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[Magnolia/Paul Thomas Anderson]]>

Does Paul Thomas Anderson's big breakthrough film really need an introduction? Magnolia is a modern classic, one of the few films that serve as a solid bridge between mainstream and arthouse cinema. It's up there with films like Memento, Pulp Fiction and Mulholland Dr., though I wasn't too sure what I would think of the film after all these years. A rewatch was in order and so I cleared 180 minutes in my agenda (hah) and sat down for a hefty dose of PTA.

screen capture of Magnolia

Magnolia is one of my old favorites. A film I loved from before my big Eraserhead/Tetsuo turnaround. The thing is that a lot of the films I liked/loved back then don't really do it for me any more. Another thing is that lately I don't really stomach 180+ minute films too well, so I was kind of expecting to find myself somewhat disappointed with PTA's big masterpiece. Well, as it turns out there was none of that and I'm happy to say my expectations were well off.

Like Boogie Nights, PTA made Magnolia into a hefty ensemble film, following a handful of characters that are scarcely related to each other. The actual theme of the film is explained through some short sketches up front (and another one at the very end of the film). Basically it's about chance encounters and random successions of events leading up to almost unbelievable stories. A less than subtle wink to popular film criticism and something PTA really takes to extremes here.

There isn't really a plot, just a day in the lives of the protagonists. There's a former wizkid who failed to materialize on his earlier success, a dying old man, a young boy competing in Jeopardy, a cop on duty, an inspirational figure preaching his findings about women to other guys etc etc. They are all related in some way or another, even though they don't all meet up in a big sprawling finale. Not to worry though, PTA makes sure that there are plenty of other reasons to remember his film.

screen capture of Magnolia

On the visual side of things, Magnolia is a pretty typical PTA movie. That means long (and complex) tracking shots and amiable camera work. The overall effect isn't too spectacular or in your face (colors, lighting and framing are acceptable but nothing to write home about), but it never looks dull or boring either. Personally I prefer something like Punch-Drunk Love, but compared to many other ensemble films Magnolia is one of the better-looking features out there.

The soundtrack is way more interesting. It's somewhat inconspicuous and it isn't all that memorable in itself, but it has a tremendous effect on how the film is perceived and remembered as a whole. For all the drama and hurt that is hidden away in Magnolia, the soundtrack is surprisingly upbeat. It's not exactly jolly or happy, just not what you'd expect when dealing with this kind of drama. No sad strings, unplugged guitars or lonely piano tunes, but something a little quirkier. And when PTA does go for a more dramatic impact, the music of Aimee Mann proves unique enough to keep the soundtrack well away from becoming too safe and/or generic.

I can't say anything bad about the cast either. Magnolia was my first encounter with many of the actors listed and it earned them quite some credit. People like William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall, Julianne Moore and John C. Reilly aren't quite favorites of mine, but I do hold them in high regard. Philip Seymour Hoffman stands out just a little more, but it's Tom Cruise performance that shows that PTA has a real knack for coaching actors. I'm not really a fan of Cruise, but his performance here is just fenomenal.

screen capture of Magnolia

Don't be fooled, there is enough drama to fill 4 separate films here. From cancer to promising childhoods gone wrong, from abandoned sons to dying fathers, from drug-addicted women to molesting dads, it's all there. But after 180 minutes all I can remember is this quirky film with its heart in the right place. And it's exactly that what's been missing from more recent PTA films, which fail to find that balance and end up as boring, overly long dramas.

From a professional and critical point of view, Magnolia is probably PTA's most accomplished film. It's a three hour long ensemble film that feels playful, energetic and upbeat. The entire cast is flawless, the soundtrack is excellent and the film even packs some visual surprises. Personally I prefer more experimental stuff, which I why Punch-Drunk Love is still my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, but Magnolia is a must see for everyone bored with Hollywood and looking for something better to enjoy.

Thu, 26 Nov 2015 12:43:56 +0100
<![CDATA[The Visit/M. Night Shyamalan]]>
The Visit poster

M. Night Shyamalan returns with a new film. Long ago that would've reason enough for considerable hype and pent-up anticipation. Nowadays his films are considered a success if they aren't tossed aside after their first week in theater (if they get there at all). The popular narrative is that it all went downhill after Unbreakable, each film worse than the one before. Personally I don't subscribe to that narrative, I like Shyamalan best when he's mixing horror and fantasy with some tongue in cheek thrown in for good measure. I consider Lady in the Water and The Happening to be his best films, so I was more than happy to see that The Visit was somewhat revisiting that territory.

The Visit is not your run of the mill found footage horror (and not because it's actually a faux documentary, I'm not that pedantic). Sure enough, most (if not all) of the footage is coming from a handycam operated by a little documentary director to be, but it never actually feels like it wants to be part of that niche. It feels more like a traditional horror film, with some slight 80s influences (mostly because the film is told from the perspective of two teens) and a stronger focus on the mysterious, rather than going for some quick jump scares.

