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[Saint Oniisan/Noriko Takao]]>

The world of cinema is bursting with films that boast weird and outrageous premises, but sometimes you run into a film that goes beyond everything else and simply begs to be seen based on its premise alone. Saint Oniisan (Saint Young Men) is one of those films, as it tries to answer the question of what would happen if Jesus and Buddha hooked up to spend their vacation in modern-day Japan. The result is comedy gold.

screen capture of Saint Oniisan

Like many other anime films these days, Saint Oniisan is preceded by a popular and long-running manga and a tentative OAV. Once these formats proved successful enough, producing a feature film was the next logical step. Don't expect a traditional feature though, Saint Oniisan is structured like Takahata's Hohokekyo Tonari No Yamada-kun, meaning you get several vignettes that are at best linked together by seasonal coherence. There's no real beginning or ending, just some things that Jesus and Buddha set out to visit/experience.

I am unfamiliar with the OAV and the manga, so it's difficult to grasp how much recycling is going on here, but without prior knowledge of the previous instalments the film is still pretty easy to follow, probably because there is no real goal or point to the whole setup. Some of the stranger points are left unexplained at first (like Jesus' stigmata), but since they reappear as running gags you quickly catch on. It's also quite handy to at least have a basic grasp of both religions, as the film is built around some smart religion-based gags and punchlines. Surprisingly though, none are actually offensive.

The vacation of the two deities starts off in summer, as they go and visit a theme park in Tokyo (obvious reference to Disney World). From there on out the film carries on to cover supermarket sales, bullying kids, a hot spring trip and Christmas and New Year festivities. Each vignette finishes off with a nice vacation picture and that's about all there is. Some people will have a hard time accepting a structure like this for a feature film, I'm fine with it as long as the comedy is sound enough.

screen capture of Saint Oniisan

Animation-wise Saint Oniisan is definitely a low-budget affair. Don't expect fluid animation or amazing eye-popping craftsmanship, instead the film relies on a strong manga-esque vibe, a vibrant, colorful art style and the bare necessary amount of animation to get by. Some tried and tested camera tricks (focus changes and cameras moving over static images) are used to fake motion, but it hardly hides the limited amount of frames that went into this film.

The good thing about lesser-known animes is that there are no horrible dubs to take into account. The subtle, soft-spoken voices that go with Jesus and Buddha are perfect, complementing their character while adding some extra comedic effect. The soundtrack is pretty bland though, falling back on rather generic J-Rock tunes to fill in the voids. It's not awful or irritating, but it's hardly memorable and it does little or nothing to help the film forward.

screen capture of Saint Oniisan

Saint Oniisan is pretty much a one-trick pony. It doesn't really pay too much attention to its plot or its audiovisual qualities, instead it puts a strong focus on the comedy it is able to draw from its premise. And that it does surprisingly well. Without being aggressive or judgemental it pokes fun at religion with no chance of anyone being offended (unless you're a true religious nut I suppose). It houses a pretty chill, good-natured and dry kind of comedy that felt refreshing and to the point.

I can't vouch for the originality of the film as I haven't read the manga or seen the OAV, but if you go in fresh and you can appreciate the calm yet smart comedy that is laid out over several shorter vignettes, then Saint Oniisan is a great little title. There's not all that much to see beyond that, but for a comedy that's acceptable.

Tue, 29 Jul 2014 11:52:56 +0200
<![CDATA[Mimi wo Sumaseba/Yoshifumi Kondo]]>

Even though many people believe Ghilbi equals Hayao Miyazaki (and to a lesser extent Isao Takahata), through the years a few other directors have earned a chance to prove their worth. In 1995 it was Yoshifumi Kondo's turn to honour the Ghibli name and with Mimi wo Sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart) he accomplished exactly that: the film bathes in Ghibli magic and blends in perfectly well with the rest of the Ghibli catalogue.

screen capture of Mimi wo Sumaseba

After earning his stripes as an animator on a slew of Ghibli projects, Kondo was slated to become the successor of Miyazaki/Takahata after their retirement. But just three years after completing Mimi wo Sumaseba Kondo died of an aneurysm, said to be caused by his erratic work schedule. A big blow to Ghibli and Miyazaki, who promptly adjusted his own pace of working.

Even though a great director was lost to the anime scene, we'll always have Mimi wo Sumaseba to remember him by. It's one of the lesser known Ghibli films, most probably due to its slow pacing and lack of overtly fantastic elements. It would be a good companion piece to Takahata's Omohide Poro Poro though, as it approaches the hardships of a young girl trying to find her place in the world in much the same way Takahata's film did.

Shizuku is a young girl who loves to read. She devours the books of her school library, until one day she discovers there's an even bigger book fanatic at her school. Every book she borrows has the same name on the renting card, which prompts her to find out who this mysterious reader is. It's the start of a journey that will lead her to a family of musicians, ultimately showing her the way to what she truly desires in life.

screen capture of Mimi wo Sumaseba

Visually Mimi wo Sumaseba is starting to show its age. Where older Ghibli films still look amazing, Kondo's film lacks true genius. The drawings aren't as overwhelming and while the animation is good it misses these tiny little details that make Miyazaki/Takahta films stand the test of time. There are some lovely dream sequences, beautiful sunsets and more than a few trademark moments of wonder, but nothing that stands out across the length of the film. It's almost impossible for Kondo to live up to the standards of his masters and it may be a little unfair to compare his work directly to theirs, but it's a Ghibli film after all and the gap in quality is noticeable. With all that said, Mimi wo Sumaseba is still a high quality production that is incredibly easy on the eyes.

