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[Billy Wilder/x10]]>
Billy Wilder

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

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

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 The once so edgy dialogues are terribly outdated and the farcical, fast-paced comedy is simply not funny.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

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

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

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

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

Mon, 03 Aug 2015 12:52:18 +0200
<![CDATA[Insidious: Chapter 3/Leigh Whannell]]>
Insidious: Chapter 3 poster

It's was just five years ago that the first Insidious film saw its release. Reading back my original review, I clearly didn't give Wan enough credit for what accomplished with Insidious, as it would go on to reinvigorate an entire subgenre of films. The past five years a series of brooding, dark movies about demonic hauntings (Annabelle, The Conjuring, Oculus, Sinister) has found its way into theaters, pretty much copying Wan's Insidious success formula over and over again.

With Insidious: Chapter 3, Wan leaves the directing chair behind and hands over the reigns to co-writer and close friend Leigh Whannell. It's always a little tricky when an original director leaves a film series behind, but Whannell proves a worthy successor. His involvement in the first two films clearly made the transfer a lot easier, and with Wan still attached as producer the series was left in capable hands.

That doesn't mean Insidious 3 is everybody's cup of tea. It might be a pretty popular horror series, but its strong reliance on jump scares (a tense build-up harshly disrupted by a sudden image of horror, often accompanied by a loud sound) has alienated a large part of its audience, casual viewers and horror aficionados alike. Much like handheld camera work, slo-mos and voice overs, jump scares are often scoffed at, regardless of the actual quality of execution.

If you don't mind a good jump scare though, the Insidious series is by far your best option. Whannell paid close attention to Wan's direction, even one-upping him a couple of times during the first part of the film. Production values are impressive, the camera work is smart (showing exactly enough to keep the mystery going) and Whannell's timing is impeccable. Just throwing in some random loud noises is easy enough, but if you want to actually fool the audience nowadays you need to do a lot better. I'd even go as far to say the build-up to the film's big finale is one of the better ones I've seen.

Sadly the actual pay-off isn't quite up to par. The reveal of the demon is a little disappointing, especially when you compare it to marvelous ending of the first Insidious film. It's all a bit barren and lifeless, lacking any real impact. Fans of the series can warm themselves on the return of Lin Shaye and the origin story of the ghost hunting team, but that isn't enough to fully redeem the somewhat disappointing finale.

That said, Insidious: Chapter 3 is a worthy successor. It's a little better than the second film, a little worse than the first one. So if you're not fed up with the Insidious series and you don't mind a few well-executed jump scares, you really can't go wrong with this one.

Thu, 30 Jul 2015 12:24:55 +0200
<![CDATA[Horsehead/Romain Basset]]>

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

screen capture of Horsehead

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

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

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

screen capture of Horsehead

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

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

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

screen capture of Horsehead

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

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

Mon, 20 Jul 2015 12:33:51 +0200
<![CDATA[Somatic Responses Interview/20 years]]>

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

Somatic Responses aka Paul and John Healy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(J): What he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tue, 14 Jul 2015 11:39:18 +0200
<![CDATA[La Cite des Enfants Perdus/Jeunet and Caro]]>

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

screen capture of La Cité des Enfants Perdus

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

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

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

screen capture of La Cité des Enfants Perdus

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

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

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

screen capture of La Cité des Enfants Perdus

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

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

Thu, 09 Jul 2015 11:08:29 +0200
<![CDATA[Antarctica: A Year on Ice/Anthony Powell]]>

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

screen capture of Antarctica: A Year on Ice

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

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

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

screen capture of Antarctica: A Year on Ice

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

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

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

screen capture of Antarctica: A Year on Ice

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

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

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

Mon, 06 Jul 2015 12:03:23 +0200
<![CDATA[Akumu Tantei /Shinya Tsukamoto]]>

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

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

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

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

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

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

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

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

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

screen capture of Akumu Tantei

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

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

Mon, 29 Jun 2015 11:42:05 +0200
<![CDATA[Ann Hui/x10]]>
Ann Hui

Ann Hui, the undisputed empress of Hong Kong cinema. In a field dominated by men, Hui had to fight twice as hard to keep her head above water. It paid off though, a good 35 years and almost 30 feature films later she is one of Hong Kong's veteran directors, still going strong. I'm not Hui's biggest fan, but if you're interested in Hong Kong cinema you can't escape her work, so it was only a matter of time before my counter would hit the 10 mark.

