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[Mogura no Uta/Takashi Miike]]>

Unless you live in Japan (or a local film fest gets extremely lucky), it's virtually impossible to review Takashi Miike's "latest" film. Even though the man has slowed down his pacing considerably, there are always newer releases by the time his films hit the West. Anyway, Mogura no Uta - Sennyu Sosakan: Reiji (The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji) is among his latest films and it's probably his greatest work since 46-Okunen no Koi. Welcome back Miike.

screen capture of The Mole Song

It's definitely not the first time Miike (Izo, Gozu, Sun Scarred) set out to adapt an existing franchise. Yokai Daisenso and Ichimei are both film remakes, Ace Attorney is based on a popular video game and when it comes to manga and anime Miike has Crows Zero, Crows Zero 2, Ai to Makoto, Ryu ga Gotoku: Gekijo-Ban and Yattaman in his portfolio. Mogura no Uta (a lauded manga series) is merely the latest to enjoy the full Miike treatment.

I haven't read the manga so it's hard to say with 100% certainty, but it definitely feels like Miike made the source material his own (again). Mogura no Uta has Miike written all over it, to the point where it almost plays like a 25-year best off compilation. There are so many typical moments of weirdness, over-the-top craziness and flat out insanity that there's never a dull or boring moment in this 130 minute crime comedy.

The film follows Reiji, a low-ranking officer whose inconspicuous profile makes him a perfect candidate for becoming a mole. He is fired from the corpse, given a quick undercover agent training and sent out to infiltrate a major Yakuza clan. His mission: uncover the person behind large drug shipments that are plaguing Japan. It doesn't take long before Reiji gets in too deep, what follows is a pleasant take on classical Yakuza folklore (not quite unlike Katsuhito Ishii's Smuggler.

screen capture of The Mole Song

If there's one big change in Miike's output compared to 15 years ago, it's that his films look a whole lot better. Miike has always had an eye for powerful images, but he often lacked the money to make it happen. Those days are clearly over, yet it's reassuring to see this didn't make him lazy. From the paper-cut dreams and flashbacks in the beginning to the moody and atmospheric finale, there's always happening something interesting on the screen.

As for the soundtrack, it feels like Miike took a few cues from Sion Sono's films. Pompous, classical sounding music is used for comedic effect. Nothing too extreme or memorable, but it works well enough and it lends the film a pleasant, silly vibe. The titular song too is fun and amusing, even providing some good laughs. All in all it's a decent soundtrack, just don't expect anything too special.

Toma Ikuta may be headlining this film, it's Shinichi Tsutsumi's presence that really caught my eye. It also got me thinking which famous/respected Japanese actor hasn't appeared in a Miike film before. Apart from maybe Shinobu Terajima, I came up with nothing. With great supporting roles for Ken'ichi Endo (Bizita Q), Susumu Terajima (Nintama Rantaro), Riisa Naka (Zebraman 2) and Ren Osugi Miike got himself an all-star cast perfectly suited for this kind of film.

screen capture of The Mole Song

Like most 2h+ Miike films, Mogura no Uta does slow down from time to time. Where these moments used to drag though, Miike has somewhat overcome this weakness. The overall rise in quality of his films has made these moments a lot easier to stomach. On the other hand, I do feel he could've easily cut 10 to 15 minutes out of the middle part without hurting the film as a whole. Once the finale gets going though, these moments are quickly forgotten and the final 30 minutes are simply genius.

There's enough madness here to fill 3 or 4 separate films. The dream/flashback sequences in the beginning are awesome, the mole training (including the titular song) is hilarious, the villains plain creepy and weird. It's a vintage Miike with bazookas and manga-like jumps, crazy Yakuza gangs and a complete disregard for the normal. There is nobody like Miike when it comes to cranking out entertaining films and this film delivers in spades. If you're a fan of wacky Miike, Mogura no Uta is sure to satisfy your craving.

Thu, 30 Oct 2014 11:33:48 +0100
<![CDATA[Kaien Hoteru - Buru/Koji Wakamatsu]]>
Petrel Hotel Blue poster

2012 was going to be a great year for Koji Wakamatsu. With three films released and already a fourth one on the way, he was on a roll. At the age of 76, that's quite a feat. Sadly it wasn't meant to be. On a walk home from a budget meeting Wakamatsu was hit by a cab and he would pass away soon after. A surprisingly tepid ending for an explosive director.

Kaien Hoteru - Buru (Petrel Hotel Blue) is one of the three films Wakamatsu managed to finish in 2012. It's a peculiar film, experimental but featuring an elaborate narrative and remarkably free from political propaganda. It would make a good companion piece to Landscapes the Boy Saw, though both films are still quite different from each other.

Kaien Hoteru - Buru starts off with a robbery gone wrong. When Yukio's friend Yoji doesn't show up to provide backup, Yukio is caught and is sentenced to a 7 year stay in prison. Upon his release, Yukio vows to take revenge on Yoji. He finds out his location and ends up on a small, barren island where Yoji is running a bar/hotel.

That's when things get strange. Even though there's a whole crime story slowly unravelling, the film is more interested in Rika's character, Yoji's wife. She doesn't really speak, she disappears into thin air from time to time and she transfixes every man she meets. She's the catalyst of just about everything that happens, but her exact role is never truly explained.

The film is obviously a low-budget affair, but the location is terrific and the camera does a great job capturing its alien atmosphere. The soundtrack too adds a very mysterious feel, making everything that much weirder. The only real downer is the cast. Go Jibiki (a late-Wakamatsu regular) is solid, but the rest of the actors fail to find the right vibe.

Still, Kaien Hoteru - Buru is worth a gamble, especially if you're already familiar with Wakamatsu's oeuvre. It's a moody, atmospheric and mysterious film, not the kind of thing you'd expect a 76 year old to make. It might have been easier to accept Wakamatsu's passing if he'd been making crap movies, on the other hand, at least he got productive again right before passing away.