The soundtrack is the only part that deviates clearly from the Ghibli norm. It's slightly more modern, a little quirkier too compared to Hisaishi's typical Ghibli output. On top of that Kondo plays around with John Denver's "Take me Home, Country Roads", which is given a nice place in the film's plot. As for picking a dub, it's a given that the Japanese dub should be preferred, the American dub feels absolutely flat and lifeless in comparison.

screen capture of Mimi wo Sumaseba

Much like Omohide Poro Poro, Mimi wo Sumaseba is a film that slows you down. It gently eases you into the world of Shizuku, which is held together by a leisurely summer atmosphere and just the slightest hint of drama. There are no big emotions or life-turning events (although in this case there are, it just doesn't feel that way), but that's exactly what makes these kind of Ghibli dramas so special. It just slides by, leaving you dosing off with a warm and gentle feeling.

Kondo's first film is a perfect match for the Ghibli brand. It lack the true stand-out moments that define the work of Kondo's elders, but apart from that it's a wonderful film that will leave you wondering what else the man could have made if he hadn't succumbed to his work. Even though Mimi wo Sumaseba is ageing a little faster than other Ghibli films, it's still worth your time as it's bound to leave you amazed at the artistry that houses behind the walls of the Ghibli atelier.

Thu, 17 Jul 2014 11:00:30 +0200
<![CDATA[Lars von Trier/x10]]>
Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier is one of the most infamous bad boys in modern day cinema. Always in for a little shock, always trying to provoke people, even at festivals and during interviews. Sometimes it leads to superb films, at other times the result is little more than hollow provocations. Whatever the case, following von Trier is never dull.

I haven't seen anything made by von Trier before Idioterne, a film that coincides with the foundation of the Dogme movement (and which also marks the start of his international career). Dogme is a school of film that preaches the complete opposite of what I tend to like in films. It denounces all stylistic additions in an attempt to find better stories, truer emotions and more realistic characters. While it seems to work for some people, it pretty much has a reverse effect on me. All I see are ugly films and grotesque characters. Needless to say, Dancer in the Dark didn't do it for me either.

But then Dogville came along. While it still borrows ideas from the Dogme school, von Trier turns all his axioms around to make an explicitly stylistic film. Instead of forsaking the audiovisual department, he takes away the setting and ends up something extremely abstract. The entire film is acted out on a stage without a true set. Chalk lines on the floor indicate houses and walls while a bare minimum of props remains (chairs, beds, a car) to make it possible for the actors to at least sit or fake sleep. A superb experiment that found a strong sequel in Manderlay.

In between von Trier kept experimenting with smaller projects. De Fem Benspænd (The Five Obstructions) and Direktøren for Det Hele (The Boss of it All) bear interesting premises that never truly materialized into good films. von Trier's addition to the Chacun Son Cinéma anthology was a bit livelier, but a little too short to be truly impressive. Back then it looked as if von Trier was past his prime, but the man himself clearly didn't agree.

He fought back with Antichrist. A stylish, harsh and mysterious film that is almost impossible to categorize and still stands as my favorite von Trier to date. His follow-up film (Melancholia) is a worthy attempt but falls short due to an unfortunate split halfway through and a failure to bring the drama to life. With Nymphomaniac von Trier continued his decline, delivering a 4-hour film that aims to be an uppercut but simply lacks punch.

It's impossible to predict where von Trier will go from here, but chances are I'll be there to keep an eye on him. It's clearly not a director for everyone and I'm not a blind fan of his work, but from time to time he produces something truly unique that makes it all worth it.

Best film: Antichrist (4.5*)
Worst film: Idioterne (The Idiots) (0.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Antichrist
Average rating: 2.90 (out of 5)

Wed, 09 Jul 2014 12:36:20 +0200
<![CDATA[Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku/Mami Sunada]]>
Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku poster

Ghibli fans, take notice! Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku isn't the first documentary to dedicate its time to the wondrous world of Japan's most famous animation company, but it is by far the most honest and direct one I've seen so far. No walking away feeling as if you've just been subjected to a promotional video or document of hype, instead you get a very good feel of what it's like to work with and for a director like Miyazaki.

Ghibli has a majestic reputation. It's often compared to companies like Disney and Pixar, featuring a 30-year track record without any critical low points. Even though different people have different favorites, it's generally believed that there are no obvious flukes in the Ghibli catalogue. But that's where the comparison ends. Where companies like Pixar (and by extension, Google and Apple) like to pretend they're a playground for their employees (appearing as cool and liberal as possible), Ghibli is still a very small, humble and down-to-earth company. It's an anomaly, a company that should not be able to exist according to modern economic laws, yet to get a taste of exactly that is pretty awesome.

Sunada follows Hayao Miyazaki during the entire production process of Kaze Tachinu. She is given access to the Ghibli studios, but she's also invited to visit Miyazaki at his home. In the meantime, Sunada hooks up with Toshio Suzuki (the famous Ghibli producer) and Isao Takahata (the yang to Miyazaki's yin) to try and get a broader view of the company. Through these different eyes you get a pretty solid idea of what it means to work for one of the best animation houses in the world.

In essence Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku is a pretty simple documentary. There's not much that will draw the attention of people not familiar with Ghibli's magic, but that's where the true wonder lies. The idea of a company that is revered around the world for its quality animation is hard to match with the small scale and subdued, familiar atmosphere you get to see in this documentary.

Miyazaki's attention to detail, his dated beliefs, his honesty when talking to and about others, his little quirks and rituals (like going to the rooftop garden of the studio to watch the sun set with the rest of his crew) are simply amazing to behold. Sunada deserves praise for documenting everything without wanting to add extra weight or polish. In that sense this would be a good companion piece to Jiro: Dreams of Sushi, as both subjects share a humbleness and dedication to their job that's almost impossible to imagine in the West.