The film follows Becca (15) and Tyler (13), who're on their way to visit their grandparents. Their mother ran away from home before they were born and this marks the first time they're going to see their grandma and grandpa. Becca is handy with a camera and decides to turn the trip into a documentary, hoping to uncover what happened on that faithful day when her mom eloped (and ultimately, to bring the family back together). Meanwhile, mom goes on a welcome holiday with her newest lover.

While the trip starts off well, it soon dawns on Becca and Tyler that their grandparents are a little odd. Grandma walks around at night and suffers from sundown syndrome while grandpa turns out to be incontinent, hiding his "little accidents" in the shed. Things get increasingly weirder though and what started as a fun and exciting trip is quickly turning into a restless nightmare.

Shyamalan includes a few jump scares and a few classic horror build-ups, but ultimately aims at a different kind of horror. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie shine as nana and pop pop, portraying two elderly people who are strange, a little creepy, but ultimately just old and alien-looking in the eyes of the two teens. This fear of ageing is what keeps the tension strong and lingering, even when Shyamalan throws around some goofy and quirky bits left and right (Jerry the police man being my favorite).

Yes, there is a little twist at the end and yes, it will make a second viewing a somewhat different experience, but in contrast to films like Signs, The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, there is more to The Visit than just the twist. It's a strong mix of horror, tension and tongue in cheek fun. It's creepy when it needs to be, it's funny when it wants to be. The only point of critique I have is that the middle part is a little too slow due to some mediocre attempts at additional drama. Instead I would've preferred a little extra grandma and grandpa time.

The Visit is not a film that will appeal to the masses. It doesn't have the big twist, it's not laden with jump scares and there aren't any vampires or demons to spruce things up. On the other hand, it makes The Visit a unique experience that stands as one of the better, if not the best Shyamalan film I've seen so far. It's not an easy film to blindly recommend, but it's sure worth a try if you're in for a little gamble.

Mon, 23 Nov 2015 11:52:16 +0100
<![CDATA[Ridley Scott/x20]]>
Ridley Scott

A guy like Ridley Scott hardly needs introducing. He's one of the key directors of the past 30 years. Maybe not Spielberg-level famous (mostly because he's a bit more genre-centric) but nonetheless a common, household name. And even those who don't know him by name are bound to have seen at least one of his films. While I will readily admit Scott made some good stuff along the way, I'm not really a big fan of his work and generally speaking prefer the films of brother Tony.

Scott's early years (the late 70s/early 80s) are probably his best, were it not that he also directed The Duellists, his very first feature. A rather horrible film that betrays none of Scott's lingering talents. It stands in great contrast with his second feature, Alien. While I'm probably the first to point out that the film works so well because of Giger's tremendously awesome designs, Scott deserves his share of the credits as director of the film. Blade Runner is another cult classic, though one that more aptly demonstrates Scott's shortcomings. While the first half is moody and atmospheric, it quickly dissolves into a lame 'catch the bad guy with horrible romance' ploy that does little justice to the first part of the film. Still, it's a must see for every sci-fi fan, but beware of the iffy Hollywood aftertaste.

For the biggest part of the 80s and 90s, Scott would switch back and forth between genre cinema and Hollywood blockbuster. Films like Black Rain and Someone to Watch over Me have clearer genre roots, while 1492 and GI Jane are little more than subpar money grabs.

In 2000 Scott directed what may be considered his biggest success (if you take IMDb as a viable source that is). Gladiator is loud, big, long and epic, pretty much everything I hate about Hollywood cinema. Personally I think it's one of Scott's worst. On the other hand, just one year later he directed Black Hawk Down, a film that could also be described as loud, big, long and epic, but for some reason I was able to stomach that one a lot better. Black Hawk Down is more stylized though, where Gladiator is firmly stuck in the narrative corner of Hollywood.

Through the '00s Scott kept jumping between huge Hollywood projects (Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, American Gangster) and smaller projects (Matchstick Men, All the Invisible Children). The results were very hit and miss, with only Matchstick Men standing out as a worthwhile film.

Then came the news that Scott was going to revisit the Alien universe. Expectations were mile high for Prometheus, sadly the film didn't really deliver. Giger's lack of involvement was all too visible and all of Scott's attempts to add extra spice to the Alien universe backfired. Something that doesn't bode well for the upcoming Blade Runner sequel I'm afraid. After Prometheus I was convinced Scott had completely lost it, luckily he proved me wrong with The Martian (his latest film). A very typical Hollywood sci-fi adventure, but well-executed and a fun ride.

Looking at his oeuvre, Scott is a pretty tricky director to coin. Some of his films I like, some of them I hate, but there's no obvious differentiator to separate the good from the bad. Sometimes I like his big, epic Hollywood fodder, sometimes his smaller, less prestigious projects. But it could be just as well the other way around. It's probably the reason why I've been going through his oeuvre so easily, because even though there's a lot of garbage there, you never know when you might hit another diamond in the rough.