Mon, 27 Oct 2014 11:55:50 +0100
<![CDATA[Rokugatsu no Hebi/Shinya Tsukamoto]]>

Around the turn of the millennium, after his early (cyber)punk/body horror exploits, Shinya Tsukamoto was busy experimenting. He was trying to find a new direction in which he would push his oeuvre. With films like Soseji and Vital he explored different alterations of his trademark style, Rokugatsu no Hebi (A Snake of June) belongs in that same list of films. The result is another vintage Tsukamoto that sits proudly amongst his other gems, though just a little different from the ones that came before..

screen capture of A Snake of June

Even though there's a clear constant in the way Shinya Tsukamoto (Haze, Nightmare Detective 2, Kotoko, Tetsuo: Bullet Man) makes films, his earlier work is a lot rawer and harsher. Films like Tetsuo, Bullet Ballet and Tokyo Ken are all beautiful in their own right, but not in a traditional sense of the word. It's a grittier version of beauty, mixing body horror, urban landscapes and a frantic drive to create something explosive.

That frantic drive is still very much alive in Rokugatsu no Hebi, but there are softer, more humane themes present too. The film's not just about deformities and ugliness, it's also about traditional beauty and the human body. Rokugatsu no Hebi is a nifty take on Tsukamoto's fascination with body horror, leaving mutations and fantastical weirdness out of the picture for a change, substituting them with questions about health, femininity and intimate relationships.

The film follows Rinko, a woman who's slowly grown apart from her husband. She works for a mental hotline and helps people who are thinking about ending their lives. One day a patient gets hold of her home number and starts stalking her. While at first she feels threatened by his attention, he unearths something in her that she had long considered dead. When not long after she gets diagnosed with a serious, life-threatening disease, Rinko has to rethink the life she's been leading.

screen capture of A Snake of June

Even though the the 1.37:1 ratio is somewhat functional (considering the central role traditional photography plays in this film), I'll never be a fan. Still, Tsukamoto's energetic camera work, strong shadow play and razor-sharp editing skills make up for that. The fact that the entire film is drenched in a cold-blue hue only adds to the atmosphere. Rokugatsu no Hebi is a stunning-looking film, though you wouldn't expect anything else from the man.

Long-time collaborator Chu Ishikawa is back to handle the soundtrack. While his signature style is still present, the harsher, more industrial sounds that characterized his earlier collaborations have made room for dreamier, more ethereal-sounding melodies. Once again images and sound combine to make a very tight whole, seemingly creating atmosphere out of thin air. Ishikawa is a perfect composer for Tsukamoto's films and once again his work doesn't disappoint.

While the film has some interesting cameos (Tomorowo Taguchi, Susumu Terajima) and secondary characters (Shinya Tsukamoto himself), the two leads just aren't as convincing. Yuji Kotari in particular has a few awkward moments as Rinko's husband. Asuka Kurosawa does a slightly better job as Rinko, but she too lacks the true conviction to bring her character to life. Though extreme realism has never been a part of Tsukamoto's characters, never before were they as stilted as here.

screen capture of A Snake of June

Rokugatsu no Hebi is the first film for Tsukamoto to focus on the female body. Rather than turn it into a true freak show, the film's about sexuality, disease and its impact on femininity. The climax comes a little early and the aftermath drags just a little, but considering the film's short running time (77 minutes only) that's hardly an issue.

Tsukamoto went through his own transformation when the previous millennium ended, Rokugatsu no Hebi is one of the films that illustrates that pretty well. It's still a vintage Tsukamoto though, with extrovert visuals, a superb soundtrack and a strong focus on the human body, but underneath there's a layer of humanity that wasn't really present before. Watching this should be a no-brainer for Tsukamoto fans, others would probably do best to check out one of his other films first.

Thu, 23 Oct 2014 11:48:33 +0200
<![CDATA[David Fincher/x10]]>
David Fincher

David Fincher, man of the 90s. With just four films (of which the first one bombed fiercely upon launch) he managed to rise as one of the most respected directors of the decade. After the turn of the millennium he's been busy trying to uphold that image, though I can't say I really appreciate the controlled and calculated direction his career has taken since then.

Fincher's name first popped up in 1992, when he directed the third film in the Alien franchise. The third instalment featuring Giger's majestic creature wasn't exactly bad, but compared to the first two films it just couldn't evoke the same kind of emotions. Add some production woes and critical scorn and you have a horrible beginning of a career. Fincher completely turned things around with his next film. I'm not a big fan myself, but it's hard to deny the impact Se7en made on the general public. Still cited as one of the best films of the 90s and firmly lodged in the top 25 of the IMDb top 250, it's one of Fincher's biggest successes to date.

A few years later Fincher would lash out again, screwing his audience backwards and sideways with The Game, probably the most in-your-face mindfuck he directed. It's a fun flick and a testament to Fincher's skills, but it wouldn't be until is next project that Fincher's name would take on truly epic proportions. Fight Club is one of those rare movies that managed to become a cult favorite, a critical success and a commercial hit. It's a freaky, edgy and wildly unique film that is regarded as one of the defining movies of the 90s.

Sadly, Fincher started to slump a little after that. Panic Room was an average thriller at best and Zodiac wasn't that much better. Gone were the edgy touches that made his previous films worthwhile, only to be replaced by slow pacing, stylistic mediocrity and a stone-cold focus on plot. With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Fincher tried to break away from his comfort zone, but by then it was painfully clear that he had somehow lost his youthful edge along the way.

