's pretty much mission accomplished.

Looking at the cast though, it's no surprise that Samehada Otoko still turned out to be a great film. Tadanobu Asano is helming the project while Ittoku Kishibe, Susumu Terajima and Yoshiyuki Morishita all make notable appearances. But it's Thunderbird puppet come to life Tatsuya Gashuin who takes the cake. He is completely otherworldly in his role as personal investigator. He takes over every scene he appears in and provides the best laughs. Ishii did an amazing job uncovering the man's unique talent.

screen capture of Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl

It might take a while to understand who's who in this film, but once all the characters are introduced and the story gets rolling Samehada Otoko is a constant stream of zany comedy moments. There isn't much room for the softer site Ishii showcased in some of his later films, though there are a few scenes near the end that stand out as a bit more emotional. Still, comedy is what this film is all about and comedy is what you'll get. Whether you can actually enjoy it will depend on how you deal with Japanese weirdness.

Samehada Otoko is starting to show its age a little. It's a bit dreary and murky for a comedy and more recent films have improved greatly on the formula. That said, a superb cast, a batch of weird characters and an upbeat score still make for an enjoyable comedy that packs plenty of laughs. Tatsuya Gashuin is clearly the star of the show, Katsuhito Ishii would learn a lot from this first experience and would return a much stronger director. Samehada Otoko might have lost some of its shine over time, but it's still a pretty great film and a seriously fun watch to boot.

Thu, 20 Nov 2014 11:38:00 +0100
<![CDATA[Kurozu Explode/Toshiaki Toyoda]]>

It took a while, but the latest instalment in the Crows franchise (Kurozu Zero, Kurozu Zero II) has finally arrived. This third film takes a fresh start, with a new story arc and a new director to keep things from going stale. While this is usually bad news for a film series, Kurozu Explode (Crows Explode) isn't just a quick cash-in or a lazy compromise to please some hardened fanboys, instead director Toyoda picks up where Miike left off and goes out of his way to make the material his own.

screen capture of Crows Explode

Those only familiar with Toshiaki Toyoda's later films (I'm Flash, Monsters Club, Yomigaeri no Chi) may be wondering how he ended up directing a film like this, but long-time Toyoda fans will fondly remember Aoi Haru, which is basically a Crows film avant la lettre. When Toyoda was announced as the follow-up to Miike, I quickly tossed aside all my earlier reservations and started looking forward to this latest addition to the series.

If you're not familiar with the Crows series this might not be the best place to start. Even though the references to the first two films are fairly limited, the setting and characters might take some getting used to. Schools run by gangs fighting their way to the top are not uncommon in Japanese fiction, but outside of Japan it's not something you'll come across very often. Apart from WaSanGo (a South-Korean film obviously rooted in Japanese culture) I can't really name another non-Japanese film that has a similar setup. It's probably better to start with films like Sakigake!! Kuromati Koko: The Movie (comedy) or Ai to Makoto (crazy Miike musical/drama) or possibly even Toyoda's own Aoi Haru before moving on to the Crows series.

This third instalment sees a new generation of fighters challenge their seniors at Suzuran High School, while fighting off the leading clan of a neighbouring school. To make things even more explosive, one of the school's graduates has joined a local Yakuza gang and is using Yakuza muscle to take revenge on his old enemies. So instead of only having to worry about each other, they now have to face a range of even more powerful enemies. At the same time, Kaburagi, an enigmatic young transfer student, is rising through the ranks to make a name for himself.

screen capture of Crows Explode

Toyoda's visual style is a pretty good match for the foundation Miike laid in the first two films. The grim surroundings, dominated by run-down concrete buildings, trash and graffiti are grey and depressing, but still rich in details. Even the weather adapts, as thick clouds and icy snow contribute richly to the reigning atmosphere. The indoor scenes in a nearby bar are a nice escape from this cold, desolate environment, though even there the fighting continues. Camera work and editing are solid, the explicit styling of the different gang members also deserves an extra mention.