Best film: Alien (4.0*)
Worst film: The Duellists (0.5*)
Average rating: 1.95 (out of 5)

Thu, 19 Nov 2015 11:43:01 +0100
<![CDATA[Gong Fan/Jung-chi Chang]]>

The Taiwanese revival came fast and was rather short-lived, but it was a necessary reboot for Taiwanese cinema, allowing it to finally break loose from the Tsais and Hous of the past. What it didn't manage to do was broaden its range of genres. Taiwanese cinema is still very much all about drama, especially when talking about films aspiring international appeal. Well, Jung-chi Chang's Gong Fan (Partners in Crime) might be a good step in the right direction.

screen capture of Gong Fan

It's not that every Taiwanese film is 100% pure drama of course, but the scales have always tipped to the drama side. Films like Xiao Shi Da Kan (fantasy/mystery) and Chuan Qiang Ren (scifi/romance) did throw some other genres in the mix (with incredible success I might add), they just never dominated. That's where Gong Fan is different. While the dramatic impulses are still definitely there, they have become secondary to the thriller elements and serve more as little breathers in between.

Most of the dramatic tension comes from Gong Fan's setting and its protagonists. Much like Japan, Taiwan loves its high school students and features them prominently in their films. Gong Fan doesn't deviate from the norm here, with a group of three young boys going through a life-altering experience together. The film does take its time to highlight the boys' emotional responses to what is happening around them, but makes sure to keep the mystery at the core of the film.

The mystery comes in the form of a suicide. The three boys meet each other for the first time when a girl jumps out of her window, right into the alley where the boys just happened to pass by on their way to school. They end up feeling sorry for the girl's mother and they decide to attend the funeral. But as they find out more about the suicide, signs seem to point in the direction that someone else might be involved in the death of the girl. The three boys vow to uncover the truth and set out to seek this mystery person.

screen capture of Gong Fan

On the visual side, Gong Fan is very much part of the Taiwanese film school. That means delicate camera work, strong use of color (lots of whites and greens) and stylish compositions. The editing distinguishes itself tough. It's a little faster, edgier and more nervous, which goes a long way in building up the tension. It all comes together in a very tight and balanced package, but that's something I've come to expect from Taiwanese film makers over the years.

The soundtrack goes down a very similar path. There are lots of cues taken from typical drama soundtracks (there's no lack of piano and string music, all very soft in tone), but spruced up with more distorted, grimmer sounds in between. The result is a darker, more mysterious atmosphere that's a much better fit for the tone of the film. In itself it may not be a very spectacular soundtrack, but as part of the whole it more than fulfils its function.

The acting is top notch too. The three boys are all strong and convincing, Kai-Yuan Cheng in particular shows great promise for the future. Ai-Nin Yao is also very impressive, even though she's only featured in a couple of scenes. The secondary cast shows little to no weakness either and each actor seems to bring something worthwhile to the table. If this is any indication for a new generation of Taiwanese actors, the future looks pretty rosy.

screen capture of Gong Fan

The biggest problem with thriller/mysteries is that they either reveal their secrets too soon, or they end up with a silly twists that's simply too far-fetched. Chang expertly side-steps these pitfalls by slowly expanding the mystery. Each revelation introduces a new question, which helps to keep the tension alive. There is a little twist at the end though, but it doesn't feel forced, nor does it try to be earth-shattering. Instead it's a more dramatic spin on the events that unfolded before (not quite unlike the way Spanish horror cinema likes to incorporate drama).

Gong Fan is quite the calling card for a director like Jung-chi Chang. After directing some shorts and documentaries (and one full-length feature), he's establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. Gong Fan is a stylish, balanced and subtle thriller with strong visuals, a worthy soundtrack and a young but talented cast. It may not be pure enough as a genre film to say that Taiwan is finally establishing itself beyond the realm of drama cinema, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.

Tue, 17 Nov 2015 11:36:55 +0100
<![CDATA[Jam Films 2/Kojima, Inoue, Takahashi and Tange]]>

Being a fan of both anthology films and modern Japanese cinema is a good position to be in, seeing as Japan has made excellent use of the format ever since its latest cinematic renaissance. One interesting project is Jam Films (actually a series of 3 anthology films), of which the second one is my personal favorite. It's been a long while since I watched any of these films though, so I figured, why not start with the one that left me the best memories.

screen capture of Jam Films 2

Jam Films was a Sega-backed project conceived to provide young and upcoming directors with a platform to show off their skills. It's a little disheartening to see that none of the four Jam Films 2 directors managed to make much of their further career, but at least the four of them combined left behind one great anthology project. While the other two entries in the series (Jam Films and Jam Films S) feature some great shorts, this second instalment shows the most promise.