Some directors take a flying start, other learn the trade as they go along. The oldest Hui film I watched is Zhuang Dao Zheng [The Spooky Bunch] (Hui's second feature) and Hui had her work cut out for her. It's a pretty bad, uneven film that tries to combine horror and slapstick, not the best combination when you're watching a Hong Kong flick.

Hui got her first real break with Woo Yuet Dik Goo Si [God of Killers], a film that became crucial to the rest of her career. After all, when you have Chow Yun-Fat (Hong Kong's biggest non martial arts action star of the 80s) headlining your film people are bound to take notice. But Hui didn't just grow big on other people's star power, she also put something of herself into the mix. While she made clear-cut genre films, she added dramatic and romantic elements not often found in other Hong Kong films. The results weren't always terrific, but it did help to set her apart from the rest.

Safe for Gam Ye Sing Gwong Chaan Laan [Starry Is the Night], I didn't really see much of her early films. The next film I watched was made in the mid 90s, right after the industry collapsed. Starring Michelle Yeoh and Sammo Hung, it's a sizeable chunk of girl power that gives us a rare insight in the workings of the Hong Kong movie industry. It's a decent film, although the final act derails pretty badly.

Hui would continue to struggle with balancing different genres within a single film. Youling Renjian [Visible Secret] is Hui's attempt at horror, though it's probably best not to approach the film that way. It's still a fun flick, even though it's quite light-hearted, with some drama and romance influences thrown into the mix. Yu Guanyin [Goddess of Mercy] on the other hand starts off as a romance, but ventures off into thriller territory later on. Ironically enough, Laam Yan Sei Sap [July Rhapsody], the only true drama Hui did during the early 00s, is one of her weaker films.

In 2006 Chow Yun-Fat finally returned to Hui's films, though not in an action part. Yi Ma De Hou Xian Dai Sheng Huo [The Postmodern Life of My Aunt] is a strange, somewhat darker comedy that eventually turns into a dark drama. It's my favorite Hui, but once again the balance between the different genres feels a little off. It was just a temporary recovery as her next few films did very little for me. Somehow she tried a little too hard to get a point across, which hurt the integrity of her dramas.

But Hui is someone who just keeps going and in 2011 that resulted in Tou Ze [Still Life], probably Hui's most famous film to date. It's another light-hearted drama that highlights the elderly situation in Hong Kong. A nice film and probably the best way to get to know Hui, though I still haven't discovered what made people take notice, as it's little more than a basic Hong Kong drama. On the other hand, Hui deserves the extra attention as she's too easily passed by on the international scene.

Being the respectable Hong Kong director she is, Ann Hui is already busy working on her next film. If she follows in the footsteps of people like Jing Wong, Tsui Hark and Johnnie To she still has a healthy part of her career in front of her. Finding her films isn't always easy and not every film is as balanced as it should be, but she's a force to be reckoned with and if you're into Hong Kong cinema you simply cannot ignore her work. But make sure you start with her later films, as Hui's early work may be a little hard to stomach, especially if you're not really familiar with Hong Kong cinema.

Best film: Yi Ma De Hou Xian Dai Sheng Huo [The Postmodern Life of My Aunt] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zhuang Dao Zheng [The Spooky Bunch] (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)

Tue, 23 Jun 2015 11:55:34 +0200
<![CDATA[Damejin/Satoshi Miki]]>

The feeling you get before watching the last remaining film of a director you like is always a bit two-sided. There is anticipation and a warm buzz fuelled by the near-certainty that you're about to watch something good, but there's also a lingering fear that it might not live up to your expectations. And worse, a saddening realization that after watching it you'll have reached a (temporary) dead end. And so I sat down to watch Satoshi Miki's Damejin [The Loafers], crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

screen capture of Damejin

Miki is a clear favorite of mine. So far the man has made seven films and I've loved every single one of them. His latest film being the only (minor) exception, but even that was still pretty good. Damejin is the first film Miki ever made, even though he would go on to release two more films before Damejin would finally find its way into the open. It explains why the film is a tad cruder than his other work, on the other hand the crudeness does give the film a slightly more daring, edgier feel. And that's something I appreciate in a film.