These high school punks are all about rock and roll, something Toyoda welcomes with open arms. Whenever the film switches back to the bar a different rock group is performing on stage, which makes the inclusion of some existing bands less forced compared to other films. Even though the music itself isn't what I consider great, Toyoda has a way with music that sets up the mood and helps to bring a scene to a climax. I wouldn't listen to the soundtrack outside of the film, but as part of Kurozu Explode it works wonders.

Not too many famous faces in Kurozu Explode, but there's a lot of energy among the actors and the cast clearly had a lot of fun on set. Masahiro Higashide is a good lead, Ryo Katsuji a perfect second in command. There are no real weak links, though it must be said that the styling of the characters makes up half the performance. Most actors don't have that much work besides standing still and appearing to be as menacing as possible, but at least they're pretty good at it.

screen capture of Crows Explode

Fans of the manga have been very vocal about the fact that the film doesn't follow the storyline of the comics. Instead a completely new arc was written especially for this film. I haven't read the manga so I don't really care, but it's good to be aware of these fanboy issues when reading other reviews online. There is nothing really wrong with the plot of this film, even though it's clearly not the main focus. Kurozu Explode is all about the school gang world with its colorful protagonists and that's where the film shines.

Toyoda made an impeccable sequel to Miike's first two films. Kurozu Explode is not a film that transcends its genre or background, but it's a fun, energetic and aptly made niche film that perfectly captures the setting and its characters. It's a film that stands well on its own, though watching Miike's films first is definitely recommended, if only to get acquainted with the setting and unique culture of the battling school gangs. Miike's films are a tad lighter of tone, Toyoda's one is a bit more serious, apart from that they are equally well-made and amusing.

Thu, 13 Nov 2014 11:29:17 +0100
<![CDATA[Eliza Graves/Brad Anderson]]>
Eliza Graves poster

Brad Anderson does Edgar Allan Poe. A pretty interesting collaboration if you ask me. This is my seventh Brad Anderson film and he hasn't disappointed me so far. Poe material is always worth a gamble too, even though most adaptations of his work are hampered by mediocre directors who lack the funds (and skills) to make something good out of it.

Not so in the case of Eliza Graves (also known as Stonehearst Asylum). It's a project that harbours enough money and talent to bring the warped world of Poe to life. Whatever you do though, skip the trailer. I was unlucky enough to see part of it in theaters and it shamelessly spoiled the basic premise of the film, which is just completely unnecessary. Eliza Graves is a film that is best discovered without prior knowledge of the plot (unless of course you're already familiar with Poe's short story).

The film follows Doctor Newgate as he arrives at Stonehearst Asylum. Fresh out of Oxford, Newgate has a soft spot for the insane and enlisted himself to Stonehearst to help out treating and curing the madmen. He is taken on board as Dr Lamb's assistant, who has a rather peculiar way of dealing with his patients. On his first round, Newgate is smitten by Eliza Graves, one of Lamb's dearest subjects. She seems ill at ease in Newgate's presence and it doesn't take long before Newgate starts to suspect that something is seriously off at Stonehearst.

The film has no lack of star power. They are not the biggest names in Hollywood, but with names like Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, David Thewlis and Jim Sturgess, filling a poster shouldn't be too hard. They all put in a good performance too, clearly enjoying their various evil and disturbing roles.

The main attraction of the film is its late 19th century setting though. The asylum looks lush and haunting, the interiors rich and almost romantic. But it's all a façade for a darker, more morbid reality that thrives underneath the superficial calm. The soundtrack adds plenty of atmosphere too, but that's only to be expected when Anderson is helming the film.

The final part drags just a little, but apart from that Eliza Graves is a moody, fun and pleasantly twisted film with no obvious weaknesses. Anderson delivers another good film worthy of your time, which was somewhat of a certainty anyway. Sadly his films tend to suffer from poor distribution, so catch it while you can.