I wouldn't recommend watching this doc if you haven't got a clue what Ghibli is or which films Miyazaki has made, but Ghibli fans get a rare and honest glimpse behind the doors of one of the greatest animation houses in the world. I wish more documentaries like this existed.

Mon, 07 Jul 2014 12:03:49 +0200
<![CDATA[Soshite Chichi ni Naru/Hirokazu Koreeda]]>

After a very strong start Koreeda's career has been swaying gently up and down. Soshite Chichi ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son) is his latest feature and finds itself in an upwards motion once again. It's not quite up there with Koreeda's best films, but longtime Koreeda fans are bound to find some pleasure here. Soshite Chichi ni Naru turns out to be a warm and welcome surprise and proof that his talent is still very much present.

screen capture of Like Father, Like Son

Hirokazu Koreeda (Wandafuru Raifu, Air Doll) has a knack for humane drama, but somehow his latest films felt a little forced. As if the drama itself was more important than the characters, instead of the other way around. With this film he set things straight, putting the characters front and center and drawing dramatic impulses from the events that they encounter along the way.

The central theme of Soshite Chichi ni Naru is absolutely excruciating. Even when the credits started to roll, I found it impossible to take a definite stance. Six years after the birth of their only son, a young family receives a phone call from the hospital where they gave birth, with the message that a malicious nurse swapped their kid just days after it was born. From that moment on, a big nature versus nurture/parental love dilemma takes over the film.

It's hard enough deciding between the kid you raised for 6 years and the flesh and blood you've never even seen, to make things worse the Nonomiya family is the complete opposite of the Saiki family. Where the Nonomiya family is rich, cultured and structured, the Saiki family is quite poor but free-spirited and carefree. The two families decide to leave the court out of it and set out to settle the issue amongst themselves, but the issue proves harder to deal with than expected.

screen capture of Like Father, Like Son

Visually Koreeda follows the tropes of the typical Japanese drama. Colors are muted and range from darker blues to greys and browns, the camera work is precise but mostly functional. If you pay attention there are some nice shots in there, but never obvious enough to detract from the characters and the drama. Usually I'd fault a film for that, but in this case the visuals are meant to be functional and the characters strong enough to carry the film by itself, so I never found myself bored with the visuals.

The soundtrack too is pretty predictable. When dealing with your average Japanese drama you can expect light string music and/or piano tunes and that's exactly what you are getting here. The quality of the music is rather high though, but again Koreeda never lets it draw too much attention. Like the visuals, the soundtrack is meant to be functional and supportive. It never intrudes, instead it provides the film with a pleasant vibe that serves as a solid basis.

Koreeda's biggest strength is drawing sublime performances from his cast, and Soshite Chichi ni Naru is no exception. Even though both families are heavily contrasted, the setup never feels like a bad plot device. Both families are perfectly believable and their meeting up is played out with enough integrity to make the drama come alive. Extra credits go to Keita Ninomiya, who is perfect as the 6 year old son of the Nonomiya family. It's amazing how Koreeda manages to coach his younger actors to amazing performances where other directors tend to fail.

screen capture of Like Father, Like Son

Much like Wandafuru Raifu, which was carried by the question of which memory you would like to take with you in death, Soshite Chichi ni Naru rests on its central dilemma: do you choose the son you've raised for 6 years, or do you go for your own flesh and blood who you've never seen. It's a dilemma that balances on personal beliefs and cultural norms, but without any straight answers. Even after 120 minutes I had no convincing answer ready and I truly hope it's a choice I'll never ever have to make.

Soshite Chichi ni Naru is a classic Koreeda film. Strong performances from the entire cast, the characters are given ample room to thrive, the underlying drama is solid and the film features a stellar concept that intrigues even beyond the scope of its running time. While Koreeda's style may be just a little too unadventurous at times, it's solid and functional, never getting in the way of Koreeda's vision. It's another worthy addition to the man's oeuvre and a welcome return to form. Hopefully he can keep it up this time.

Thu, 03 Jul 2014 13:15:55 +0200
<![CDATA[Hirokazu Koreeda/x10]]>
Hirokazu Koreeda

There are exceptions to any rule, and Hirokazu Koreeda is one of mine. Usually I'm not big on character-driven dramas, but with Koreeda it's different. There's a special kind of humanity that graces his films that is pretty much impossible to find elsewhere.

You could say it's a rare talent, but dig just a little deeper and you'll find that Koreeda's knack for human drama isn't purely genetic. In his younger years Koreeda made a couple of character-driven documentaries centred around the bond that would develop between his crew and his subjects. Kare no Itai Hachigatsu Ga (August Without Him) was an early attempt let down by the lack of a truly interesting subject, but Kioku Ga Ushinawareta Toki (Without Memory) is by far one of the most interesting documentaries I've seen to date, following a man who has lost his short term memory.

In 1995 Koreeda released his first feature film. Maboroshi no Hikari (Maborosi) is a dark and stilted drama that is a definite fan favorite. For the first time Koreeda would show his rare talent for fictional drama while giving the careers of Makiko Esumi and Tadanobu Asano a welcome boost. But it wasn't until 1998 when he released Wandafuru Raifu (After Life) that he would win me over completely. It's still a maddeningly beautiful film boasting with integrity and leaning on a concept that is both subtle and genius.

Before his big international breakthrough he would release one more film: Distance. A close relative of Maboroshi no Hikari that should appeal to the same audience. But that's peanuts compared to the praise that would befall his next one. Dare mo Shiranai (Nobody Knows) may not be my own favorite, but it's the film that launched Koreeda internationally. Its a solid drama with some memorable scenes and it's probably the most accessible introduction for those who want to break into Koreeda's oeuvre.