Damejin is the kind of film where everything can happen, everything happens and nothing has any impact whatsoever on the actual story. It's fragmented and random and outrageous plot points are forgotten just as quickly as they are introduced, but that's the main pull of the film. It's not so much about the story (if you want coherence, it's best to skip this one) as it is about the crazy characters and chill, relaxed atmosphere that lingers throughout the entire film.

Miki follows around three loafers. They don't work, they lack any goal in life and they spend their days hanging around in a shabby shack. Whenever they venture outside though crazy stuff happens to them. At one point they are bullied into becoming henchmen for a yakuza just released from prison, the next moment an apparition appears urging them to move to India in order to save the world. That's the kind of plot you can expect from this film.

screen capture of Damejin

Even though Damjin was Miki's first, it's one of the better-looking films he has directed so far. It may be just a little rough around the edges, but the entire film is drenched in a warm, orange/green filter that ties in perfectly with the hot, lazy summer day atmosphere Miki is striving for. It's a real treat. Add some nifty camera work and a little creative editing and you have a beautiful, slick-looking film that radiates warmth and tranquillity.

The music too is a perfect fit for the atmosphere. Miki doesn't really tie himself down to a single genre here, instead he cycles through some different styles, always on the lookout for music that add to the quirky, uplifting vibe. From the more classical drama music to folky and jazzy-sounding tunes, it's a weird little soundtrack that, like pretty much everything else in the film, works surprisingly well.

Even though Damejin doesn't have any big Japanese actors on its payroll, there are some interesting faces to be spotted. Mikako Ichikawa does a great job as the leading lady, Ryuta Sato is surprisingly effective as her male counterpart. Yoichi Nukumizu is the ideal goofy sidekick and Akaji Maro has a small but very memorable cameo. It's a very solid cast without any weak links and a few great performances, perfectly suited for the kind of film Miki set out to make.

screen capture of Damejin

Damejin is a very peculiar film that won't appeal to everyone. Not because it's so edgy, offensive or slow-moving, but because it lacks a certain level of coherence that's usually expected from a film. It's not exactly episodic or sketch-like, it's just incredibly random and free-form. Damejin, much like its main protagonist, just lingers and ventures in whatever direction that's thrown before its feet. If you're looking for a great story you won't find it here. If, on the other hand, you're fine with drifting along on the lazy, comfy summer atmosphere you're in for quite a ride.

Miki has a unique, dead pan sense of humor that pushes the film forward. I can only hope he continues to make films in the same vein as his work doesn't really compare to anything else out there. It's silly alright, but there's also a deep feeling of warmth and serenity embedded in his work. For a first attempt Damejin is already quite accomplished, easily capturing Miki's spirit. It's just a tiny bit rougher compared to his later films, but at the same time it's also a little purer. Miki fans are sure to enjoy this one, Miki novices should find a good starting place in Damejin.

Mon, 22 Jun 2015 13:17:02 +0200
<![CDATA[Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng/Roy Hin Yeung Chow]]>

Hong Kong's already massive martial arts catalogue is still expanding. Ever since the mid 60s they've been producing martial arts film at an almost constant pace. Sure enough the attention sometimes shifted to other genres, but only for a short period of time. In the end, they always returned to their roots. Point in case: Roy Hin Yeung Chow's Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng [Rise of the Legend], the latest in an endless series of Wong Fei-hung stories.

screen capture of Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng

To be offered the role of Wong Fei-hung is a big deal, as the man is featured in some of the leading Hong Kong martial arts films, portrayed by some of the absolute greats of martial arts cinema. There is Jet Li in Tsui Hark's first Wong Fei-hung film, Gordon Liu popped up in Chia-Liang Liu's Huang Fei-hong Yu Liu a Cai and Wu Guan and Jackie Chan appeared as Fei-hung in the Drunken Master films. It's safe to say that relative newcomer Eddie Peng is in pretty good company.

