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[Shojo/Yukiko Mishima]]>

I knew next to nothing about Yukiko Mishima's Shojo [Night's Tightrope] when I started the film, apart from the fact that when Japan does coming of age with schoolgirls, things could end up pretty grim. And that's exactly what Shojo delivers. A dark, mysterious and sullen mix of drama and mystery that is both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. While Mishima has been active for some time already, this is the kind of calling card that could put her on the map once and for all.

screen capture of Shojo

The film is an adaptation of Kanae Minato's same-titled novel. Minato is probably best known for producing the source material for Kokuhaku, a film that went on to introduce Tatsuya Nakashima to a broader global audience. In theory Shojo could do the same for Mishima, though I'm afraid her adaptation is still a little too Japanese for international audiences. Those who have a soft spot for Japanese cinema though should feel right at home here.

Shojo is a drama presented as a mystery. It has all the typical elements of an edgy Japanese high school drama, with bullying teens, sexual harassment and suicidal characters, but the presentation is a lot stranger and more mysterious than you'd suspect based on the core material. Some people might feel a little cheated, as the plot doesn't immediately support the mystery, but it makes for a very nice atmosphere that keeps you on your toes from the very start of the film, while the drama unfolds slowly in the background.

The film follows two best friends, Yuki and Atsuko, who are slowly starting to drift apart. Both are dealing with profound issues in their own lives and their friendship inevitably suffers. There's a boy involved of course, but ultimately he doesn't represent the worst of their troubles. He does however turn out to be the proverbial drop in the bucket. Once inseparable, Yuki and Atsuko accept different vacation jobs and find themselves further apart than ever. Little do they know their lives are about to converge once again.

screen capture of Shojo

Stylistically Shojo is impeccable. On a visual level, it blends some trademark elements of Japanese drama (bike rides shot from the side, long tracking shots of people running) with darker influences coming from the mystery side of things. The camera work is beautiful, the color toning impressive and the framing detailed. There's always something interesting happening in the shots and there are quite a few images that linger. It's not quite up there with Nakashima's films, but it does come pretty close.

The soundtrack is a tad more conventional, though again it offers a pleasant mix of more traditional drama music with moodier, more mysterious tracks. That in itself is quite a feat. It's not a very demanding score and, save for a few moments, it never really grabs you. Then again, it's always appropriate and it does its fair share to build up the atmosphere. While there is definitely room for improvement, the score works and does nothing to raise any serious complaints.

There aren't too many familiar faces around, unless you happen to be quite versed in the world of Japanese TV series. Most of the actors have been around for a while, but not so much in feature films. They all do a very commendable job though, with Tsubasa Honda (Yuki) claiming the most attention. She has a certain coldness that works wonders for her character, at the same time making sure Yuki never transforms into a total freak. Mizuki Yamamoto is notable as the somewhat more timid Atsuko, the secondary cast is also up to par.

screen capture of Shojo

Even though the ending does lean a bit more to the dramatic side, the mystery never truly leaves the film. The post-climax scene even adds an extra dosage of unease. It's a pretty peculiar feeling that I can't really remember experiencing before. When all is said and done, Shojo is very much a drama film, but the overall atmosphere and the lingering impression is that of a darker mystery. Mishima deserves a lot of credit for keeping these two stretches balanced, though it's a bit difficult to predict how people unfamiliar with Japanese cinema might react to it.

I do think Shojo is a film that could please a broader audience, but it's pretty obvious that it's not going to get that chance. While the link with Kokuhaku might pull in some extra people, ultimately Shojo is a bit too Japanese for distributors to take the risk. It is a very accomplished film though, with impeccable styling, solid acting and a unique balance of drama and mystery. For those who feel a little adventurous, it's an easy recommend. I'm not sure if I should look up Mishima's earlier films as they do look pretty different, but I am keeping an eye on her next move.

Thu, 27 Apr 2017 09:46:35 +0000
<![CDATA[Yoshihiro Nakamura/x10]]>
Yoshihiro Nakamura

I guess Yoshihiro Nakamura is a somewhat atypical Japanese director. Most directors over there are either very focused on the festival market or aim squarely at local audiences. Nakamura falls somewhere in between both stretches. He's had a couple of international near-breakthroughs in his career, but he never quite managed to become a household festival name in the West. And when the occasional Nakamura film does finds its way into the hands of Western critics, it's met with warm feedback, though it never quite tends to stick.