First up is Junji Kojima with Kijo no Kuron, a charming little comedy that explores the dating rituals of the average Japanese couple. Set up as an educational video tutorial, the short starts out with various pointers and techniques for a man to use when trying to seduce a woman. The second part of the short provides a real world example of the demonstrated techniques. While a little bare-bones at times, the comedy is pleasantly absurd and the potential of the premise is used to its fullest. Fans will recognize Mikako Ichikawa in the lead role, an actress with a good nose for quirky comedy. While not great, it's a sweet little opener to ease you in. 3.5*/5.0*

screen capture of Jam Films 2

Up next is Eiki Takahashi's Clean Room, quite a big step up from the first film. It's an excellent little drama about a girl suffering from mysophobia. To battle her disease, she resides in a sheltered environment, far away from any outside influences. Until one day Hoshino (Kumiko Aso) seeks her out and starts bonding with the girl. Beautifully shot, using strong and bold colors and featuring a entrancing soundtrack, Clean Room ends up being a good notch above the typical Japanese drama. Of the four films, this is the one I would've loved to see expanded into a full feature (though that doesn't mean it's my favorite entry). 4.5*/5.0*

The third film is Hoops Men Soul, by Hidenori Inoue. It's the weakest of the bunch, but not a bad film in itself. Inoue goes for a very outspoken hiphop look (agile, in your face camera work and some on-screen graphics), but still can't prevent that his films looks a little cheap and barren in places. The story too is a little tried and tested (a basic yakuza/love story), but the pacing is adequate and there's really no time to get bored. As a feature film this probably wouldn't have worked, but as an anthology segment it's not all that bad. 3.0*/5.0*

screen capture of Jam Films 2

The fourth and final short is Kouki Tange's Fastener, a truly spectacular finisher and undoubtedly my favorite segment of the anthology. Based on a song, it's by far the most enigmatic and puzzling film of the bunch. There's no clear plot or obvious point, instead Tange focuses his efforts on building up a intangible atmosphere. With its muted colors, strange jumps in logic and somewhat uncanny setups, Fastener is right up my alley. Add to that a hilarious appearance of Yoshiyuki Morishita and you can understand why I'm a little disappointed that Tange never directed afterwards. 4.5*/5.0*

Jam Films 2 is a strong collection of shorts. As is always the case with anthology films (at least the ones with different directors working on each shorts) the quality between the films varies strongly, but with no weak entries and two exceptional shorts Jam Films 2 is an interesting and worthwhile project. Sadly none of the directors involved really made it afterwards (the only one still directing features is Inoue, but he has the weakest short here), but that doesn't take anything away from the quality of this film. If you like Japanese cinema and you don't mind watching anthology films, Jam Films 2 comes warmly recommended.

Mon, 09 Nov 2015 12:26:24 +0100
<![CDATA[Gokudo Daisenso/Takashi Miike]]>

Almost 25 years into his career, nearing his 100th feature film, you'd figure Takashi Miike would have settled down, if only just a little. You're probably assuming his current projects don't warrant much of a fuzz any more, especially since he's been flirting with more commercial projects. Well, you're dead wrong. And what better proof than Miike's latest. Gokudo Daisenso [Yakuza Apocalypse] is one of Miike's crazier films, and that's saying a lot.

screen capture of Gokudo Daisenso

On a scale of improbable to implausible, Gokudo Daisenso scores an off-the-chart impossible. Takashi Miike is part of an elite group of directors who manage to secure blockbuster-like budgets for their niche-sized projects (think Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson) and Miike is really pulling out all the stops. Gokudo Daisenso is a film for people who believe he lost his edge, his ability to surprise and his flashes of sudden genius. And for the ones who never stopped liking Japan's most zealous, inventive director.

Trying to compare Gokudo Daisenso to other films is probably a big waste of time, but Miike fans will recognize bits and pieces of Araburu Tamashii-Tachi, Sukiyaki Western Django and Yokai Daisenso (just to name a few). While watching though, I was wondering what a guy like Minoru Kawasaki (Koara Kacho, Ika Resuraa) must be thinking while watching a film like this. I wouldn't be too surprised if he was green with envy, trying to figure out what exactly Miike did to receive these kind of budgets to throw at the weirdness on screen.

Plot-wise, don't hope to make too much sense of what is going on. It starts off quite normal, with a small town run by Kamiura, an enigmatic gangster. The fact that he's also a vampire is a little weird, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Even though the recession has hit the village, everybody copes. But then this band of weirdos tries to recruit Kamiura. He declines though, so not satisfied with his decision they opt to kill the man. And that's the point in the film where you switch off your brain entirely and just go with the flow, because if the kappa doesn't get you, the frog surely will.

screen capture of Gokudo Daisenso

It's no secret that Miike has been working with bigger budgets lately, on top of that he has 25 years of experience to pour into his films. Because films like Gokudo Daisenso are never blessed with these types of budgets and expertise though, the result is actually a bit uncanny. Everything looks slick and polished while at the same time Miike is throwing heaps of camp at the screen. It's clearly not for everyone, but I loved it from start to finish.

The soundtrack is fun and playful, but nothing too remarkable. There are some jazzy tracks, some more western-oriented pieces, but mostly it's just background music with a clear purpose, without ever being too needy or demanding. The sound effects on the other hand were definitely above par, adding some extra cool and weight to some otherwise very silly and ridiculous scenes. Exactly what this film needed.