Even though Wong Fei-hung existed as a real person, the stories around his persona rarely correspond to actual historic events. If you took all the series and films about him and tried to map them chronologically, you'd probably need 6 lifetimes to fit in all his adventures. Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng is the latest in a long lineage of Wong Fei-hung stories that probably isn't too concerned with what actually happened. But as any self-conscious martial arts fan will tell you, that isn't too big of a problem. Martial arts is all about legends and folklore, reality doesn't play a big part in that.

Chow's film is a little different from its predecessors in the sense that the story is more detailed. While there's still plenty of fighting, there's also an actual plot that takes up most of the middle part of the film. Fei-hung is infiltrating the Black Tiger gang in order to destroy it from the inside out. To get to the master of the gang Fei-hung has to defeat his adopted sons first, which he does by setting up some elaborate traps. All the while Fei-hung is helped by a couple of lifelong friends who operate from the outside.

screen capture of Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng

Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng is not a cheap-looking film. At all. Clearly a lot of money went into the production design and it shows. The costumes, the city and the interiors all look lush and detailed. But it's not the first Chinese film to spend a lot of money on remodelling times long gone. What sets it apart is the reinvention of Hong Kong action cinematography. The classic camera moves are still there, but some creative zooming, first person action shots and snappy editing make for a different action experience. It looks amazing and it gives the the genre a welcome boost.

Soundtrack-wise there's not much to look forward to. It's a fair, adrenaline-inducing collection of tracks that go well with the action scenes, but nothing that will stick to your brain or can even be vaguely remembered afterwards. A very typical soundtrack for a martial arts film in other words. It's remarkable how little innovation there is in that regard, especially if you consider the effect a more fine-tuned soundtrack could have on these kind of fight sequences.

Star of the film is Eddie Peng, who is clearly soliciting to become Jet Li's successor. Peng is a bit slicker (he looks more media-aware too, even playing a classical character like Wong Fei-hung), but his fighting skills and posture are top notch and he really shines during the fight sequences. The secondary cast is on par, with a sizeable part for Sammo Hung and solid supporting roles for Tony Leung Ka Fai and Angelababy.

screen capture of Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng

Even though Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng pays ample homage to the roots of the genre, it also feels like a new start for Hong Kong martial arts cinema. Together with Once upon a Time in Shanghai it heralds a profitable future for Hong Kong's most prestigious genre of films. There are subtle influences from other genres to liven things up, a new batch of actors ready to star as the classic folk heroes and an updated action cinematography that breathes new life into Hong Kong's special brand of action cinema.

Hopefully Huang Feihong Zhi Yingxiong You Meng is only the first in a series of new Wong Fei-hung films, as the end left me begging for more. Chow laid the foundations for a new film series and as it has done pretty well for itself I'm sure that a sequel is already in the works. If you're martial arts fan than this new Wong Fei-hung film is a must-see. It's hard to predict if you'll end up liking the changes that have been made to bring the genre into up to speed, but even then there's still plenty of oldskool entertainment to be had from this one.

Tue, 16 Jun 2015 12:32:54 +0200
<![CDATA[Fruit Chan/x10]]>
Fruit Chan

Hong Kong is a fortress of genre cinema. From martial arts cinema to Triad films, from the Cat III work to their own specific brand of comedy, Hong Kong directors are frighteningly efficient at cranking out genre films at blistering speeds. Few escape the clutches of this cinematic machine, director Fruit Chan is one of them. While almost impossible to coin and wildly inconsistent, Chan has worked hard to set himself apart from his peers. This hasn't always resulted in good films, but it did brand him as one of the more interesting Hong Kong directors of the past 30 years.

Fruit Chan started off like many others do in Hong Kong. He did a couple of acting jobs, worked his way up from assistant director and learned the director's trade under Sammo Hung while doing Long De Xin [Heart of the Dragon]. The mix of action and drama was not a big success though and Chan's directing career was quickly put on ice.