The thing with Nakamura is that he is one of those directors who by and large goes with the flow. When he started in the early 00's he tried to make a name for himself directing horror films, a few years later he switched to comedy/dramady and nowadays he's all into police thrillers. He's not very bad at what he does, most of his films have a clear base quality, but he never really excels at anything and he never quite manages to put a personal touch on the projects he works on. This makes it difficult to fully embrace his work.

If you were into Asian suspense cinema some 15 years ago, chances are you've come across Suiyô Puremia: Sekai Saikyô J Horâ SP Nihon no Kowai Yoru [Dark Tales of Japan] and Busu [The Booth], two films that enjoyed minor successes in the West. More hardcore fans probably saw Watashi no Akachan [Lizard Baby] and @beibimeru [@babymail] too, though these two hardly made a dent here. They're all decent enough examples of Asian suspense, with Busu being the best of the bunch, but they're not what you call flagship material.

After the interest in Asian horror had died off, Nakamura switched to drama (often served with a slice of wry comedy). Ahiru to Kamo no Koinrokka [The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker], Fisshu Sutori [Fish Story] and Goruden Suranba [Golden Slumber] are all more than decent films, a tad long maybe but definitely worth seeking out. Just don't expect too much from them, because even though they're good films, they all lack something unique that sets them apart.

In the meantime Nakamura also started to release comedies aimed at the local market. Chonmage Purin [A Boy and His Samurai] and Eiga Kaibutsukun [Kaibutsu-kun The Movie] are two films you'd do well to avoid, Potechi and Minasan, Sayonara [See You Tomorrow are notably better, with both films clearly benefitting from Gaku Hamada's comedic talent. Pure comedy isn't Nakamura's strong point if you ask me, but opinions seem to differ so you might want to give the latter two a chance.

A few years ago Nakamura tried his hand on some thriller material, with Shirayuki Hime Satsujin Jiken [The Snow White Murder Case] and Yokokuhan [Prophecy] as a result. Again, they're not bad films, but they're not very memorable either. Much like Nakamura's other work, it ends up above-average filler, good for when you're short on potential masterpieces, but never quite a masterpiece itself.

You could say Nakamura is a good choice if you want to ease people into watching Japanese films, as his work isn't too weird, unique or experimental. Then again I'm not sure if people are going to feel the need to further explore Japanese cinema after seeing one of his features. If anything, it's pretty nice filler, just stay away from his films aimed at the local market, unless your OCD compels you to complete Nakamura's entire oeuvre.

Best film: Busu [The Booth] (3.5*)
Worst film: Eiga Kaibutsukun [Kaibutsu-kun The Movie] (1.5*)
Average rating: 2.95 (out of 5)

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 09:45:37 +0000
<![CDATA[Disutorakushon Beibizu/Tetsuya Mariko]]>

When Third Window Films announced Tetsuya Mariko's Disutorakushon Beibizu [Destruction Babies], it came with an ominous warning. The poster reads "The most extreme 108 minutes in Japanese cinema history", a rather audacious claim. Make of that what you will, the point is that Mariko's newborn is a worthy addition to Japan's infamous niche of nihilistic cinema and serves a dark, often impenetrable blow to the gut. You better come prepared when watching this one.

screen capture of Disutorakushon Beibizu

Japan has a fruitful history of young directors shaking the world with a cold slice of nihilism. Almost 20 years ago Toshiaki Toyoda burst onto the scene with Poruno Suta, a violent and unrelenting drama. Some 10 years ago Ryo Nakashima repeated that very feat with Oretachi no Sekai. The difference with Disutorakushon Beibizu is that this isn't Mariko's first feature, but that's little more than a technicality compared to the things these films share amongst each other.

Central to the story is a young boy flung out of control, but if you're hoping to get some answers you're not going to find them here. Disutorakushon Beibizu is a film that shows, not so much explains. That could be a tough pill to swallow, as you won't get much context for his violent behavior and seeing someone beaten to a pulp for the 10th time can be kind of numbing (ask anyone who has seen Takashi Miike's Izo), but that's half the appeal of a film like this.