You'd think it would be nigh impossible to find any decent actors for a film like this, luckily Miike has his reputation working for him. That doesn't mean he stuffed Gokudo Daisenso with familiar faces, just that he found the right people for the job. Hayato Ichihara is great as the film's lead, Riri Furanki shines as the Yakuza boss and Tetsu Watanabe has a notable cameo. The guy who plays the frog left the biggest impression though, even if we never get to see his face.

screen capture of Gokudo Daisenso

As unique as Gokudo Daisenso is, the film might have some trouble finding its core audience. It's definitely too weird for the mainstream, possibly too slick and perfected for the camp and cult fans. You really have to love the collision of these two very opposite worlds to fully appreciate what Miike did in this film. For that reason alone it's kind of hard to recommend it, it's better you just go in blank and experience it yourself. If you're looking into other reviews though and you see them talking about plot and deeper meaning, know you're probably not looking in the right place for clues.

Gokudo Yakuza is the kind of Miike I adore. The film looks good, sounds good, is stacked with crazy ideas and even weirder characters and dares to cross the line of common sense more than once. It's the ultimate in entertainment without having to sacrifice or compromise on quality. It's the kind of film only Miike could make, leaving like-minded directors wanting they had the same privileges. Best Miike film in years, which bodes well for the future.

Tue, 27 Oct 2015 12:09:39 +0100
<![CDATA[Circle/Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione]]>
Circle poster

I sat down for Circle, not really knowing what to expect. Based on the poster and a quick glance at the plot summary I hoped for a solid genre flick, but that's not exactly what I got. Circle is much more than a bag of slickly executed clichés, instead it sets out to turn things upside down, packing a few welcome surprises along the way.

You have to give the film a little time though, because the beginning makes it look like the umpteenth copy of Saw. A group of people waking up in a room, not knowing where they are or how they got there isn't exactly a novel concept, unless you've been ignoring horror cinema for the past 10 years. But that's where the comparison ends, Hann and Miscione have other things in store for Circle and once the initial setup is explained they quickly begin to shift their perspective.

Films like Saw have always been about overcoming oneself in order to survive. About solving puzzles and escaping perilous situations by crossing personal boundaries. Even though at first Circle seems to be going in that same direction, the captives quickly discover a more dire fate awaits them. 50 of them are lined up in a circle. Every two minutes someone dies and the next victim is always decided by vote. The interesting part is that there's no way to cheat the system, so rather than trying to beat the game, people are clinging on to an irrational hope that surviving the next two minutes might lead to some kind of solution.

Circle is equal parts mystery and thriller with a small slice of horror thrown in for good measure, but don't let that fool you. It's a very talkative film, shot in a single location and focusing on the group dynamic rather than introducing action elements. The key to the game is surviving in a group of 50 strangers, knowing every two minutes at least one person has to die. Hann and Miscione use this setup to explore how people make choices when they have little to no factual information to rely on, resulting in a film that shows more interest in the psychological aspect of the concept, rather than trying to arouse shock and tension through the killings.

Even though Circle is shot in a single location, the presentation is interesting enough (a bit Cube-like). Acting is decent and there are enough interesting angles to keep it engaging. Circle is really a perfect genre/author mash-up, save for that final minute. And it's not even the build-up that ruins it. Up until the last minute Hann and Miscione do everything perfect. The not-so final ending was absolute perfection too, but then they decided to stick on another minute that felt completely obsolete. It offers an explanation I could do very well without and it backtracks on the implied ending just seconds earlier. It's a shame they didn't just cut it off, but since it's there it's impossible to ignore. Not that it ruined the film for me, everything else is still very cool, but it's definitely a missed opportunity.

If you're looking for something a little different than Circle is a great little psychological thriller. It really messes with your expectations and serves you an impossible riddle with no solution. At least, if you're the type of film fan that doesn't freak out when the ending is more than a little disappointing. Here's to hoping Hann and Miscione get another chance to prove their worth.

Mon, 26 Oct 2015 11:55:38 +0100
<![CDATA[Isao Yukisada/x10]]>
Isao Yukisada

Japanese cinema has a pretty broad range of dramatic offerings. From the gritty, the nihilistic and the barren to the sweet, the tender and the soft. Isao Yukisada's films fall in the latter category, which isn't all that surprising when you consider he started out working for Shunji Iwai (Hana to Arisu) as an assistant director. Yukisada spent the last 20 years building up a strong, cohesive and sizeable oeuvre, so if you've seen some of Iwai's films and liked them, Yukisada is an obvious and easy recommend.

In '98 (the early years of the latest renaissance of Japanese cinema) Yukisada made Open House, a film that still closely resembled Iwai's work. Three years and four attempts later, Yukisada would have his first (modest) international success, coining his signature style and launching his career for real. Go is a solid drama, starring an impressive Yosuke Kubozuka and focusing on the friction between the Japanese and foreigners living in Japan.