During the mid 90s the Hong Kong movie industry collapsed, leaving a tremendous void for others to fill. Chan saw an opportunity there and in '97 he released Heung Gong Jai Jo [Made in Hong Kong], a mix between Zimou's You Hua Hao Hao Shuo [Keep Cool] and Wai-Keung Lau's Gu Huo Zi: Zhi Ren Zai Jiang Hu [Young and Dangerous] series. It's the first real sign of Chan's emerging talent.

In the early 00's Chan tackled Hong Kong's prostitute situation with two separate features. First there was Durian Durian, a somewhat lifeless drama that didn't add too much to what was already out there. Lucky his second attempt was a lot more interesting. Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood [Hollywood Hong Kong] is a kind of magical, almost Jeunet-like tale featuring rising star Xun Zhou, set in the outskirts of the city. It's a unique film that still stands as one of my favorite Hong Kong films ever made.

In 2004 Chan would finally catch his big international break. His horror film Gaau Ji [Dumplings] would find its way to the West, riding the Asian horror wave. First as part of the Saam Gaang Yi [Three Extremes] anthology, later as a full-length stand-alone feature. Beautifully shot (Christopher Doyle behind the camera) and pleasantly morbid, it's a great entry into Chan's work if you like horror films.

Chan would stick with the horror themes, first remaking Nakata's Ghost Actress as Don't Look Up, later on contributing to Hong Kong horror anthology Tales from the Dark (the first batch of shorts). But both films never reached the heights of Gaau Ji. There's still some life left in Chan though, as proven by his latest film: Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong Gok Hoi Wong Dai Bou Dik Hung Van [The Midnight After]. A fun and entertaining mix of genres that parked itself somewhere between scifi, mystery and horror.

It's hard to imagine someone liking all of Fruit Chan's films, if only because his work is so varied. Through the years he skipped between drama, mystery and horror cinema, injecting his own stylistic elements without ever going full author. His films are generally ignored here in the West, so if you feel adventurous his oeuvre holds a few rare gems just waiting to be discovered. Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood is by far his greatest accomplishment, so that's probably the best place to start.

Best film: Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood [Hollywood Hong Kong] (4.5*)
Worst film: Hwajangshil Eodieyo? [Public Toilet] (1.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Heung Gong Yau Gok Hor Lei Wood
Average rating: 2.95 (out of 5)

Mon, 15 Jun 2015 11:48:33 +0200
<![CDATA[Joe Dante/x10]]>
Joe Dante

Joe Dante, 80s horror icon and one of the last ones of that era to survive as a director today. If you were living and breathing during the 80s chances are that at one point in your life you saw one of Dante's films. And if you are the nostalgic kind you probably still have a soft spot for his 80s work. Younger horror aficionados beware though, while Dante is generally considered a horror director, his oeuvre is a little more varied than that and most of his horror films have a somewhat child-like edge to them.

Dante started off slow. His first film was a strange 420 minute compilation film made in the 60s, after that it would take him 8 more years to complete Hollywood Boulevard, his first actual feature film. But it wasn't until '78, when Dante released Piranha, that the world took notice. To be entirely honest though, I'm not quite sure why they did. I never really understood why Piranha became the horror classic it is today, but it's impossible to contest its status and it launched Dante into the 80s.

Three years later Dante came out with The Howling, one of the quintessential films in the werewolf niche. A lot less pulpy compared to Piranha and one of the most straight-up horror films he ever directed. After that Dante's horror films began to change. First there was his segment in The Twilight Zone, then came Gremlins. More humorous. more kid-friendly. Gremlins in particular is a film that served as a perfectly fine introduction to horror cinema for younger viewers.

Dante continued down that path, focusing more on Stand By Me-like children's adventures, quite often dropping the horror entirely from his films. Films like Explorers, Innerspace and The 'Burbs are all solid 80s children's entertainment, but might have trouble enticing more mature audiences (unless they're looking for 80s nostalgia of course).

During the 90s Dante's career took a pretty big dive. With only a couple of B-grade comedies and a poorly executed action film (Small Soldiers) Dante was struggling for relevance. It wasn't until 2005, when the Masters of Horror project set out to revive the glory days of a number of oldskool horror directors that Dante got back into the spotlight. Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution are two decent horror short films that are worth a look.