Taira and Shota are two abandoned brothers, shacking up above a small boat repair show. When Taira finally turns 18, he snaps and goes on a violent rampage. Disappearing overnight, he wanders the streets and picks fights with whoever he runs into. No guns, no knives, just his bare fists and an unstoppable drive. But not everyone is appalled by his actions, some people are smitten by his fearless attitude. Yuya is such a kid and after following Taira around for a while, he decides they should join forces and raise hell together.

screen capture of Disutorakushon Beibizu

Visually Disutorakushon Beibizu is a solid film, though it lacks stand-out moments. The camera work meets expectations, with some nice overview shots throughout and more up-close material during the fights, but it's nothing you haven't seen before. It's probably a tad more restrained than you might expect from a film like this, but I assume that's Mariko's experience taking over. It's not quite the maverick style of film making typical for younger directors, but it's more than visceral enough to get the job done.

The music is on par with the visuals, though pushing the envelope just a little harder. The soundtrack consists mostly of Japanese rock songs, but intertwined with jazz-like influences, going for atypical, nervous rhythms that further underline the unease of the subject matter. It's a pretty good soundtrack, nothing I'd listen to outside of the film, but it does give Disutorakushon Beibizu some extra grit and it furthers cements the uncomfortable atmosphere that drives the experience.

As for the actors, they do a pretty spectacular job. Yuya Yagira (Dare mo Shiranai) takes on the role of Taira and almost effortlessly embodies one of the most enigmatic and charismatic character I've come across in recent memory. Taira is almost impossible to read, but his sly grin, misplaced sense of amusement and disturbingly haphazard attitude make for a truly interesting character. Masaki Suda and Nana Komatsu are equally charismatic, though their motivations are at least somewhat more understandable. It's a stellar cast, topped off by a small but welcome Denden cameo.

screen capture of Disutorakushon Beibizu

The very first scene shows Taira snapping, the very last scene shows nothing much has changed in between. If you're looking for a character that evolves or grows you're not going to find it in Taira. He does influence the people around him, although indirectly. He never coerces people into helping him, never reaches out to them. They just flock to him in a desperate attempt to deal with their own problems. It's a unique setup that probably goes against several formal scriptwriting rules, but it wouldn't be the first time that makes for great cinema.

Disutorakushon Beibizu is a great film. It walks a fine line between accomplished cinema and maverick nihilism and succeeds with deceptive ease. It may not be the most extreme Japanese film you've ever come across (though it may be the most extreme 108-minute one, if you want to be overly semantic about it), but it packs a veritable punch and leaves you gasping for air. It's clearly not for everyone, the main character might be a bit too mysterious and the constant physical onslaught doesn't make for an easy watch, but I for one am hoping to see more of Mariko's work in the near future.

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 10:05:58 +0000
<![CDATA[Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru/Shoji Kawamori]]>

It's been years since I last watched Shoji Kawamori's Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru [Spring & Chaos]. It's one of those films that, over time, almost completely erased itself from my memory. I only remembered liking it a lot, but I had completely forgotten why or what exactly made it stand out. Needless to say, I lowered my expectations before I sat down to watch it again, but as it turned out that was quite unnecessary. The film is pretty spectacular still and a must for fans of alternative animation.

screen capture of Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru

Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru is an ode to the life of Kenji Miyazawa. Miyazama is one of those post-mortem legends, a talented artist who spent his life living in relative anonymity, only to become one of Japan's most treasured artists after passing. Nowadays he's celebrated as one of the ultimate poets and children's authors around and quite a few of his stories have been adapted into films, Ginga-tetsudo no Yoru [Night On the Galactic Railroad] probably being the most internationally recognized one.

Even though Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru is a biography at heart, Miyazawa (and the people around him) are pictured as cat/animal-like humans. It's a particularity that became one of Miyazawa's trademark elements and serves as a near-certain indication that you're reading or watching something that originated from Miyazawa's mind. Somewhat ironically though, the most famous cat-people anime (namely Ghibli's Neko no Ongaeshi) is the exception to this rule.