The coming years Yukisada would work hard to fine-tune his style. With a strong focus on characters over plot, light and meandering atmospheres and natural but slightly stylized camera work he helped to define the characteristics of the niche he operated in. Films like Zeitaku na Hone [Luxurious Bone] and Rokkun Rouru Mishin [Rock 'n' Roll Mishin] are above average dramas, mellow in tone and featuring interesting yet loveable characters. Perfect filler for the fan of Japanese drama cinema who has seen the most (if not all) of the usual suspects.

In 2004 Yukisada released Kyo no Dekigoto [A Day on the Planet], his first humble masterpiece. Essentially not al that different from the films that came before, but just that little more engaging and enveloping. That same year he also directed Sekai no Chushin de, Ai wo Sakebu [Crying Out of Love, In the Center of the World], a film that made a bigger impact on the international market, but is at times a bit too heavy on the drama. Still a worthwhile film if you're just starting out with Japanese cinema.

Like many directors working primarily in the drama genre, Yukisada's next couple of films would test the waters by deviating ever so slightly from his success formula. Kita no Zeronen [Year One in the North] is a historic samurai drama, Toku no Sora ni Kieta [Into the Faraway Sky] an Always San-chome no Yuhi-like nostalgia-infused feel-good drama. Fine films in their own right, but not quite up there with his best work.

With Paredo [Parade] he would once again approach his best form, combining his trademark drama elements with slightly grittier and darker influences. It's not as a big shift as it sounds, but it's definitely noticeable within his body of work. Onnatachi wa Nido Asobu [Women Play Twice] was an interesting follow-up to that, a 5-part omnibus that Yukisada directed all by himself. Basically he tells the story of 5 different (and unrelated) women within the confines of a single film.

Isao Yukisada is somewhat of an undiscovered treasure. A select few of his films have caused small ripples beyond the borders of Japan, but if you're interested in getting to know his oeuvre it's going to involve some dedicated digging. Yukisada is by far one of the most consistent directors I've come across, with everything I've seen so far rating between 3.5* and 4.0*, so if you're into meandering, character-based drama a la Japonais then his oeuvre is a treasure trove of little-known gems. If you're unfamiliar with the genre though, there are probably some other directors (like Hiroshi Ishikawa, Ryuichi Hiroki or Shunji Iwai) that need exploring first.

Best film: Paredo [Parade] (4.0*)
Worst film: Kurozudo Noto [Closed Note] (3.5*)
Reviewed films: Paredo - Kyo no Dekigoto - Onnatachi wa Nido Asobu
Average rating: 3.65 (out of 5)

Thu, 15 Oct 2015 11:44:33 +0200
<![CDATA[Dogville/Lars von Trier]]>

On paper, Dogville is a film I should be loathing. Set in small village in last-century USA, lacking in visual splendour, three hours long and bursting with plot and subtext, it's a near-exhaustive checklist of things I usually don't care for in films. And yet, in some weird, slightly confusing way, von Trier delivered a film that sucked me in regardless. Watching it again, I have to say that it lost a sliver of its original impact, but all in all it remains a unique, strong and impressive piece of cinema.

screen capture of Dogville

There's only one thing Lars von Trier likes better than making rules, and that's breaking rules. After stirring up a big fuzz with his Dogme '95 movement, he threw out his 10-rule Dogme guidebook and started over from scratch. Dogville is his first post-Dogme film and while not everyone was equally conscious of this sudden change in approach (I remember back then some people still considered Dogville to be a Dogme film) the contrast with his earlier films couldn't be any bigger.

Dogville is extremely stylized, though in a very minimalistic way. Don't expect meticulous camera work, heaps of post-production tinkering or elaborate setups (though on a purely technical level there are a couple of remarkable shots), but realism this clearly ain't. What von Trier did was strip away all the excess in search for a closer focus on characters and their emotions. The result is a film that is shot on a stage, with chalk outlines representing the town and its houses and just a minimum of on-stage props to ground the actors. A trick Miike would later repeat with 46-Okunen no Koi.

The story revolves around Grace, a runaway girl who one day arrives in Dogville, a small mountain village almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world. Tom, the town's self-proclaimed philosopher, covers for Grace when a gang of henchmen arrives in Grace's wake only moments later. The town grudgingly accepts Grace's presence, but quickly realizes that there are some welcome advantages in having her around. Tom tries to temper the opportunistic behavior of the townspeople, but can't prevent them from taking advantage of Grace's disposition.

screen capture of Dogville

Dogville's biggest differentiator is no doubt its appearance. To watch a 3-hour long film shot on a single stage, with some chalk lines marking the houses and a handful of props is something else. There are a few noticeable visual effects (like the overlaying shots when Grace hides in the truck), but also a few hidden technical feats. The opening shot for example is a composite of a total of 50 cameras, needed because von Trier's studio wasn't high enough to get the proper aerial view. I wouldn't call Dogville a visually striking film, but it's definitely unique and the extra abstraction does give it some extra flair.