The Social Network was a commendable attempt to relive his previous success, but with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a lifeless remake of Män Som Hatar Kvinnor) and the recently released Gone Girl Fincher is slowly but surely digging his own grave. Not that these film are without merit, but there is a lack of energy and passion that is reminiscent of a man who knows he is past his prime. I still hope Fincher will resurface with a film that blows everybody away, but chances are slim. If you're looking for a decent thriller you can't go far wrong with Fincher, just don't look for anything more when trying out his post -2000 work.

Best film: Fight Club (4.0*)
Worst film: Gone Girl (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.65 (out of 5)

Tue, 21 Oct 2014 12:18:15 +0200
<![CDATA[Kite/Ralph Ziman]]>

Some movies make absolutely no sense at all. When I heard there was going to be a Western live-action adaptation of Kite (the cult anime), I simply couldn't wrap my head around the idea that someone out there figured it would a smart thing to do. Expectations were low (obviously), but I was still quite interested to see where they would take it. And surprise surprise, even though some predictable concessions were made, the film turned out to be pretty damn fun.

screen capture of Kite

Since its original anime release (back in 1998), Kite has garnered quite the reputation. The original film is an explosive combination of sex and violence, made twice as shocking by featuring a female minor in the lead. Needless to say, that bit alone resulted in quite a few angry reviews. I used to like the film a lot, but when I watched it again some time ago the low production values and moments of cheap exploitation couldn't just be ignored by merely focusing on the admittedly kick-ass action sequences and solid ending.

As was to be expected, the scenes where Sawa (the main character) is raped and abused by her mentor were removed from this remake in their entirety. And that's probably not such a bad thing, since those bits in the original film were vile and exploitative without adding anything to the film as a whole. What remains now is a rock-solid action flick about a young girl taking revenge on the killers of her parents, no holds barred. And that's all this film ever really needed to be.

Sawa is aided in her quest by Karl, a shady policeman who was Sawa's father's parter back when her parents were violently killed. Behind the murder was a group of human traffickers who he had crossed right before his death. Karl provides Sawa with weapons, information, cover from the police and a drug named amp, which lets her forget about the horrendous things she has to pull off to get to the bottom of the case. With each new victim she makes, Sawa gets a little closer to uncovering the truth.

screen capture of Kite

Kite is clearly a mid to low-budget affair, but Ziman makes the most of the available funds to bring the film's dystopian future to life. A run-down city, neon lights, muted tones with strong colors popping out and extravagant lighting make for an attractive-looking film. The camera work is in-your-face, the editing snappy. It reminded me a little of Frank Miller's film adaptations (Sin City, The Spirit), only a bit more colorful.

The soundtrack is going to make Kite a lot of enemies, but it's actually a pretty neat electronic score. It's a clear and explicit derivative of dubstep-oriented tunes and tracks and it will probably be ridiculed because of that, but honestly, how many films have dared to make that choice. Add some moody melodic ambient to go with the dramatic flashbacks and you have a more than fitting score that most films would be too afraid to even consider, yet complements this type of film perfectly.

India Eisley is well-cast as Sawa. Her child-like appearance suits her character, while her real-life age allows her to kick ass more convincingly than Chloe Moretz in Kick-Ass ever could. Samuel L Jackson is Eisley's back-up and even though he's pretty much the same guy, no matter what movie he plays in, he too is a perfect match for the job. McAuliffe is a solid third, while some juicy South-African thugs make for a fun yet rather limited secondary cast.

screen capture of Kite

Kite is somewhat of a niche film. I'm afraid this more action-oriented adaptation isn't going to appeal to the hardcore fans of the original, while I'm pretty sure that the harsh action and strange setting will alienate the rest of the audience. There's a nice twist ending that may help to convince some people of the film's qualities, but to be honest, that's not where Kite's strong points lie.

If you don't like the setting and you aren't charmed by the film's stylish exterior, the harsh action and crude characters probably won't cut it for you. On the other hand, it's nice to see Ziman make a film that shies away from compromises. Kite is a relentless action flick, helmed by a strong female lead and boasting interesting visuals and a fun, daring soundtrack. It may not be the most faithful adaptation and it may not turn out to be a big commercial success, I still liked it a lot better than the original film and I had a blast watching. It's somewhat of a gamble for sure, but Kite is one of the best action films I've seen in a long time.

Mon, 20 Oct 2014 10:57:20 +0200
<![CDATA[Tony Scott/x10]]>
Tony Scott

It's not completely unseen to have two brothers working as directors in Hollywood. There are the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Pangs and the Farrelly brothers, what's unique about Ridley and Tony Scott is that they each went to find their own path. They never co-directed a feature film, they never formed a team. They are both A-list blockbuster directors, but where Ridley Scott has a somewhat more diverse oeuvre, Tony Scott is the king of fast-paced, high octane action cinema.

I haven't seen too many of Scott's older films. I'm pretty sure I must've watched classics like Top Gun and Days of Thunder when I was a kid, but I remember little to nothing of them. The oldest Scott film I do remember watching is Beverly Hills Cops II, the not so good sequel/remix of Brest's buddy cop film. Still, these films were all the rage back then, so Scott went on to make The Last Boy Scout. The formula is always the same, only the lead actors change. I can't say I'm a very big fan.

While these film brought Scott mainstream success, he had to wait until 1993 before the critics started giving him some credit. True Romance is a fan favorite, mostly due to Quentin Tarantino's involvement with the script. I never really saw the appeal though. It's not a terribly film, but it feels lacking to other films in the genre. It's also one of the few Scott films that isn't straight up action, but ventures into more crime and thriller oriented territory.

With Enemy of the State and Spy Game Scott would test the water with different variations of the action genre, but it wasn't until 2004 that things would really get interesting. Man on Fire is one of the big milestones in Scott's career. It would be his first time working with Denzel Washington in the lead, but it also meant a complete change in style for Scott. He would adopt a very young, fresh and hyperactive style of film making that was pretty much unheard of in Hollywood. His film had always been slick and flashy, but this was clearly something else.