Don't be fooled by the film's biography classification. Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru does indeed walk through the life of Miyazawa, but ultimately Kawamori is way more interested in Miyazawa's outlook on life rather than recounting some cold, historical facts. The focus lies on Miyazawa's wandering mind, explored through visions and dream-like sequences. In between some factual data connect all the dots, but don't expect a historical study pre-occupied with listing all the important dates and events in Miyazawa's life, because this film simply doesn't care.

screen capture of Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru

Visually there are two sides to the film. At times the animation and art style are lush, experimental and overwhelming, but Kawamori's overreliance on shoddy CG for certain scenes is somewhat of an eyesore. Now, there are mitigating circumstances. Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru isn't a full-scale cinematic feature film, instead it was commissioned as a 1 hour TV special. That put some serious constraints on the scope and budget of the film and seeing it in that light, Kawamori's work is nothing less than impressive. On the other hand, a more discreet use of CG wouldn't have hurt the budget. Back in '96 it was passable, 20 years later not so much. That said, the film still has plenty to offer on a visual level, it's just not all that consistent.

The soundtrack is pretty cool, with classic European and classic Japanese music alternating between scenes. It may come off a little highbrow at times, but it does fit the poetic/experimental nature of the film and the music is used in such a way that it truly becomes an integral part of the film. Kawamori didn't just hack some famous music pieces underneath each scene, instead the music and visuals feed off each other. As for the dub, an infamous English dub is available for those who really can't get through 55 minutes of Japanese dialogue, but for a film so soaked in Japanese culture it's a little awkward, even when ignoring the actual quality of the dub. The Japanese dub is gentle and warm and to hear the poems in their original incarnation is a definite plus.

screen capture of Ihatobu Genso, Kenji no Haru

The start of Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru is a little rough, clinging too tightly to the standards set by other Miyazawa adaptations. But once things get a bit more poetic and freeform, the film flourishes and the closer it gets to its ending, the weirder it becomes. That's fine if you don't mind a slice of experimental cinema, but if you're hoping to see a more traditional biography then Kawamori's film could end up being a bit of a disappointment. I for one applaud Kawamori's bravery to try something different.

For a TV project, Ihatobu Genso, Kenjji no Haru is far better and way more experimental than it is allowed to be. The budgetary limitations are starting to weigh on the visual presentation, but look past the shady CG and there is still enough visual and atmospheric splendour to please the most cynical computer graphics hater. Kawamori presents a worthy and classy tribute to the genius of Miyazawa, a film that may not be your average biography, but is much better because of it.

Tue, 18 Apr 2017 10:05:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Michael Arias - Harmony/An Interview]]>

Michael Arias made a name for himself when he joined Studio 4°C to direct Tekkonkinkreet, one of the landmark animtion features of the 00s. Ignoring the 1 minute short he made for Ani*Kuri15, he returned to the world of anime in 2015 to co-direct Harmony with Takashi Nakamura. The film is an adaptation of a Project Itoh novel and marks a welcome return to a more conceptual and cerebral style of anime. I was lucky enough to ask Arias some questions about his latest film, here's what he had to say:

Michael Arias on Harmony

Niels Matthijs: My guess is you're probably tired of telling people what it's like to work as a foreigner in Japan, so instead let me ask you what it's like to work at Studio 4°C. Many Western fans are familiar with studios like Ghibli, Gainax or Production I.G, but Studio 4°C is a clear outlier. Does it also feel different working there?

Michael Arias: It’s ironic that I’ve become associated with the 4°C brand, despite having remained freelance all these years. But I’ve done a bit of work at other animation studios, and though each studio has its unique workflow and institutional knowledge, there’s a great deal of overlap as well. So, if audiences perceive a “house style”, I think that’s more likely due to the chemistry of the returning cast of artists that are employed by each studio, than a deliberate effort to create a consistent look and feel. As far as what makes 4°C unique, that’s tough to answer, but I will say that the period between 2000-2007 was a pretty great time to be at the studio (and it felt that way then too). The Animatrix, Mind Game and Tekkonkinkreet and many smaller projects were all happening and shared a great deal of creative DNA. Koji Morimoto was still at 4°C and was a very inspiring figure (well, he continues to inspire, but he’s no longer at 4°C). I wish I could say that the studio didn’t suffer when he left, but at least some of us missed his presence. His output may have been sparse, but his contribution on a spiritual and artistic level can’t be overstated. Hard to say, but the studio seemed quite different by the time I started Harmony. (Then again, I was very different too.)

You co-directed Harmony with Takashi Nakamura [Robot Carnival, A Tree of Palme], another Studio 4°C regular. How did you guys team up and how did you divide the work?