Sadly it's also one of Koreeda's last great films. Hana Yori mo Naho (Hana), Aruitemo Aruitemo (Still Walking) and Kiseki (I Wish) are all solid dramas, but they never reached the heights of his earlier works. There is one exception though. Kuki Ningyo (Air Doll) is a return to form, a superb combination of a great concept with subtle drama that stands as Koreeda's best film to date. Opinions are split about this one, but that's merely an indication of its genius.

If you're looking for some good, warm and heartfelt drama then Hirokazu Koreeda is your man. Start with Dare mo Shiranai and if you like it you can work your way down from there.

Best film: Kuki Ningyo (Air Doll) (4.5*)
Worst film: Kare no Inai Hachigatsu Ga (August Without Him) (2.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Wandafuru Raifu, Air Doll
Average rating: 3.69 (out of 5)

Wed, 25 Jun 2014 12:52:56 +0200
<![CDATA[Oritsu Uchugun Oneamisu no Tsubasa/Hiroyuki Yamaga]]>

The 80s is when it truly started for the Japanese animation industry. The rise of Ghibli, Oshii first flashes of genius and of course its first true landmark film: Akira. It's also the era that houses the industry's first forgotten gems. Films that were big back then, but somehow got lost over time. Oritsu Uchugun Oneamise no Tsubasa (Wings of Honneamise) is one of those films and it wholly deserves a second life.

screen capture of Wings of Honneamise

One year before Akira, there was Oritsu Uchugun Oneamise no Tsubasa. Back then it was the most expensive anime ever made, running a whopping 120 minutes and aiming to conquer the hearts of the same people who fell in love with Nausicaa a few years earlier. Gainax spared cost nor effort to make it a successful film, but the box office results were disappointing. Critics lauded the film, but the masses just didn't seem to care.

And in a way it's not that difficult to understand. Oneamise is somewhat of an arthouse film, not a segment that draws big crowds, especially not when talking about animated films. It's not a very typical anime feature either. There's a strong focus on fantasy retro tech that will appeal to a tiny anime niche, but apart from that it's a quiet film that spends more time sketching a fantasy world rather than adhering to a strict plot.

The story revolves around Shiro, a disillusioned young man who fails to realize his lifelong dream (becoming an airplane pilot) and ends up being part the local space force. While this may sound pretty cool, the film's space force is little more than a team of enthusiasts with no notable experience at all. Until one day money finds its way to their little department and they start their mission to get the first man into space. Somewhat reluctantly Shiro accepts to become that man.

screen capture of Wings of Honneamise

Even though the film is more than 25 years old, it still looks absolutely stunning. The art style is detailed and the animation is still convincingly fluid. But it's the architecture and tech designs that really catch the eye, as they are as amazing as they are unique. Gainax really succeeded in creating an alternate reality that looks a lot like ours, but still harbors many aesthetic differences. Technically it can't compete with modern-day animation, but on an aesthetic level Oneamisu is still one of anime's greats.

The soundtrack too is wonderfully unique. Not that surprising maybe, considering that famed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (Tony Takitani, Gohatto) was responsible for most of the music. His work gives the film a very peculiar sound, using a kind of off-center folk variant that sounds otherworldly but isn't too experimental or jarring to upset the audience. It's a soundtrack that defines the film, which is exactly what defines a truly great soundtrack. As for the dub, the Asian voice actors (Shiro in particular) give the film an extra dreamy layer. Shiro is soft-spoken and often contemplative which makes for some stellar voice overs. In contrast the American dub is much harsher and often stilted, destroying a lot of the atmosphere the film is trying to build up.

screen capture of Wings of Honneamise

Don't expect a film about space travel, don't expect too much action or thriller elements. Oritsu Uchugun Oneamisu no Tsubasa is a film about politics, society and finding joy in your work, even when you can't succeed in your dream job. For some people this lack of focus will be considered a flaw, on the other hand it allows Yamaga to paint a broader picture that is often completely absent in similar fantasy-styled films. Personally I loved Yamaga's approach.

Oritsu Uchugun Oneamisu no Tsubasa is a largely forgotten anime gem. Despite its budget, its impressive technical feats and its many memorable scenes, it didn't capture enough hearts to become part of the anime canon. It's a shame though, because Oneamise has everything to wow film fans. Interesting themes, blissful artwork, a stellar soundtrack and the perfect ending make for an amazing film that didn't lose much of its shine and polish over the years.

Tue, 24 Jun 2014 12:11:21 +0200
<![CDATA[Jiu Huo Ying Xiong/Chi-kin Kwok]]>
As the Light Goes Out poster

Chi-kin Kwok strikes back after a horrendous collaboration with Stephen Chow. While Jiu Huo Ying Xiong (As the Light Goes Out) can't match Kowk's best (Ching Toi), it's definitely on par with Da Lui Toi (Gallants). His latest also erases all fears that he may have lost his touch in his attempts to please the masses.

There aren't that many fire fighter flicks coming out of Hong Kong, which is probably why it's remarkable to see two high profile ones in just as many years. After seeing the release of the Pang brothers' Out of Inferno last year, Jiu Huo Ying Xiong takes things to the next level. While Kwok doesn't shun the typical genre clichés, there's a lot more going on than a mere genre rehash.

With guys like Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue and Simon Yam filling in the lead and main secondary roles, you know you're settling for a film that is aimed to please the crowds. Still, Kwok doesn't just dish out some slick, hollow blockbuster. Sure enough there is some unnecessary drama to fill in the gaps, but for the larger part it's a dark, tense and well-executed affair.

The visuals are grim yet stunning. There are some amazing sequences that give the film that little extra artistic merit, making sure it never becomes too shallow. The soundtrack is fitting and never too bombastic. Stylistically, this is definitely one of the better commercially oriented Hong Kong films I've seen. The dramatic side can be a little overdone though, adding some unnecessary fat to the film. It's a typical genre thing I guess, but one this film could have done without.