With Domino (my favorite Scott film) he would take it even one step further, sadly alienating his audience just a little too much. The film is a real blast though. Fun, daring, entertaining, extravagant ... everything most Hollywood actions films lack. But money talks and after Domino Scott would once more team up with Washington to try and relive the success of Man on Fire. Even though it brought forth some fun films (Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable), Scott would never rise to those heights again.

It's a shame Scott decided to end his life prematurely as he was a unique voice in Hollywood. He was a bit too flashy and in your face for most people, but he made good, simple action flicks and left an oeuvre that harbors a lot a fun. That is, if you can stand the Hollywood nonsense embedded in their roots.

Best film: Domino (4.0*)
Worst film: Beverly Hills Cop II (2.0*)
Average rating: 3.00 (out of 5)

Wed, 15 Oct 2014 12:42:51 +0200
<![CDATA[Papurika/Satoshi Kon]]>

Papurika is Satoshi Kon's fourth and final feature film. At its time of release I went to watch it at the IFFR. Big screen, good sound system, a theater filled with fans ... the works. Back then I felt it didn't quite live up to the legacy of his first two films, yet it was a return to form after the disappointment that was Tokyo Godfathers. I was pretty eager to watch Papurika again, excited to find out if those 8 years in between had done anything to change my mind.

screen capture of Paprika

After a successful run as an animator, art director and writer for several prestigious anime projects (including Memorizu, Kido Keisatsu Patoreba: The Movie 2 and Roujin Z), Kon started his directorial career with Perfect Blue. Add Magnetic Rose and Sennen Joyu (Kon's second feature film) and a pattern quickly emerges. Even though Kon's skills were broad, he truly excelled at seamlessly blending reality and dream worlds together.

On top of that, Kon brought animation closer to live action without sacrificing the strengths of the medium. His style of direction (camera angles, editing, pacing) is grounded in reality, yet what he shows would be incredibly hard to accomplish when making a regular feature film. With Tokyo Godfathers Kon strayed from this path by forgoing the dream world almost completely, Papurika went the other way and sees Kon losing touch with reality. Both films are the result of a director exploring what else he would be capable of, sadly his untimely death meant that he would never be able to reap the rewards from these experiences.

Papurika is quite literally the story of a dream world trying to take over the real world. A few years into the future doctor Chiba and her team have developed a device that allows them to visit people's dreams. They use the device to try and heal mental patients, but when three prototypes are stolen and people start daydreaming their way into death, it's clear that they have unleashed a technology onto the world without fully understanding the dangers.

screen capture of Paprika

Visually the film is somewhat of a mixed bag. By now the CG looks a bit out of place and it doesn't integrate all that well with the traditional animation. The character designs too are a bit crude, but the animation itself is smart with great eye for detail and there are some pretty crazy and outrageous scenes that do manage to awe. The coloring is spot on and adds plenty of atmosphere. Still, of all four feature films directed by Kon, Papurika is the least visually pleasing.

The soundtrack is something else though. After working together on Sennen Joyu, Susumu Hirasawa is back to grace this film with his peculiar sound. Papurika's main theme is amazing, a typical Hirasawa track that's almost impossible to grasp but intrigues every single time it's used in the film. The rest of the music is equally enigmatic, giving the film a special edge that's unique to the work of Hirasawa. Not every director could get away with it, but with Kon's films we're talking about a perfect marriage.

The voice acting too is top notch, with famed talent like Koichi Yamadera (Togusa) and Akio Otsuka (Batou) (both from Kokaku Kidotai) taking up considerable roles. The lead is voiced by Megumi Hayashibara, another veteran known for her work in Okami Kodomo No Ame To Yuki, Asura, Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. Quality voice talent, unless you go for the English dub which sounds drab and bland.

screen capture of Paprika

Opinions differ, but ultimately I prefer Kon's more realistic output. Papurika has quite a few sci-fi elements and combined with the film's expansive dream world it's all one big fantastical journey. There are few boundaries in Papurika's world and Kon really goes all out, but for me Kon's at his best when he's constantly playing around with the thin line between fantasy and reality. There is some of that near the end of the film, but it just doesn't compare to his earlier work.

That said, Papurika is still an amazing film with plenty of memorable moments and a superb finale. If I sound a little negative that's only because his first two films are hard to surpass. With a superb soundtrack, a great eye for detail and an original concept Papurika is a strong addition to Kon's oeuvre. Even though the film starts showing some small cracks, they never interfere with the film's strong points and won't ruin the fun that is to be had with this one.

Tue, 14 Oct 2014 10:52:08 +0200
<![CDATA[Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong /Fruit Chan]]>
The Midnight After poster

Normally I like to use the original title in my reviews (or at least the transliteration of the original title), but in the case of Fruit Chan's (Hollywood Hong Kong) latest feature Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong Gok Hoi Wong Dai Bou Dik Hung Van it would become just a little too ridiculous, so instead I'll just be sticking with The Midnight After.

I've seen my share of Fruit Chan films through the years and even though I certainly didn't like all of them, his films are always worth a gamble. Even when one of them fails to engage there's always something to like or admire. The Midnight After is a kind of culmination of everything he has done before, yet at the same time it feels like a completely new direction for Chan.

Based on an online novel, The Midnight After is part sci-fi, part mystery. Not a very popular or common combination for a Hong Kong film. The film starts like many of its American counterparts, with a random group of people meeting on a bus, only to be transported to some mysterious, alternate version of Hong Kong a little while later. In their universe, all people have disappeared, apart from a cloaked figure wearing a gas mask who follows them around. It's a typical setup for a horror flick (think Reeker), but that's when things start to get a bit weird.