The soundtrack is far less daring, which, come to think of it, is a little ironic. As much as von Trier likes experimenting when he's constructing his projects, he usually doesn't reach beyond a couple of popular classical music pieces when looking for music to go with his films. It's not that the soundtrack is bad or ill-fitting, but for someone who loves to tinker and experiment with the fabric of cinema, you might expect something more daring and challenging in the soundtrack department.

The casting too is a little on the safe side, although it must be said that Nicole Kidman probably wasn't the most obvious of choices. She plays one of the best parts of her career though, going through a couple of crude transitions in a frighteningly plausible way. With people like Philip Baker Hall, Paul Bettany and Stellan Skarsgard by her side she is surrounded by ample acting talent, but it's John Hurt as the film's narrator that leaves the biggest impression besides Kidman. His voice is one of the elements that defines Dogville.

screen capture of Dogville

While three hours may sound quite long, the film never really drags and the running time never feels drawn out or forced. Even though there isn't that much plot, the shifting relationship between Grace and the townspeople is interesting enough to follow as Dogville builds up to a more than gratifying finale. The final act is pretty harsh and may be seen as shocking (I've also seen it referenced as deplorable), but going through the film it feels like the only logical conclusion.

I never liked von Trier's Dogme obsession, as it largely contradicts my own views on cinema. Luckily the man suffers from a rather short attention span. For Dogville he turned things upside down and came with a film that feels very abstract and otherworldly, but in a very intimate and humanistic way. For that seemingly contradiction alone the film is worth watching. Add some great acting and a powerful finale and you have a small masterpiece. It may have lost a little of its shine since it first came out, but what remains is a solid film that will easily stand the test of time.

Tue, 13 Oct 2015 11:47:48 +0200
<![CDATA[Nian Nian/Sylvia Chang]]>

Legendary Taiwanese actress/writer/singer/producer/director Sylvia Chang is back with new film. After a rather long hiatus from directing (7 years without a feature), she once again resumes her role behind the camera to bring us a Taiwan-based drama. Nian Nian [Murmur of the Hearts] finally frees her from Hong Kong's strong pull and delivers everything you'd expect from a modern Taiwanese film. Maybe not quite up there with Taiwan's best, but a more than solid effort that should appeal to drama fans.

screen capture of Nian Nian

Sylvia Chang is somewhat of a local only celebrity. Even though she did enjoy modest international success with 20 30 40, she never really attained much name recognition over here. It's a bit of a mystery why that is really, because she more than deserves her place next to people like Ann Hui and Heiward Mak. From what I've seen of her work so far, Chang brings something unique to the table and Nian Nian only strengthens that impression.

At times the film reminded me a little of Naomi Kawase's Futatsume no Mado, though more in atmosphere than in style or themes. But those dreamy underwater moments and that typical island-feel could make for a compelling female Asian directors double bill. Taiwanese dramas are also closer related to Japanese dramas compared to their Hong Kong relatives, though the minor fantastical touches and slightly stronger focus on plot points betray the film's true origin.

Nian Nian follows the life of Mei, a young paintress who finds herself at a crossroad in life. When she finds out she is expecting her boyfriend's child, a devoted boxer in training, she fears the news might destroy their relationship. On top of that, a painful past that eventually separated her from her brother keeps haunting her memories. As she pushes forward the people surrounding her are trying to cope with their own personal issues, creating extra friction, further complicating Mei's life.

screen capture of Nian Nian

Visually the film is on par with recent Taiwanese outings, meaing it's stylish and perfectionist, combining a somewhat classic approach with more modern touches. Stark and beautiful framing, strong use of color and lighting and beautiful camera work give the film its basic flair, but it's scenes like the underwater swim/dance, shot from below, that make it extra special. The result is a stunning-looking film with lots of distinguished eye candy and quite a few memorable scenes.

The soundtrack has a very similar approach. Essentially it's not that different from other drama films, relying on moody and ethereal string and piano music to set the tone, but the sound is just that little bit different from the norm, making it less predictable and more importantly, less overbearingly sentimental. It's not a soundtrack that will blow you out of your chair or will surprise you with a novel twist, but it's a damn effective one that ads plenty to the film's atmosphere.

Chang did have a very nice casting surprise up her sleeve though. Seemingly from out of nowhere she revived Isabella Leong's acting career, giving her the lead role. Leong has been absent from cinema for the past 7 years and seeing her return to the screen is a more than welcome surprise. She finds herself in good company too, with Angelica Lee playing Mei's mom and Hsiao-chuan Chang taking on the role of Mei's boyfriend.

screen capture of Nian Nian

Nian Nian isn't entirely without fault. While the drama surrounding Mei's character is strong and immersive, the segments about Mei's boyfriend and her estranged brother are less intriguing and do break the flow of the film, if only just a little. A stronger focus on Mei's life and the flashbacks that expand on the time she spent with her mom would've made for a tighter whole, though this is only a minor issue which pops up just once or twice during the film.