I’ve always been a great admirer of Nakamura’s work. Shinji Kimura introduced us and at our first meeting I actually had him sign a DVD of Tree of Palme, which I love. Harmony had a fairly tight schedule and limited budget to begin with and several months into preproduction, we were still lacking a finished script and character designs. So by the time Nakamura was invited to co-direct, we were quite behind schedule and didn’t really have the luxury of planning how to divide our tasks. It was kind of a shotgun marriage, to be honest. But I still think he’s a genius.

I must admit that I hadn't heard of Project Itoh before. I read up on him afterwards and it seems it's my mistake for missing out. Where you already familiar with his work or where you assigned to this film?

Before being approached by the Fuji Television folks producing the three Project Itoh anime films, I had spent a year trying to get a live-action adaptation of Harmony off the ground. So, yes, I was very familiar with Itoh.

At first I thought Itoh referred to Kazunori Itoh, not in the least because Kazunori Itoh is also known for his conceptually strong writing. Those very conceptually expansive stories have been missing from anime features for a while now, can we expect a revival or is this just a one-off?

I have no idea! The three adaptations of Itoh works are certainly all very conceptually expansive, as you say. I like this kind of material very much.

Sadly Mr Itoh passed away a couple of years ago. Was it difficult to adapt his work without having the author of the source material around. You did a similar thing with Tekkonkinkreet, but there you had the support of Taiyo Matsumoto.

Having Taiyo on my side when I was making Tekkonkinkreet was definitely great encouragement. And I had a million things I would have liked to discuss with Itoh, had he been with us. On the other hand, movies and novels are such different vehicles for ideas that, with any adaptation, you kind of have to be comfortable acknowledging that your movie is just one possible interpretation, and that you are diluting the original with your own DNA and hoping to synthesize something interesting from that combination. Obviously, you’re not overwriting anything in the source.

What surprised me the most is that the future in Harmony is some kind of utopia, where sci-fi typically deals with negative, destructive post-apocalyptic stories. Was it a challenge to bring a rather novel vision like that to the screen? 

The "brave new world” shown in Harmony is most definitely a satire of modern society. That’s something that attracted me to the material and that’s the kind of sci-fi I like. Look at Blade Runner: if that isn’t swiftian, I don’t know what is! But so much of what passes for sci-fi these days is just so dreary, watching is like a bad Ambien trip.

Harmony feels very dense. The world building is quite extensive and there's a lot of ground to cover. A novel gives a writer plenty of time to explore these things, but a film is more limited in scope. Did you have trouble cramming everything in?

Harmony the novel is pretty crammed—Alexander O. Smith did a wonderful English translation of it, by the way. So there was a certain amount of pruning some of Itoh’s digressions, and of trying to show the story rather than tell the story. That had the overall effect of emphasizing the search for Miach, and backgrounding some of the more esoteric sci-fi details (though I think we got plenty in there). That said, I don’t remember having trouble getting it all in, per se. I think the challenge was to tell this story in an interesting and visceral way, since some of the characters are quite, um, cerebral.

The entire film revolves around the tension between free choice and global peace. Even though the plot itself comes to a conclusion, I felt the film left the answer to this morale predicament wide open. Was this a conscious choice or did I miss some pointers somewhere?

No, you got it, and that’s the way the novel works as well. Itoh was very ill when he created Harmony. (I believe much of it was written from a hospital bed.) And I’ve wondered if perhaps that moral ambiguity is what happens when an atheist stares death in the face. Maybe he also wished at times that he could give himself over to the collective mind.

I've seen quite a few sci-fi films, but never one that looked so pink. I have to say it was a little jarring at first, on the other hand it lends the film a very unique flavor and it does fit the setting. How did you arrive at this particular aesthetic?

The pink city is a visual detail from the novel. And we thought it was a very nice way of embodying the idea that this society actually kills with kindness. Somehow it works on you in a different way than, say, Big Brother posters everywhere.

I heard you used a different approach for Tekkonkinkreet's soundtrack and I felt the difference was noticeable. It's not that Harmony's score is bad, but it does feel more like an afterthought. Was it a budgetary decision, a time restraint maybe? Or did you just want to try something else?

I was not involved in any of Harmony’s postproduction. Music, casting, dubbing, sound design were directed in large part by Nakamura and the film's producers, while I stayed focussed on completing the digital effects. Needless to say, it was a very different experience from Tekkonkinkreet (and all of my subsequent work with Plaid and Mitch Osias).