Chan's characters aren't your usual horror fodder though. They are more aware, quickly citing possible scenarios that could've been used as the film's twist ending (like "we had an accident and we're in a limbo between life and death"). He doesn't stick to one particular genre either, adding post-apocalyptic elements, some lighter comedy bits and some genuine weirdness (the Major Tom scene). And if you think it'll all make sense in the end, you're in for a neat little surprise (or disappointment if you really need closure).

The Midnight After is a film that breaks with many genre traditions, instead focusing on its group of characters and building a boundless film around them. Actors like Simon Yam, Kara Hui and Lam Suet put in a decent effort, while You-Nam Wong fares well as the film's lead. The film isn't 100% serious (even though some scenes are quite nasty to watch) so you'll have to deal with the typical Hong Kong overacting from time to time, but that's only to be expected.

Fruit Chan's latest is a peculiar film. It doesn't stick to one single genre, it doesn't really compare to other films (even though it draws inspiration from many different genres), it doesn't even strife for a homogeneous atmosphere. Instead it's a flamboyant trip that reflects the many aspects of current-day Hong Kong and makes sure to trip up the viewer wherever possible. There are some moments of genius here, at other times the film fails to truly engage. But whatever you'll be thinking when you walk out of it, it's definitely worth a shot as it is one of the more unique films I've seen all year.

Mon, 06 Oct 2014 11:48:16 +0200
<![CDATA[The Lookout/Scott Frank]]>
The Lookout poster

Script writers re-schooling themselves to becomes directors, it's not always an ideal career switch. But some of them manage to beat the odds and come up with a film worth watching. Back in 2007, Scott Frank (screenplay credits for Out of Sight and Minority Report) jumped at the opportunity and directed his first feature film: The Lookout.

Back then I wasn't so much interested in Frank as I was curious to see the new Joseph Gordon-Levitt film. With movies like Brick and Mysterious Skin Gordon-Levitt was making a name for himself and it was refreshing to see a young kid take up these challenging roles. But for some reason or another, I never got around to watching The Lookout and as time passed by (and Gordon-Levitt went on to star in film like 500 Days of Summer and G.I. Joe) I forgot all about this film.

Until last week that is, when it suddenly popped up again. A little hesitant (7 years is quite a long time) I sat down to see if I missed out on something back then. And sure enough, Frank's first is a more than adequate film that hooked me from start to finish. It may be a bit slow and a little too understated to conform to mainstream tastes, but it provides 100 minutes of solid drama and intrigue.

Gordon-Levitt (Chris) stars as a once successful kid, brought down by a car accident he caused back in high school. Suffering from frontal lobe syndrome (Dirty Mind is a good recommendation if you want a lighter take on the subject), he tries to pick up the pieces of his life , but moving on is proving a lot harder than expected. Until he meets up with Gary, a peculiar guy who offers Chris an easy way out.

The Lookout is one of those films that does everything well. There's really not a single point of critique I can give, apart from the fact that it doesn't truly excel either. The acting is solid, the pacing deliberate, the atmosphere moody. There's enough intrigue and it's far from predictable, but in the end it never truly moved or amazed me. In other words, perfect filler for those moments when you don't have anything special to watch.

Wed, 01 Oct 2014 11:04:13 +0200
<![CDATA[Ying Xiong/Yimou Zhang]]>

Once the future of martial arts cinema, now a classic of the genre that is one of the must see movies for people getting into martial arts cinema. Who would've thought that Yimou Zhang (The Flowers of War), master of the Chinese rural drama, would be the one to make such a big difference in a genre that wasn't really his own on his very first attempt. Yet that's exactly what happened when Ying Xiong (Hero) was released.

screen capture of Hero

Sure enough, go back two years from Ying Xiong's release and you run into Ang Lee's Wo Hu Cang Long, a film that did much of the ground work for the resurrection of the martial arts genre. But Lee's film cannot stand up to Ying Xiong, not in a hundred million years. I know that's just an opinion, but looking at the ones that would follow in Ying Xiong's footsteps (Ye Yan, Shen Hua, Wu Ji, ...) I feel confident that Yimou's film is what inspired other directors' attempts to make a similar film.

Ying Xiong is nothing like the 40 years of Hong Kong cinema that came before. The 70s and early 80s were all about long intros, fighting techniques named after animals and one kick-ass final fight sequence, the 90s martial arts films were about crazy camera work, blue-lit smoky nights and dazzling action scenes. Ying Xiong instead focuses on the beauty, the finesse and ballet-like qualities of the martial arts. It takes away some of the action edge, but substitutes it with classy and poetic choreography.

The story is maybe a little underdeveloped, though several Rashomon twists do add some nice intrigue to the whole. Basically we get several versions of the same basic plot line that slowly converge on the truth with each iteration. It's a rather simple tale about an assassination attempt on king Qin (one of the many rulers trying to unite China), but the path of Nameless and his fellow assassins is everything but straightforward.

screen capture of Hero

Ying Xiong is an extremely visual film. Each story iteration has its own primary color (ranging from red to blue, white and green) that literally dominates the screen during the entire segment. The attention to detail is stupefying, the man responsible for this enormous accomplishment is Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-Wai's old partner in crime). Every aspect of the visuals is stunning, only the CG has lost some of its power over the years. But those technical faults are easily compensated by Doyle's impeccable eye for beauty. To this day it remains one of the most consistently beautiful film's I've ever seen.

The soundtrack, as is often the case with these kind of large-scale martial arts films, is less adventurous. Inspired by traditional Chinese music, the soundtrack is filled with grandeur and epic-sounding pieces. The music does fit the scenes and I can't say it detracted from the experience, but it never becomes more than proper background noise and you'll be hard-pressed to remember anything specific afterwards.