After its big yet sudden peak in 2011, Taiwanese cinema seems to have subsided again. It's comforting to see films like Nian Nian continuing the good work of those that came before, because Taiwan has quite a few hidden gems and the more entry points there are, the likelier the chance someone will uncover them eventually. Nian Nian may not challenge the absolute best of modern Taiwanese cinema, but it's still a very solid film with some exceptional and memorable moments that deserves more praise than it is poised to get.

Thu, 08 Oct 2015 11:48:26 +0200
<![CDATA[John Woo/x30]]>
John Woo

John Woo is probably Hong Kong's most successful cinema export product ever. He is, at least to my knowledge, the only Hong Kong director who managed to direct a series of A-grade blockbusters. But there is a lot more to Woo's oeuvre than just his Hollywood stuff.

Woo started his career in the early 70s, directing run of the mill martial arts flicks. While not terrible films, it's pretty obvious why it would take him half a lifetime to have another go at the genre. Chu Ba [Fists of the Double K] and Shao Lin Men [Countdown in Kung Fu] do merit some extra attention, though not so much because of Woo's direction. Both films feature a very young Jackie Chan, Shao Lin Men also has Sammo Hung listed in the credits, so hardcore martial arts fans should have some additional incentive to check them out.

Before wooing the world with his heroic bloodshed cinema, Woo would take a little detour directing comedies. It's a little-known fact, but for a span of almost 10 years Woo would direct 7 comedy films, the biggest surprise being that they weren't half bad. Films like Hua Ji Shi Dai [Laughing Times], Mo Deng Tian Shi [To Hell with the Devil] and Liang Zhi Lao Hu [Run Tiger, Run] are above average comedies that stand as the best of their time. If, of course, you can stomach that typical Hong Kong sense of humor.

By the time Woo started working on his first real action film (guns blazing and all that), he had already directed 11 films in total. In '86 Woo released Ying Hung Boon Sik [A Better Tomorrow], a landmark in his oeuvre that saw him united with Yun-Fat Chow for the first time. It's the start of what would come to be known as "heroic bloodshed" cinema, a combination of high octane action mixed with overly sentimental drama, undoubtedly Woo's biggest contribution to the world of cinema.

Woo's first real masterpiece is Dip Huet Seung Hung [The Killer], a film that contains most of his trademark elements. Crazy action scenes, lots of slow-motion, a little unwelcome drama and of course a couple of doves to add some extra class to the action. In '92 Woo would one-up himself with Lat Sau San Taam [Hard-Boiled], an even more explosive action film also worth checking out. In between he directed Zong Heng Si Hai [Once a Thief], following the short-lived trend to make a film about a couple of art thieves.

In '93 Woo finally made the switch to Hollywood, but instead of storming the American market with his skilful action work, Woo dropped back to the bottom of the ladder and was forced to work his way up from scratch. His first Hollywood films are mediocre B-grade action films. It wasn't until Face/Off, his fourth American project, that Woo finally made it back to the big league. Sadly he couldn't follow it up with more great films, though action fans might still appreciate films like Mission Impossible II and Windtalkers.

I for one was very happy to see Woo return to China. In 2008 he came back to him homestead to make his 2-part tactical war epic Chi Bi [Red Cliff], fun films with some great (tactical) action, though quite CG-heavy. Two years later John Woo would assist Chao-Bin Su in directing Jianyu [Reign of Assassins], one of the best martial arts film of the current generation. It's a bit hard to say exactly how involved Woo was, but looking at Su's prior work and the high quality of the action scenes, I think it's fair to say Woo's name is not just up there for show. Currently the man is working on another 2-part war epic titled Tai Ping Lun [The Crossing]. The first one was a bit melodramatic for my taste, but if you like yourself some big budget action set pieces it's well worth a try.

Woo has had a long and worthwhile career, travelling between martial arts, comedy, heroic bloodshed and Hollywood, only to return to Hong Kong to (probably) end his career in the local market. There's still life left in Woo, though I wonder if he'll ever return to his most iconic work. The way I see it, one more heroic bloodshed film to rule them all would be a superb goodbye gift by one of the top action directors of his generation.

Best film: Jianyu [Reign of Assassins] (4.0*)
Worst film: Once a Thief (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.68 (out of 5)

Tue, 06 Oct 2015 12:02:42 +0200
<![CDATA[Shusuke Kaneko/x10]]>
Shusuke Kaneko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 01 Oct 2015 11:33:58 +0200
<![CDATA[Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho/Makoto Shinkai]]>

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

screen capture of Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho

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

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

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

screen capture of Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho

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

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

screen capture of Kumo no Muko, Yakusoku no Basho

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

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

Mon, 28 Sep 2015 11:38:10 +0200
<![CDATA[Eric Tsang/x10]]>
Eric Tsang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 24 Sep 2015 13:10:51 +0200
<![CDATA[Sinister 2/Ciaran Foy]]>
Sinister 2 poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tue, 22 Sep 2015 11:31:02 +0200