Tue, 11 Nov 2014 11:51:38 +0100
<![CDATA[15 Beautiful Screencaps/Recommendations]]>

It's time for a small celebration. Last week, after nearly seven years of blogging, I wrote my 500th film review. That's quite the number, but rather than digging up my favorite reviews for you, I figured a slight twist might make things a bit more interesting. So I present my 15 favorite screencaps (and you could always just click the image to read the full review). Images that I feel could inspire people to see the films based on their merits alone. Here goes:

15. Tjhe Unforgiving

14. Chi Ming Yu Chun Giu

13. Tekon Kinkurito

12. Heruta Sukeruta

11. Kyoshin

10. The Spirit

09. Genius Party Beyond

08. Volver a Morir

07. Avalon

06. 2046

05. Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi

04. Di Si Zhang Hua

03. Kuron wa Kokyo wo Mezasu

02. Vinyan

01. Beyond the Black Rainbow

Mon, 10 Nov 2014 11:12:30 +0100
<![CDATA[Welp/Jonas Govaerts]]>

Welp (Cub) has been widely announced as being the first Flemish horror film. While that description is quite deceptive, for all intents and purposes the advertisers do have a point. Jonas Govaerts' Welp is a pure-blooded slasher, a type of film our region hasn't really done before. While I went in with toned down expectations, the result was actually much better than I had expected. Slasher fans are in for a treat with this one.

screen capture of Welp

On the Wallon side of Belgium, Fabrice du Welz' Calvaire and Benjamin Viré's Cannibal count as fully featured horror flicks. Flanders had some close calls with Linkeroever and Small Gods, great films but not exactly pure horror fare. There are also some underground cult films that might claim first place, but they are truly too insignificant to take into account. All of that changed when Govaerts (guitarist of The Hickey Underworld) decided that Flanders could do with a slasher flick.

Making a genre film is one thing, making it stand out from the crowd is a lot harder. There have been so many slasher flicks before that the genre is almost a parody of itself. And that's exactly were Govaerts got things right. The film is littered with small details (like the mask, the various forest traps, the focus on children) that make it just that little bit different from the million other slashers out there. Mind you that if you're not an avid horror fan, these nuances might pass right by you.

Welp takes us on a typical boy scouting trip (though not all Belgian boy scouting groups would be happy to hear that - some of them even tried to distance themselves from the film). A bunch of young kids and their mentors head out into the woods, where they set up camp to play a fun Halloween game. What they don't know is that darker forces are roaming the forest. Sam is the only one who notices something's off, but he is ridiculed by the other kids.

screen capture of Welp

Govaerts' biggest accomplishment was getting Nicolas Karakatsanis on board as cinematographer. Karakatsanis is probably one of Belgian finest assets in the film industry right now, credits including Small Gods (directed by his brother), Rundskop, Linkeroever and The Drop. He has a way of making dark and gritty beautiful, exactly what a film like this needs. The setting and costumes are also top notch, the "welp" mask in particular is unique and (potentially) iconic.

Having a professional musician as a director is a pretty big advantage for a film. Horror films benefit greatly from a strong score and Welp has some pretty classy music to crank up to tension. Build-ups in particular are moody and dense, creating a laden atmosphere that pushes you all the way back into your seat. It may not be the most memorable or original score, but at least it's a damn effective one and it's applied with minute precision.

The performances are a little hit and miss, but the lead roles are all good. Titus De Voogdt (Small Gods, Any Way the Wind Blows, Ben X) is one of Belgian's finer talents, Maurice Luyten did an amazing job as Sam. It's not easy finding a good kid actor for a role like this, but he more than held his own. The other kid actors aren't as great and Aerts and Bosmans aren't exactly prize material either, but overall the cast more than suffices.

screen capture of Welp

Welp is a slasher, plain and simple. There aren't any big surprises, no amazing plot twists, no visionary ideas that make you question the essence of cinema. But there are some little things that might still surprise the hardened fans out there. There's a killing involving a truck you won't see easily in other slashers (especially American ones), the bad guys aren't as conventional and there's some underlying dark humor that gives the film a slight twist. Nothing earth-shattering, but enough to make it stand out.

With his first feature, Govaerts delivers a rock solid genre film. It's tense and moody, never too gory, beautifully shot, aptly scored and generally well-directed. If you're not into slashers than it's probably just another horror flick without anything to set it apart, but genre fans will know better. It'll be interesting to see where Govaerts will go from here, but Welp is a film they won't be able to take from him ever again. Flanders has its first slasher film, and it's a good one.

Wed, 05 Nov 2014 11:59:31 +0100