Dante saw this as an opportunity to reboot his career, releasing a few more films in recent years, but none of them sparking much interest. While his career isn't exactly dead, most people have abandoned his work in favor of keeping the memories of his 80s films alive. Which is probably not such a bad idea. If you're looking for that light-hearted, adventurous 80s vibe Dante has a few nice films to seek out. And if you end up liking those you might decide to try out some of his other films, but know that you're entering muddy waters. If you're more into modern cinema then his Masters of Horror work is a good place to start, but it's probably best to keep your expectations quite low.

Best film: Homecoming (3.5*)
Worst film: Piranha (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.10 (out of 5)

Fri, 12 Jun 2015 12:09:11 +0200
<![CDATA[Huo Yuanjia/Ronny Yu]]>

Mid 2000 the revival of the Hong Kong martial arts flick was well under way. Many established directors jumped on the boat and tried to one up the films that preceded their own efforts. Ronny Yu, back from his little adventure in America, was one of them. Together with Jet Li he set out to make the ultimate wushu film. And truth be told, they came pretty close with Huo Yuanjia [Fearless]. Ten years later, the film still holds its own and can be seen as one of the best in the genre.

screen capture of Huo Yuan Jia

After a successful run in the 80s and 90s and a semi-successful run directing a couple of franchise horror sequels in Hollywood, Ronny Yu returned to Hong Kong (as most Hong Kong directors do after trying their luck in America) to reboot his career. There he teamed up with Jet Li to direct Li's final wushu film, causing quite a stir in the West (where the difference between wushu and martial arts cinema in general was quickly lost in translation). It really got the buzz going around Huo Yuanjia.

The film centers around Huo Yuanjia, real life Chinese martial arts legend. The man lived in the late 19th century and founded one of the more popular martial arts schools in Shanghai. But his true fame comes from beating down a series of foreign fighters in bouts staged to underline foreign supremacy. At a time when China was overrun by outside influences, Yuanjia gave the Chinese people back their culture, and even more importantly, their dignity.

The problem with recounting the life of someone like Yuanjia is that because of all the stories and legends surrounding him it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. Yu's film is clearly more of a cinematic experience than it is a history lesson, cherry-picking the tales that shaped Yuanjia's legend. The film is split in three big acts, starting off with the younger (and more arrogant) years of Yuanjia, followed by his spiritual rebirth and ending with his return to Shanghai, where the stage is set for the big fights.

screen capture of Huo Yuan Jia

On a visual level Yuo Yuanjia easily holds its own among its peers. But instead of following the pull to mysticism (Ye Yan, Ying Xiong) that was all the rage back then, Yu went for a more down-to-earth approach that would serve as an inspiration for Wilson Yip's Yip Man and Yip Man 2: Cheung Si Cheun Kei. While the CG is a little too obvious by modern standards, the setting is lush and the camera work top notch, without really overdoing things.

The soundtrack is pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this. While very present and epic-sounding it's also a little bland and incredibly forgettable. There's a classic Chinese vibe that goes well with the setting and time period and it's an effective soundtrack as far as supporting the fight sequences goes, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember much, if anything, the next day.

As for the acting, watching this film again it's clear that Hong Kong never really found a replacement for Jet Li. Jacky Wu and Donnie Yen are good in their own right, but the combination of Li's charismatic smile, controlled posture and amazingly agile fighting techniques is simply unmatched. It's always a pleasure to see him in action and Huo Yuanjia provides him ample opportunities to show off his wushu skills one last time. The rest of the cast is okay (Shido Nakamura makes a notable appearance), but this film is really a one-man show.

screen capture of Huo Yuan Jia

If you're allergic to Chinese propaganda you might want to think twice before watching this film. While the opening segment may be a little crude, especially for a martial arts film, Huo Yuanjia is really about keeping the Yuanjia myth alive. Yu takes quite a few liberties towards the end of the film, painting Yuanjia as a martyr that fought for his fellow countrymen, upholding Chinese values while kicking foreign ass in the process. Personally I don't mind, but I'm sure not everyone will be appreciative of the message.