Kwok's Jiu Huo Ying Xiong is a step up from the Pangs' attempt at a good fire fighter flick. It falls just a little short of being truly great, but if you're looking for a sleek and tense thriller you're at the right address. Hopefully Kwok will continue on this path with this next film.

Mon, 16 Jun 2014 12:54:03 +0200
<![CDATA[minuscule/szabo and giraud]]>

With films like Antz, A Bug's Life, Epic and Arthur around, who needs another miniature slash animated woodlife film? I was pretty sceptic when I sat down to watch Thomas Szabo and Hélène Giraud's Minuscule: La Vallée des Fourmis Perdues (Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants), but as it turns out those fears were entirely unwarranted. Minuscule easily trumps all its competitors and charms from start to finish.

screen capture of Minuscule - La Vallee des Fourmis Perdues

Based on the poster art I was expecting a run of the mill American animation. A technical feat bogged down by cringe-worthy jokes, boring aesthetics and flat dubbing. You can imagine how the French intro credits overlaid on live action footage caught me completely off guard. The obvious next step was to expect a film like Luc Besson's Arthur, but even that comparison fell flat pretty quickly. Minuscule is a film like no other out there.

Unless of course you are familiar with the Minuscule shorts. I watched a couple of them after watching La Vallée des Fourmis Perdues and I got a strong feeling this film plays more like a highlight reel. The same charming bits and gags that work so well here are copied almost directly from the shorts, though the film is clearly benefiting from a bigger budget. Newcomers to the world of Minuscule won't mind, but die-hard fans of the shorts might find the film a bit too recognizable at times.

Minuscule tells the tale of a small lady bug who, right after birth, gets separated from her family. She joins a group of friendly ants making their way back to the ant hill with the catch of their lives: a box full of sugar cubes. Along the way they bump into a gang of evil red ants, after which a small but intense siege on the ant hill ensues. It's not exactly what you call a multi-layered masterpiece, but in the end it gets the job done.

screen capture of Minuscule - La Valle des Fourmis Perdues

The selling point of Minuscule are its visuals. A sweet and balanced blend of live action and CG work make for a magical experience. The setting is shot entirely in live action, all the props and animals are done in CG. The live action footage has been slightly tampered with, removing the sharpness of the footage, while the CG remains simple and abstract rather than detailed and life-like. What does get a lot of attention is the way live footage and CG interact with each other, making it look natural and comfortable even when both art styles are pretty different from each other. Quite unique and difficult to compare to more traditional CG features.

The animation itself is flirting with stop-motion, constantly swaying between stills and frantic motion. While it no doubt helped to keep the cost down, it has a tremendous impact on the entire atmosphere of the film, giving it slapstick-like qualities (compared to the continuously hyperactive comedy of American CG features). It's a breath of fresh air.

As for the quality of the dub: there's nothing to talk about. There is no dialogue, at least not in any known to man language. The animals hoot, buzz and trumpet, but it's all done with sound effects (with great comic effect). Still, the animation itself is vocal enough to make sure there is never any question about what is happening on-screen. The soundtrack is nice too. Warm, gentle and uplifting music that gives off a pleasant summer vibe and supplements the visuals well.

screen capture of Minuscule - La Vallee des Fourmis Perdues

Minuscule is one of those rare films that work for younger as well as older audiences. There is no dialogue and it's filled with simple, visual jokes. At the same time it's incredibly charming and it radiates a love for the medium that's quite rare. It's sad to realize that a film like this is ill-equipped to find a big(ger) audience, then again I'm sure there's a niche of animation-loving fans that will give it the welcome it deserves.

If you're a fan of the source material I'm not sure how much value this film adds, but if you're new to the world of Minuscule and you have a soft spot for animation, this is a wonderful film to discover. It's cute, charming, funny and perfect for a warm summer evening. Don't expect anything deep or challenging, just let the film's charm sweep you away. I'm already looking forward to Szabo and Giraud's next project.

Thu, 12 Jun 2014 11:53:46 +0200
<![CDATA[la fille sur le pont/patrice leconte]]>

When all the stars align, magical things are bound to happen. Based on its individual merits there isn't really any good reason why I would be smitten with a film like La Fille sur le Pont (The Girl on the Bridge). But somehow the sum of its individual parts is far greater than honest, down to earth math would suggest. Against all odds, Patrice Leconte delivers a film that crackles and sizzles and is well equipped to withstand multiple viewings.

screen capture of La Fille sur le Pont

In a sense La Fille sur le Pont is an ode to classic black and white cinema ('30s - '50s). There are obvious parallels to be drawn with movies like The Good German and The Artist, but ultimately Leconte's approach is the direct opposite of said films. Even though there's plenty of classic beauty here, it is brought to life through the use of playful, joyous and surprisingly modern details. It's not by revisiting the old that Leconte praises the cinema of yonder, but by raising it from the death and giving it a welcome make-over.

Even though the film's premise is pretty dark (a knife thrower down on his last luck rescues a suicidal girl ready to jump from a bridge, just so she can become his latest target) and the film's dialogues keep faithful to this morbid premise, the overarching atmosphere is surprisingly feel-good. The characters may be bruised and broken, but their conversations are playful and uplifting, as they slowly discover that by working together they can reverse their own bad luck.

Adèle is a young girl who left home in search of sexual intercourse, imprinted with the idea that this would kick-start her adult life. After several less than stellar experiences with men, she ends up on one of Paris' many bridges, contemplating her miserable life. There she runs into Gabor, a knife thrower who sees the perfect target in her. The two team up and after a stellar performance they begin their tour around Europe.

screen capture of La Fille sur le Pont

Leconte's use of black and white photography is simply striking. Rich in contrast, slightly grainy and blessed with great use of lighting, the visuals pop right out of the screen. Characters and settings have a definite classical look, but the flashy camera work and snappy editing give the whole a very modern, lively feel. It's a superb contrast that works wonders. It's a little difficult to compare to other films, but I think Angel-A comes pretty close (minus the grain that is).