Even though I keep remembering Ying Xiong as a Yimou Zhang /Jet Li collaboration, there's also an amazing cast to fill the supporting roles. Apart from Li (who stars as Nameless), the all-star cast includes names like Ziyi Zhang, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Donnie Yen. That's enough talent put together to make three of four different martial arts epics. It's no surprise then that the acting is ample and more than meets the required level to push the story forward.

screen capture of Hero

The only downside of Ying Xiong is that it never truly becomes a single fluid experience. It's a film made up of very memorable scenes (the first fight with Donnie Yen, the autumn forest scene, the green throne fight, ...) but they are only loosely connected. The different visual identities don't help of course, but it's mainly an issue with plot structure that divides the film in several separate sequences. It's only a minor quibble and to be honest, with this much beauty on screen it's very hard to care, but it is something I do notice every time I watch the film.

Even though it was one of the first, Ying Xiong remains one of the best epic wire-fu films ever produced. With an all-star cast, a terrific cinematographer, a legendary director and some of the most spectacular fight scenes ever choreographed this film delivers more than you could reasonably expect from a martial arts film. Unless you believe plot is a primary driver of good martial arts cinema, you can't really go wrong with this one.

Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:20:50 +0200
<![CDATA[Zukan ni Nottenai Mushi/Satoshi Miki]]>

Keeping up to date with Asian directors isn't always as easy as it should be. Quite often a film gets released without a proper subtitles selection and a hole pops up in the director's oeuvre. You forget about the film and that's that. From time to time though, a chance pops up to fill those holes. Enter Zukan ni Nottenai Mushi (The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia), one of the last remaining Satoshi Miki films on my menu.

screen capture of The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia

Satoshi Miki (Instant Numa, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, Adrift in Tokyo) is a personal favorite. He hasn't made any life-changing masterpieces yet, but the quality of his output is frighteningly consistent. I've liked every single one of his films so far, which means that I had quite some expectations when I sat down to watch Zukan ni Nottenai Mushi. Of course Miki didn't disappoint, if you're looking for a goofy yet understated comedy and you can handle a healthy dose of Japanese weirdness, this film comes warmly recommended.

The setup of the film is pretty simple and little more than a hook for the comedy bits to latch onto. A freelance editor (Na) is sent on a quest to write an article on Deathfix, a legendary drug that is rumoured to let you slip into the realm of the death, only to kick you out again a couple of minutes later. The only lead Na has is Mashima's trail, another reporter that went on the same quest but never returned. Soon enough Na realizes he's not the only one looking for the drug.

Along the way Na picks up a couple of friends, until finally they've become a troupe of five. There isn't too much progression storywise, it's basically a road trip where every new character they meet is an opportunity for a little weirdness and fun, but that doesn't mean the film doesn't work up to a proper finale. In between the cracks, Miki smuggles in enough warmth and humanity and over time that pays off rather well.

screen capture of The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia

Miki's films aren't visual masterpieces, but they definitely have aesthetic value that complements its functional qualities. Some of the effects may be cheap-looking (though you could argue that they do enhance the comedy), but apart from that there are some genuinely beautiful shots, good to great lighting and some pretty cool camera work. The styling is meticulous, from interiors to wardrobe and it all gels together to become a visually attractive film.

The soundtrack is mostly functional. I even had to check back to see if I had maybe missed some tracks along the way. There are some very typical choices (night club = jazzy) complemented by mostly rock-based music. It's a very anonymous selection of tracks that adds little to nothing to the film, then again for a comedy it isn't that much of a problem. Still, a soundtrack can also be used for comedy purposes, so in that way it remains a missed opportunity.

The cast is something else though. Yusuke Iseya is a very solid lead, but the supporting actors are really something else. Suzuki Matsuo is amazing as always (and he has a sizeable part), Rinko Kikuchi makes a very notable appearance and Ryo Iwamatsu does a splendid job playing the local Yakuza crook. Then there are superb cameos of Yutaka Matsushige, Sion Sono (the very one) and Yoshiyuki Morishita. There are no weak links here, everyone is clearly in on the joke and even the smallest role adds to the overall fun of the film.

screen capture of The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia

Even though Zukan ni Nottenai Mushi works up to a somewhat coherent conclusion, the story itself makes very little sense, often deliberately so. Miki is making a comedy and isn't going to let something as trivial as plot stand in the way of a good joke. So as Na gets closer to finding out the truth about the Deathfix drug, people disappear and reappear whenever needed, helping the story forward, but almost never in the way that you suspected.

Miki has a very peculiar sense of humor. The jokes can be pretty absurd and out there, but the delivery is always deadpan. Because of this, there's an element of surprise that keeps you on your toes. If you don't appreciate it there's little sense in watching his films, as everything is built around it, but if you don't mind a little absurdity mixed with a deadpan delivery than Miki's films are comedy gold. Zukan ni Nottenai Mushi is no different and a very worthy addition to Miki's oeuvre. Not that I expected anything else.

Tue, 16 Sep 2014 12:31:58 +0200
<![CDATA[Kim Ki-duk/x20]]>
Kim Ki-duk

Kim Ki-duk is the enfant terrible of South-Korean (arthouse) cinema. Even though South-Korean cinema is known to push the boundaries (often of good taste, but that's my personal opinion), Ki-duk is always struggling to get his films through the censors. And no matter how well-respected he may be internationally, even after 20+ films he still needs to work real hard to get the necessary funds for a new film.

Ki-duk started off mid 90s. His earliest films were diamonds in the rough, almost completely void of stylistic qualities and relying solemnly on unique characters and rugged settings. Ki-duk's main characters are always enigmatic, hard to predict and ultimately self-destructive, but they help to set his films apart from the rest. Ag-o (Crocodile), Yasaeng Dongmul Bohoguyeog (Wild Animals), Paran Daemun (Birdcage Inn) and Shilje Sanghwang (Real Fiction) are all worth watching, but they are clearly the works of someone still figuring out his place.