If you're looking for a stellar martial arts flick though, Huo Yuanjia is a safe bet. The middle part may be a little light on action, but the first and last act contain some of the better fight scenes to ever come out of Hong Kong. Jet Li gives a tremendous performance and production values are high all around. Huo Yuanjia is a great wushu epic honouring one of China's biggest martial arts legends. It may not be true to life, but that's why Yu made a feature film instead of directing a documentary.

Wed, 10 Jun 2015 11:05:32 +0200
<![CDATA[Kamisama no Iu Tori/Takashi Miike]]>

Takashi Miike, the man that never ceases to surprise. Even after spewing more than 70 films in 25 years time, even after after crossing over into the "mainstream", he still manages to direct films that are as weird and unique as anything found in the indie and/or arthouse scenes. Kamisama no Iu Tori [As the Gods Will] is one his latest efforts and once again isn't like anything you've seen before. I suggest you sit back, go in blank and let the film wash over you, because there's little else you can do to prepare for Miike's latest.

screen capture of As The Gods Will

If you check the reviews this film's been getting you'll notice that just about every single one mentions Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. While a very (very) feeble connection exists between these films, it's hardly a relevant comparison. You could just as well reference Saw or any one of its copies if you start going down that path. Personally I'd rather describe the film as mix between Raia Gamu, Shinboru and Gantz, but ultimately it's just one of those film you just need to experience yourself.

Not all of the weirdness in Kamisama no Iu Tori can be attributed to Miike though, the film is actually based on a manga by the same name. I haven't read the series myself so I can't really vouch for how close the film stays to its source material, but judging by his earlier adaptations I think it's safe to say that Miike added his own layer of insanity. At the very least Miike is the ideal person to bring the ideas and concepts of the manga to the big screen, as I'm sure there are few other directors who could make a film like this work.

Context and background story are sparse as the film dives right into the events. We get a full minute of character introduction, then the fun (read killing) starts. A group of high school kids find themselves trapped in a series of 'do or die' games. Either they participate and beat the challenges laid before them or they die a horrible death. After the first two games the winners are transported to a mysterious white cube hanging over Tokyo, where they are teamed up with the winners of neighboring schools. Doesn't make any sense you say? I agree, but that's besides the point.

screen capture of As The Gods Will

None of the adversaries are human, instead the kids have to fight a range of mythical creatures and well-known children's toys. There's a Daruma doll, a Maneki-neko and a carved wooden polar bear (among others). All the adversaries are CG and while noticeably so, the effect is far less jarring than you may expect. The polar bear in particular is superbly animated, with his sudden movements and extreme facial expressions giving him a very unique and peculiar presence. Production values are high and Miike regular Nobuyasu Kita does an excellent job with the cinematography, opting for clear and well-lit visuals rather going for a darker and grimmer look which is often first choice for similarly themed films.

The soundtrack is a little better than usual for a Miike film. There are still quite a few filler tracks, but there are also a couple of fun and crazy choices that underline the light-hearted atmosphere of the film. Bright and uplifting tracks that are often in contrast with the things happening on screen (I guess the Battle Royale comparison comes in handy after all). The voice acting of the adversaries too is notable, with pitched voices accompanying their childish looks. The effect is rather silly, even humorous, but that's exactly what Miike's aiming at.

The cast is decent enough for a bunch of Japanese high school kids, but as a group they're maybe a little too generic and slick-looking. It's made up of popular stereotypes, featuring the nerd, the loud-mouth, the crazy guy and the somewhat plain-looking hero attracting the attention of multiple girls. Clear manga stereotypes that Miike kept intact. There's a somewhat random cameo by Nao Omori (still not sure why his character was included) and a notable appearance by Riri Furanki, but their parts are too small to have a big impact on the overall quality of the cast.

screen capture of As The Gods Will

It's really difficult to label a film like Kamisama no Iu Tori. Lots of people get killed in rather gruesome ways, but I would't call it a horror film. The atmosphere is fun, humorous and light-hearted, but it isn't quite a comedy either. There are sci-fi elements but they are never really explored. It plays like a thriller, but it isn't really tense enough nor does it try to be. In the end, mystery is the label that fits the film best, even when it might give people the wrong idea about Kamisama no Iu Tori.