The soundtrack is fun and upbeat, though the first time I watched La Fille sur le Pont I had some trouble with its overall effect on the film. The combination of tracks is somewhat eclectic and appears to be all over the place. As a whole though, they align quite well to create a consistent atmosphere. There's one track in particular (repeated three times) that jumps out. Marianne Faithfull's Who Will Take My Dreams Away? (composed by Angelo Badalamenti of Mulholland Drive fame) is absolutely stunning and seizes every scenes it's in.

Taking up the lead roles are Daniel Auteuil (Caché) and Vanessa Paradis (singer/actor but best known as the wife of Johnny Depp). I'm not a big fan of either one of them, but they both do a tremendous job here. Auteuil is sharp and mysterious, Paradis is enigmatic and more than a little hard to read (but in a pleasant and charming way). They are a superb onscreen couple, which is a good thing as the whole film rests on their shoulders. The entire secondary cast only consists of characters that disappear as quickly as they appeared.

screen capture of La Fille sur le Pont

Leconte brings two characters together who just hit a dead end in their lives. Lacking confidence and spirit, they motivate each other to turn around their own luck. But as is often the case, once things take a turn for the better they have trouble admitting to themselves that they can't go on without each other. Not being able to voice this drives them apart and from that exact moment the film starts to wander, if only just a little. Leconte makes absolutely sure the ending is fulfilling in every way that counts, but the scenes preceding it leave just a bit too much room for doubt.

It's only a minor critique on a film that sizzles and sparkles from start to finish. Leconte's approach is fresh and adventurous. There's a playfulness to the film's darker side that makes for an exciting contrast which is pretty much unique to this film. Add stellar performances by Auteuil and Paradis, superb black and white visuals and a fun soundtrack and what you have is a modern (though often overlooked) French cinema classic.

Thu, 05 Jun 2014 12:31:51 +0200
<![CDATA[mr jones/karl mueller]]>

From time to time, while wading through millions of unexciting, generic genre films, there's one that clicks. A film that isn't necessarily all that different from the others, but does every little detail right. It's the kind of film that gives you the courage to wrestle through the next batch of potentially horrendous genre material. Mr Jones is my latest discovery and though I can't guarantee it sits well with others, it's definitely a film that deserves a fair chance.

screen capture of Mr Jones

What happens when the art world collides with horror cinema? Usually it results in some cheesy exhibitions and a haunted object that peaks the interest of some unsuspecting passerby. Rarely it results in something exciting and/or imaginative. But Mueller finds himself a nice little niche that hasn't been explored that often before. Even though much of the setting and events are typical horror fare, the art world context does add something unique to the film.

The artist in question isn't your regular painter or sculptor either. It's a mysterious guy called "Mr Jones" who, during the 70s, started sending eerie scarecrow-like contraptions to seemingly random people. The gifts were upgraded to artworks, but the recipients quickly became obsessed with the scarecrows. A veil of mystery surrounds the artworks, ideal material for a horror film of course. As far as I can tell the entire legend is fake, but Mueller makes a convincing enough case (at least for the first part of the film).

The film follows Scott and Peggy as they move to the countryside. The couple granted themselves a year away from society to pick up the pieces of their lives. Scott sets out to make a documentary while Peggy focuses on her passion for photography. Near their cabin they discover the Jones' scarecrows and after a quick scout of their environment they bump into the hut of Mr Jones himself. From there on out, things get a little sketchy.

screen capture of Mr Jones

Mr Jones is part faux-documentary, part regular film. Having Scott shooting his own docu is a great excuse for some first-person action, but Mueller doesn't go through the trouble of fabricating a setup where the camera is always in the right position. He uses Scott's camera where appropriate, but switches back to regular film making for the parts where it's just not very convenient. Visually things look nice enough, with solid editing, moody environments (though a little dark at times) and some great shots, though it never truly stands out.

The soundtrack is good but fairly typical genre stuff. Dark ambient tracks mostly, bringing up plenty of atmosphere but always in the background. The soundtrack as a whole just isn't very noticeable. The sound design on the other hand deserves some credit, especially during the second part of the film. Things get pretty creepy and intense, while a slew of well-timed sound effects make for a denser and more tense experience.

Jon Foster and Sarah Jones are the only actors who have significant roles in the film, only in the middle are there some interviews that introduce the need for a secondary cast. Foster and Jones are good, they function well as a couple and they look genuinely frightened when all hell breaks loose, but it's clear from the start that they weren't going to win any prizes with the roles they were given. Still, they do a pretty commendable job.

screen capture of Mr Jones

While there are plenty of films who manage a decent build-up, the pay-off is always the trickiest part when it comes to horror cinema. Mr Jones delivers, with an interesting concepts and plenty of left-over mystery once the credits start rolling. Not everything is revealed at the end, but the viewer gets a pretty good overview of the broad lines. It's definitely one of the better horror endings I've seen in a long time.

It's a selection of small details that lift this film above the rest for me. The scarecrows looks genuinely creepy, the combination of a front/back camera increases the tension and the concept behind Mr Jones' character is intriguing enough to feel fresh and exciting. Audiovisual credits are up to par and the acting is decent enough. I hope Mueller gets a second chance to confirm his talent, but for now I'm pretty happy with what he put on display here. Mr Jones is one of the better films of its kind.

Tue, 03 Jun 2014 12:10:08 +0200
<![CDATA[paul ws anderson/x10]]>
Paul WS Anderson

Paul WS Anderson is not a very popular director, looking at his oeuvre it's not all that difficult to see why. He's an action director that more than happily trades in a solid plot and subtlety in favor of more, bigger and louder action scenes. He's the Michael Bay of B-cinema, using the mid-size budgets he has to his disposal to maximum effect.