Seom (The Isle) marks the start of Ki-duk's international conquest. It's also the first film in his oeuvre with clear poetic qualities. The crazy characters are still present, there are still plenty of scenes that can be described as twisted and/or shocking, but there's a softer side that makes for a unique tension. In the following years Ki-duk would hone his skills with films like Suchwiin Bulmyeong (Address Unknown), Nabbeun Namja (Bad Guy) and Hae Anseon (Coast Guard), all working up to his first big "hit".

2003 saw the release of Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Gyeoul Geurigo Bom (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring), one of Ki-duk's most revered films. It's the start of a golden period for Ki-duk, including releases of Bin-jip (3-Iron), Samaria (Samaritan Girl) and Hwal (The Bow), all personal favorites that fine-tuned Ki-duk's trademark style. These aren't quite my all-time favorite Ki-duk films, but the quality is consistently high nonetheless.

Shi Gan was a small setback. While the plot was interesting and challenging, there was a remarkable amount of dialogue and the characters just didn't gel. Luckily he quickly scrambled back to his feet and released Soom (Breath) and Bi-mong (Dream), my two favorite Ki-duk films. Things weren't all well though. A near-fatal accident on the set of Bi-mong led to a dire and dark period in Ki-duk's life.

He suffered a depression and retreated to live a secluded life. How do we know? Well, he documented the whole thing in Arirang, a (semi-staged?) documentary by Ki-duk, about Ki-duk, shot as he was recovering from his depression. A strange piece of film that offers a rare view in the director's personal life. In combination with Arirang there's also Amen, a film that wasn't intended for public display but ultimately found its way to the masses. An interesting project, if only because it was meant as a stepping stone back into the world of commercial cinema.

Ki-duk recovered but some darkness clearly remained. Pieta and Moi-bi-woo-seu (Moebius) see the director return to form, but there's a harsher, meaner undercurrent compared to his more popular films. They're every bit as good though, as long as you can handle Ki-duk's darker side. Finally there's Ki-duk's entry in the Venice 70 anthology, a project centered around the future of cinema. Sadly it's a piece of throwaway garbage that has little or nothing to do with with the theme of the anthology (to be fair, many other shorts had the same problem, the project failed in its entirety).

Kim Ki-duk is a unique director, a man with typical traits (mysterious, impenetrable characters, minimal dialogue, harsh violence covered by a layer of poetic beauty, rich symbolism) who struggled with his own ups and down and wasn't afraid to involve his audience to pull himself back together. It's probably best to start with one of his softer films (Bin-jip, Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Gyeoul Geurigo Bom ) and start from there, but apart from his entry in Venice 70 Ki-duk hasn't made a bad film yet.

Best film: Soom (Breath) (4.5*)
Worst film: Venice 70: Future Reloaded (1.0*)
Reviewed film(s): Moi-bi-woo-seu, Bin-jip, Hwal, Soom, Pieta, Bi-mong
Average rating: 3.80 (out of 5)

Thu, 11 Sep 2014 11:35:10 +0200
<![CDATA[september 2014 updates/more movies and small design tweaks]]>

The past few weeks I've been tinkering with my design again. The most obvious change is the switch from a black site menu bar to a white one. It's the first time in the 7+ years I'm running this site that I've opted for a dark on light design for my site menu. The reason is mostly due to a growing irritation with the scrolling center part of the site. With a fixed left/right column and only the middle part scrolling, the effect became a little too claustrophobic, hopefully that's a bit better now. I've also removed the pictures from the article list on the blog section, making the page quicker to load and less cluttered.

The movie section has undergone some small updates too. Unreviewed films are now "censored", making it just a tad more exciting to complete the list. I've also added 10 new films, so the list has now grown to 200 movies in total. A nice round number that will take me well into November/December to complete. With 6 more films to review, it might even be the final update to the list this year. Finally some small changes were made to the informative part of each film, making for a tighter design.

Small changes, but hopefully they make the site a bit lighter and less cluttered. The updated movie list is at its usual spot, so check it out!

Wed, 10 Sep 2014 11:54:20 +0200
<![CDATA[Soseiji/Shinya Tsukamoto]]>

Shinya Tsukamoto is one of my all-time favorite directors. Tetsuo was a landmark in my exploration of film and opened a door a different kind of cinema. And apart from maybe Yokai Hanta - Hiruko (his first studio project) Tsukamoto hasn't made a bad film yet. Soseiji (Gemini) has always been a rather odd film in Tsukamoto's oeuvre though, so I was looking forward to see out how it would stand up to the test of time.

screen capture of Gemini

Tsukamoto (Haze, Nightmare Detective 2, Kotoko) is known for doing just about everything himself, including screenplay and story. Soseiji marks one of the few times he worked with existing material. Soseiji is based upon a short story by famed Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo, a match made in heaven. Rampo's dark and twisted tales form an ideal basis for Tsukamoto's vibrant and energetic style. With Soseiji Tsukamoto created the perfect middle ground for the two styles to merge and grow into something completely unique.

Soseiji isn't a full-blown, manic and out of control Tsukamoto flick, instead he starts from an extremely controlled and distinguished environment. The film follows Yukio, a successful doctor (clearly upper class) respected by his fellow citizens. The only dark spot on his image is his relationship with Rin, a women he rescued after her house burned down and who suffers from memory loss. His parents distrust Rin, but Yukio is madly in love with her and won't budge on their relationship.

Life in the slums stands in heavy contrast with Yukio's upper class life. The slums are a rotten neighborhood where criminals run amok and disease breeds freely. When a woman with the plague finds her way to Yukio's doctor's practice, she brings an unexpected visitor with her. The two worlds start to mingle and in no time Yukio sees his world collapsing from under his feet. It's the start of a strange love triangle that quickly takes on grotesque forms.

screen capture of Gemini

Visually Soseiji consists of two separate styles that slowly converge. Yokio's world is rigid and cold. Monochrome colors and static camera work capture the atmosphere perfectly. In contrast, the world of the slums is lively and colorful, brought to life with Tsukamoto's trademark visual style. The characters' styling also matches this divide in worlds, with Yokio and his parents looking very pristine and cultured, while the slum people look pleasantly outlandish. A stark visual contrast that slowly disappears as the story progresses.