Mamoru Oshii is known to treat dialogue as part of the soundtrack. I agree with him, as the difference between a Japanese and English dub can make a big difference on the atmosphere of a film. Are you involved in that process and if so, for both dubs or just the original one?

I would have to agree with Oshii-san also. Tekkonkinkreet and Animatrix, yes, very involved.

With Harmony finished, what's next? Will it be another 6 years before we see a new Arias project?

I have a few things in the early stages. I certainly hope it won’t be that long.

Carte blanche, no budgetary limitations, no producers or investors wanting to make their money back ... What would be your ideal project?

Material I love, a producer I trust and a team of artists I pick.

If I can make a final suggestion: please team up with Mr. Morimoto once more. The work you did on the original Tekon demo was phenomenal and he really needs to make something longer than those frustratingly short anthology entries. Maybe extend Noiseman Sound Insect into a feature?

Perhaps though Morimoto-san is more of a sprinter than a marathon runner. But I do keep telling him that I’ll be there for him when he finally makes a feature film!

Tue, 11 Apr 2017 09:55:54 +0000
<![CDATA[Swiss Army Man/Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert]]>

I recall there being quite a buzz surrounding the trailer for Swiss Army Man, but I'm not exactly big on trailers and so I never got around to watching it. Instead I just remembered the title and left it at that. In hindsight that was probably for the best, because the less you know about Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's first feature film, the bigger the potential for a pleasant outcome. Swiss Army Man is a surprisingly original comedy, the kind that's severely lacking in American cinema.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

There's certainly no lack of USA comedies, but most of them seem to fit some pre-defined niche. You have the Frat Pack films, there's Apatow's crew and Sandler's crew and if you zoom in on all their regulars and search their oeuvres for drama/comedies, you have a good overview of all the major dramadies. Add to that a plethora of derivative romcoms and just about every American CG animation ever made, and you have a pretty good overview of American comedy cinema.

What all these films lack is surprise. You see most jokes coming a mile off, simply because all these films adhere to their own, almost branded style of comedy. Hence things become predictable, which isn't exactly an asset for comedy. There are some notable exceptions (think Wes Anderson, Solondz or Kevin Smith), but nothing as weird or baffling as Hitoshi Matsumoto's Shinboru or Wisit Sasanatieng's Mah Nakorn. At least, not until now, because Swiss Army Man is quite something else.

a It's rather difficult to talk about the film without spoiling too much, because from the very get-go things are weird and it never really settles down. The film starts with Hank Thompson stuck on a desert island (pop reference 101), ready to hang himself. Right before he takes the plunge, a man washes up on the shore. Hank halts his suicide attempt to investigate his new visitor, but it turns out the man is already dead. Disappointed, Hank gets back to his suicide, only then the corpse reveals itself to be of some use and Hank manages to escape the island.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

You may fear this kind of originality could come at a price, but the overall presentation is remarkably polished. Swiss Army Man is no Avengers of course, even so the visual effects are on point, even convincing (which isn't all that trivial considering the weirdness put on display). The camera work is nice, giving the film a rather colorful and playful vibe and there's a constant play with light that injects a little extra shine. It all adds up to a very agreeable visual experience.

The soundtrack was a bit more problematic for me. It appeared to aim for a weird balance of indie/hipster whine and parody, but I never fully understood where they were going with it. It follows the popular trend of slowing down and deconstructing pop songs and turning them into more singer/songwriter-like music (with a dash of M83/Boards of Canada to boot), but doing it with a song like Cotton-eyed Joe is awkward. It's possible they were just taking the piss (which would be in line with the rest of the comedy), but because I'm not too familiar with this genre of music it's a little difficult to tell.

As for the acting, nothing to complain there. Paul Dano is a certainty when appearing in films like these. At this point I'm not even sure if he's simply proficient at playing weird characters or if characters become weird when he plays them. The much bigger surprise was Daniel Redcliffe, who has been working hard to yank himself loose from his Harry Potter past. For me it was the first time he actually succeeded in his goal. He's just perfect as the corpse (which I know sounds a little weird, but I swear there's no sarcasm in that statement). There's also a very small supporting role for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but it's so negligible it's hardly worth mentioning. In the end it's just Dano and Redcliffe doing all the hard work.

screen capture of Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man starts with a bang, but the film is also somewhat of a one-trick pony. At first I was kind of worried Kwan and Scheinert wouldn't be able to top that very first scene, but luckily that fear was unfounded. The film keeps throwing completely strange and awkward scenes at its audience and it remains fresh and unpredictable from start to finish. The comedy is also smart and witty through-out, with just enough drama to keep an interest in the characters.