I kinda like him. Anderson hasn't made a great film yet, but he has made some pretty entertaining ones and when it comes to mindless action cinema he's actually one of the better directors cruising around Hollywood. He didn't start off there though. Anderson made his first feature (Shopping ) in the UK, his home turf. The film can be seen as the spiritual predecessor of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, though Boyle was clearly the more talented of the two.

Soon after Anderson transferred to America to helm the adaptation of popular video game Mortal Kombat. While not a very good film, it gained a pretty avid cult following that survives even to this day. Event Horizon has a similar history. Not a great scifi by all means, but in certain circles it's a much-quoted and generally well-loved film.

Anderson's big breakthrough came in 2002 when he released the first Resident Evil movie. Another adaptation of a popular game series that would turn out to be Anderson's cash cow. Five feature films and two animation features later, it stands as one of the most successful zombie series around. It has long since abandoned its horror roots though, focusing more on action and cool, explosive gadgets to raise the adrenaline.

Sticking with tried and tested formulas, Anderson would go on to adapt Alien Vs Predator to the big screen and he ventured a remake of '75 cult classic Death Race. That last film in particular is one Anderson's most fun endeavours to date. His return to the Resident Evil series (part 4) would count as the current highlight of his career, though part 5 isn't all that much worse.

In recent years Anderson seems to be getting somewhat bigger budgets, making his films more prominent when visiting the movie theater. The Three Musketeers was somewhat hit and miss, sadly Pompeii (his latest film) was nothing but miss. Bad CG, no guns and too much plot and drama killed the film. Anderson should probably stick to what he does best rather than try to diversify.

Anderson's oeuvre is filled with films that try to be as fun and amusing as possible. They don't always quite succeed, but at least Anderson gives it his best shot, not compromising action and explosions for plot and character development where none is needed. If you like that sort of thing, delving through his oeuvre won't disappoint you.

Best film: Resident Evil: Afterlife (3.5*)
Worst film: Pompeii (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

Mon, 02 Jun 2014 12:41:49 +0200
<![CDATA[brian de palma/x10]]>
Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma is one of those directors who's been in the business for more than 40 years. Even though I'm not a big fan of his oeuvre, De Palma's films have a certain flair that makes them easy to digest. There's always at least a handful of scenes that make his films worth watching.

The first De Palma I ever saw was Carrie, still one of the very best Stephen King adaptations around. With his characteristic split screens and amazing camera work De Palma created one hell of an ending, following a somewhat slow but solid build-up. It's a scene that, through the years, became part of our cultural collective. By then De Palma already had 8 years of experience.

Seven years later De Palma would go on to make his most iconic film, a remake of Scarface (1932). While I didn't like the film, it's impossible to ignore its global impact. And it's not just a landmark film for De Palma's career, Al Pacino too realized one of his most lauded roles. Four years later De Palma would stun the world again with The Untouchables, yet another landmark film that saw its ode to Eisenstein's staircase scene become legendary.

The 90s were a lot tougher. Raising Cain has nothing of De Palma's lavish style, Mission to Mars and Snake Eyes are failed attempts to relive his successes of the past. He did release Carlito's Way along the way, not quite as important or iconic as Scarface but still a film that helped to define the 90s.

From then on De Palma's films didn't amount to much any more. Femme Fatale and Passion are two sub-par failures, sporting only meagre glimpses of De Palma's former talent. It's a shame because at times De Palma is capable of great things. He shot some memorable scenes and made some big films, though he's never been able to convince me for the length of entire film. It's still fun to walk through his oeuvre though, as you never know when De Palma will flex his muscles.

Best film: Carrie (3.0*)
Worst film: Raising Cain (1.0*)
Average rating: 1.90 (out of 5)

Wed, 28 May 2014 12:42:02 +0200
<![CDATA[filth/jon s. baird]]>

There's really only one reason why I set out to watch Jon S Baird's Filth. Not because James McAvoy was playing the lead, not because the plot, poster or trailer spoke to me, not even because I was looking forward to the thick Scottish accents that were bound to pop up. I watched Filth because it was an adaptation of one of Irvine Welsh's books, which tend to make for great cinematic adventures. And sure enough ...

screen capture of Filth

Ever since Boyle adapted Trainspotting, the name Irvine Welsh has led me try out films no matter how weak the link. I once tried reading Trainspotting (the book) but at the time the phonetic Scottish accents were a bit too much for me. With the proper subtitles to aid me though there's nothing standing between me and a good 90 minutes of juicy, depraved comedy. And Baird delivers with Filth, even though it never reaches the heights of Boyle's masterpiece.

Baird's approach is a unique one. Filth carries the typical Welsh sense of humor and it's clearly a descendent of the Trainspotting school of film, but at the same time there's also an unmistakeable dash of Jeunet's Amélie here. Of course without the French charm and finesse, but the slightly fantastical introduction set to a strong and entertaining voice-over deviates strongly from what you'd expect of a film like Filth. That's not a bad thing mind.

The film follows police detective Bruce Robertson, a self-assured, confident and proud cop who treats life as his own personal game of chess. He eliminates the people around him in order to reach his goal (promotion to chief of police) as quickly as possible. His slick demeanor helps him forward, but behind the facade that Robertson puts up hides a darker, sicker and ... well, filthier truth. And once that facade starts to break down, there's nothing left but a long road downhill.

screen capture of Filth

Visually Filth is a slick and modern film. Snappy editing, some nice settings, quirky and agile camera work and some moody lighting to finish it off. It's a pleasant film to watch, though it does miss the genius of a man like Boyle. While Baird gets very close at times, the level of quality isn't quite consistent enough to give Boyle (and by extension Guy Ritchie) a run for their money. Still, Filth doesn't disappoint either and there's still plenty to admire here.