What struck me as most surprising was the complete lack of any form of explanation. These kids are kidnapped and subjected to childish games with lethal outcome, going from challenge to challenge, meeting up with the strangest characters and there's not even the slightest attempt to explain why all of this is happening. It just is and that's that. From what I understand the manga doesn't offer much in the way of an explanation either, but to see that translated to a big budget movie adaptation is quite the stunner.

Kamisama no Iu Tori is a typical Miike flick in the sense that it's pretty much pointless to compare it to other films out there. It's a film that resides in a universe of its own, it's not really bound to genres nor is it restrained by classic film laws. It's just incredibly fun and entertaining, serving up slices of madness at an incredible rate. And since it's a recent Miike film it means that the production values match its grand ideas, making it one of the most implausible mainstream films I've seen in a long time. After all these years Miike is still going strong. It's almost scary to think that if all goes well he's only halfway through his career. I don't mind though, one can never have enough films like Kamisama no Iu Tori.

Tue, 02 Jun 2015 12:17:06 +0200
<![CDATA[Ringo Lam/x10]]>
Ringo Lam

Ringo Lam is one of the big names of 80s and 90s Hong Kong action cinema, but I never really connected with the man's work. When I started getting acquainted with Hong Kong cinema I tried a couple of his films, but quickly abandoned him in favor of other directors. It wasn't until I was done with my first wave of Hong Kong directors that my interest in Lam renewed.

What sets Lam apart from other Hong Kong directors is his grittier approach to action cinema. While Hong Kong is known for choreographing great action sequences, Hong Kong action is mostly stylized and not all that brutal. Lam's films are different. His films have a darker, grimmer edge where death comes easy and characters are killed off without flinching. While that itself isn't a bad thing, Lam's films are often bogged down unnecessarily by overly theatrical drama and romance.

Somewhat surprisingly though, Lam started off directing comedies in the early to mid 80s. Rather typical Hong Kong stuff, not horrible but not all that great either. I watched Oi San Yat Ho [Cupid One] and Zuijia Paidang Zhi Qianli Jiu Chaipo [Aces Go Places IV] and while amusing I wouldn't recommend them unless you have a soft spot for 80s Hong Kong comedy cinema.

In '87 Lam flipped his career around when he started on his Fire trilogy. Not only did he turn his back on comedy cinema, it's also marked Lam's first collaboration with Chow Yun-Fat, the legendary Hong Kong action star. Lung Fu Fong Wan [City on Fire] is probably the most famous of the three, if only because it's so often cited as an important influence on Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. I wasn't too taken with the film though, apart from the cool ending it's a pretty standard late 80s police thriller.

During the early 90s Lam would become one of Hong Kong's leading directors, working closely together with some of its biggest action stars. Yi Chu Ji Fa [Touch and Go] had him collaborating with Sammo Hung, Shuang Long Hui [Twin Dragons] teamed him up with Jackie Chan and Xia Dao Gao Fei [Full Contact] is a pretty nice action flick featuring Chow Yun-Fat and Simon Yam. But my favorite Lam from that era is Huo Shao Hong Lian Si [Burning Paradise], Lam's take on the popular martial arts genre. No famous actors to get it noticed, but a fun and spectacular martial arts fantasy film nonetheless.

Like so many other famous Hong Kong directors, Lam also tried his luck in America, directing a total of three films with Jean-Claude Van Damme. He never really left his home turf though, also making several other Hong Kong films in between. Mid 2000 it seemed that Lam's career was over and done, until he formed an alliance with Johnnie To and Hark Tsui. The result was Triangle, Lam's best film and a worthy film to end a career.

Lam is the kind of director that will appeal to Hong Kong genre enthusiasts. I can't say I'm a big fan, but he made some interesting films and if you're serious about Hong Kong cinema it's hard to ignore that man's films. Depending on what genres you prefer there are several possible entry points in his oeuvre, but I would suggest starting with Triangle as that is by far his most accomplished film.

Best film: Tie Saam Gok [Triangle] (4.0*)
Worst film: Da Mao Xian Jia [Great Adventurers] (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

Mon, 01 Jun 2015 11:50:05 +0200