The soundtrack sticks to a very similar split in styles. Chu Ishikawa (Tsukamoto's regular composer) is present again and delivers what may be one of his best scores. The more subtle, tepid tracks that go with Yukio's world are good but not that remarkable, but the excessive, outspoken song introducing the slum world is simply epic. While different in style and atmosphere, it may be best compared to the famous opening song of Kokaku Kidotai, equally recognizable and a full-scale napalm bomb of atmosphere. Music like this helps to define a film.

The acting is a bit overstated, typical for Tsukamoto's "Kaiju Theater" style of directing, but it works well. Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) and Rin (Ryo) act very stiff and well-behaved, while the slum people are more lively and energetic. There's a great secondary cast, with interesting cameos of Tadanobu Asano (Vital), Tomorowo Taguchi (Tokyo Ken, Tetsuo: Bullet Man) and Renji Ishibashi, but the weight of the film clearly rests on the shoulders of Ryo and Motoki.

screen capture of Gemini

Even though it's listed as a horror film and Rampo's material is morbid and dark enough to qualify, don't expect anything in the way of modern horror though. Instead Soseiji is a darker, more psychological tale of terror that draws its strength from style, atmosphere and its twisted premise. Around halfway through, when both worlds finally start to blend together, the film gets up to full steam and doesn't let go until the very last frame. It may not be Tsukamoto at his most intense, but that doesn't mean it isn't any bit as good.

Soseiji could be considered a good entry-level Tsukamoto since his typical style isn't as demanding as in his other films. On the other hand, liking Soseiji doesn't exactly guarantee liking the rest of Tsukamoto's oeuvre. Whatever the case, Soseiji a stylish, dark and twisted mix of Rampo and Tsukamoto elements, complementing each other perfectly. It's a film that still stands proud and hasn't lost any of its appeal due to Tsukamoto's excellent direction.

Tue, 09 Sep 2014 11:50:52 +0200
<![CDATA[The Living and the Dead/Simon Rumley]]>

If you think Simon Rumley's The Living and the Dead is just another zombie flick, think again. The title may be more than a little deceptive, but the film has nothing to do with the armies of undead that often roam similarly titled horror films. Instead we get a grim and twisted human drama that spins completely out of control. The result is a dark and disturbing film that is certain to surprise those expecting a run of the mill genre flick.

screen capture of The Living and the Dead

Work hard, persevere and you'll earn yourself a break. That's what Simon Rumley must have thought. His first few films were ignored by just about everyone, but he kept going and in 2006 he hit it (relatively) big. The Living and the Dead got a decent enough international release and plenty of coverage from online genre communities. And deservedly so. Sadly Rumley slid back into obscurity after this film, but at least he got his name out there.

While watching The Living and the Dead some of Rumley's influences are instantly recognizable. There's a hefty dose of Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream in here, Shinya Tsukamoto's oeuvre is also right around the corner. But Rumley's film is no mere copy of his predecessors, instead it uses similar stylistic element to create a very bold atmosphere of its own. It cannot quite compete, but at least it provides a very interesting alternative.

Lord Donald Brockleban's estate is in decline, his wife is bed-ridden and his son James suffers from a mental illness. In order to raise some money he has to sell the estate, but he needs to travel to London to close the deal. With no nurse immediately available, Bruckleban has no other choice to leave the care of the house and his wife into the hands of James until the nurse arrives. Even though James is eager to prove himself, it doesn't take long before the pressure of caring for his sick mom gets the better of him.

screen capture of The Living and the Dead

Visually it's somewhat of a mixed bag. While the setting is pretty amazing, it doesn't feel like Rumley made the most of the withered estate. He captures the emptiness and ugliness of the place rather well, but he fails to find beauty in the his dreary surroundings. He does make up with superb editing and some marvellous fast forward sequences though. When James is manically racing through the castle, the film is at its best.

The soundtrack plays an important part in this too. While its not completely unseen for a director to speed up the visuals, this is one of the only times I've heard it being done to the soundtrack. Electronic tracks are sped up together with the visuals to create a creepy, unsettling atmosphere that builds up to a strong, manic climax. The music during the quieter parts is equally beautiful and effective, but somewhat less noticeable.

Whether you'll be able to stomach the film hinges on Leo Bill's performance. I probably couldn't stand being in a room with his character for more than 5 minutes, but Bill does a tremendous job portraying James. He's grating, annoying and often terrifying, yet also tragic and pitiful. It's one of the most effective portrayals of a mental patient I've ever seen on film, though I can't vouch for the realism of his character. The rest of the cast is good too, with a daring role for Kate Fahy as James' mother standing out, but they're clearly all secondary to Bill's performance.

screen capture of The Living and the Dead

Rumley steadily builds up to a climax around halfway through the film. It's a gutsy move because the aftermath takes up the remainder of the film and without a true finale the ending may be a little disappointing to people expecting a more traditional plot structure, then again The Living and the Dead isn't very traditional to begin with. The drama that is introduced in the second part is solid and makes for a fine ending, though it never reaches the heights of the middle part.

Leo Bill's outstanding performance, the feverish middle part with its manic editing and sped-up soundtrack, and the barren, grim atmosphere all add up to the unique and dark experience that lifts the film far above its budgetary limitations. The Living and the Dead is somewhat of an acquired taste, but people with a soft spot for Tsukamoto or Aronofsky's older work should probably give this a go. It's not all that hard to find, so there really isn't any excuse not to watch this one.

Tue, 02 Sep 2014 12:32:15 +0200