The soundtrack is exactly what you'd expect from a film like this. Lots of slightly off-center pop music (mostly of the Brit pop variety), enhanced by some 90s dance (Dr Alban, Felix, Culture Beat) and trance (Darude). The score itself is handled by Clint Mansell (of Pi and Requiem for a Dream fame), making for a pretty strong mix of uptempo and atmospheric tracks. The original score isn't as memorable as it could be, but the sound design makes up for that.

Which brings me to the cast. Before this film I only knew James McAvoy from his slightly snobby, polite and well-behaved roles. The ideal son in law, something detective Robertson is absolutely not. It might be the exact reason why McAvoy took the part, as typecasting can ruin someone's career in the long run. Somewhat surprisingly McAvoy is perfect as Robertson. His thick accent takes him halfway there, his spirited and full-blown attempt to become one with his character does the rest. The secondary cast is sublime too, with Eddie Marsan in a most memorable role.

screen capture of Filth

Filth may feel a little disjointed. Baird take his time to unfold the story and doesn't mind a quick sidestep if it adds to the overall fun. It isn't until halfway through that Robertson begins to crack (even though it's obvious from the very start that something is seriously amiss), before that it's all just fun and games. For me it's part of the charm, but I'm sure not everyone will appreciate the free-wheeling first part.

The question remains if Baird could manage on his own, without the help of Welsh's source material, but at least for now that doesn't really matter. Filth is fun, outrageous, grotesque and ultimately filthy enough to warrant its title. It isn't up there with the best of Welsh's adaptations, but that probably isn't a very fair comparison to make. It's a good film in its own rights and that's all a film really needs to be.

Tue, 27 May 2014 13:06:40 +0200
<![CDATA[death trance/yuji shimomura]]>

Back in 2005, when Yuji Shimomura's Death Trance was just released, I was one of the first people to catch this film. Ever since I've been reading nothing but negative reviews, so over the years I started to wonder if maybe I had missed something. If maybe I was just a little too excited back when I first watched it. Somewhat hesitantly I gave the film another chance, expecting to be disappointed. Instead I fell in love with it all over again.

screen capture of Death Trance

For better or for worse, Death Trance is Versus 2. It's not an official sequel to Versus, nor was Ryuhei Kitamura himself directly involved with the project, but behind the scenes the connections are more than obvious. There is of course Tak Sakaguchi playing pretty much the same role, there's the setting, plot and characters that take quite a few cues from Versus (though Death Trance is based on a manga), and there is the fact that Yuji Shimomura served as action director for Kitamura's cult hit.

If you didn't like Versus, you probably won't appreciate Death Trance either. The film is as in your face as can be, trying to be as cool as possible for as many consecutive minutes at a time. There's a plot but it's flimsy and serves as little more than a hook for some cool fight sequences and some great dress-ups. The music is loud, the visual style all over the place. Shimomura knows no shame, nor does he hold back. He just wants his film to be as awesome as can be. For some this might trigger the exact opposite response, but at least Shimomura gives it his all.

The plot is about a holy coffin, guarded by a monastery of monks who kill whoever tries to come near it. One day the entire monastery of monks is obliterated by a rogue samurai. He takes the coffin and heads towards the Forbidden Woods, where, as legend has it, his wishes will be fulfilled once he opens the coffin. When word is out that the coffin is on the move, a myriad of interested parties show up, trying to steal the coffin away from the samurai.

screen capture of Death Trance

Visually Death Trance is a pleasant mix of different styles. The dynamic camera work sporting strange angles comes right out of Versus, while the stylish finale is reminiscent of Aragami's climatic duel. Then there's a fun stop-motion sequence, some harsh color filters and a hefty dose of CG to liven things up. On top of that, the costumes are absolutely amazing and Shimomura makes great use of the setting to add some extra atmosphere. The only downside is the quality of the CG, which at times really is sub par.

The soundtrack is a mix of high octane music genres, alternating between nu-metal and drum 'n bass-like tracks to keep the vibe going. I'm definitely not a nu-metal fan, but I felt it did suit the film as it helped the soundtrack to match the loud and in your face visual style. I would have preferred a few extra drum 'n bass pieces, or at least some faster metal tracks, but for a film soundtrack the selection is probably edgy enough as is.

Tak Sakaguchi shines again as the rogue samurai. It's not a very challenging role and you may even wonder how much actual acting was involved, but Sakaguchi has the perfect aura to play a character like this. His smirks, grins and general apathetic behavior are spot on. The secondary cast isn't bad either, though this isn't the kind of acting that will win the cast any prizes. There's even room for Kentaru Seagal (Steven's son) who, I have to admit, does a noticeably better job than his dad.

screen capture of Death Trance

Death Trance is a very simple film. Beyond being as cool and badass as possible, the film has absolutely zero pretensions. To get to that point everything is allowed, from anachronistic elements (bazookas and motorbikes) to larger than life characters and overly long fight sequences. It's delivered with enough tongue in cheek humor to erase any trace of seriousness, even still not everybody might pick up on that.

Death Trance didn't perform very well internationally, possibly explaining why this is Shimomura's only film to date. In the meantime he kept busy doing the action sequences for like-minded films (Yakuza Weapon, Deadball), but his return as a director seems most unlikely. A real shame if you ask me, even though for now the market isn't looking for films like these. Death Trance is good fun that doesn't overstay its welcome, a film that should get a fair chance from all Versus fans out there. You might be put off by its eagerness to show off, but at the same time that's probably the film's biggest strength.

Mon, 19 May 2014 12:00:00 +0200