It's clear this is a film people need to discover by themselves. Not everyone is going to appreciate the peculiar sense of humor on display here, but Kwam and Scheinert deliver a film that is witty, smart, well-made, pure and most of all unique. Films like these don't come around very often and even though it's probably not a guarantee for a future successful career, Swiss Army Man is a film that will be treasured by many for years to come. Do yourself a favor and watch this one, the worst that can happen is that you don't like it. But if you do, chances are you're gonna love this one to pieces.

Mon, 10 Apr 2017 09:36:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Hamoni/Michael Arias & Takashi Nakamura]]>

When I happened upon Hamoni [Harmony], the promo material didn't immediately appeal to me. It wasn't until I noticed Studio 4°C was behind the project that I decided to give the film a fair chance. And it's a good thing I did, because even though it's not perfect, it's the kind of film that's been sorely missing from anime line-ups lately. It's only then that I noticed Michael Arias and Takashi Nakamura were credited as directors, a happy surprise that at least in part explains why this film turned out the way it did.

screen capture of Hamoni

Even though anime isn't in the worst state right now, there's still a serious lack of deeper, more thoughtful films. It's nice to see people like Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai rise to the top, but they're all dipping their feet in the same pond, one that was dug by Ghibli. I'm not saying these aren't great directors making great films, but there's a severe lack of stylistic and topical diversity in Japanese animation that wasn't there before. Because of that, films like Hamoni are important and should be championed.

Hamoni is based on a novel by Project Itoh, a web designer (hence the <harmony /> notation on the poster) turned novelist with a strong focus on sci-fi. Sadly Itoh lost the battle to cancer when he was 34, in memory of his influence on Japanese sci-fi three films were commissioned, each handled by different directors at different studios. Hamoni is one of those films and it does more than justice to the elaborate ideas and world building Itoh was known for. It's a very conceptual film that isn't scared to get the most, if not everything out of its premise.

Explaining the plot in a mere paragraph is somewhat of a challenge, because the world itself is as much a character as the people inhabiting it. Hamoni is set in the future, 50 years after a cataclysmic event called "The Maelstrom". Rather than let civilization crumble (what would've been the typical sci-fi cliché), humanity pulls together and creates a better, happier yet more controlled world. Our future selves accomplished this by installing a system in each and every human, monitoring them and triggering them to live a better, healthier life. While society flourishes, some outliers can't seem get used to this blessed life, feeling that the loss of freedom and control is worse than its benefits.

screen capture of Hamoni

Visually, Hamoni is a pretty peculiar film. Itoh crafted an elaborate sci-fi/fantasy world and Arias and Nakamura succeed in bringing that world to life. Mostly that world is very pink, which may not sound like such a crazy choice for a future utopia, but the effect is a little jarring nonetheless. And while the world itself is detailed, settings can feel a little empty at times. That isn't to say the film looks bad though. The animation is up to par and Studio 4°C's agile camera adds a dimension of its own. The cell-shading is virtually seamless and when the film switches between traditional to cell-shaded animation the effect is nothing less than stunning. Overall the film looks pretty impressive, it's just that select scenes come off a little empty and lifeless.

The soundtrack is solid, but not too demanding. Arias surprised friend and foe when he enlisted Plaid to do the score for Tekon Kinkurito, this time around the music is a bit more in line with what can be expected from a Japanese feature film. It's a good selection of tracks, it's moody and atmospheric, it does fit the film rather well, but at the same time it's also a little safe and predictable. Maybe it isn't quite fair to judge the music here based on Arias' previous work, but I think I hoped for something with a bit more character. The dub on the other hand is classy, a necessity for a film that is quite monologue-heavy. Make sure to watch the Japanese dub though, as the American feels flat and lifeless in comparison.

screen capture of Hamoni

Hamoni can be quite heavy-handed at times. The film doesn't build up to a sprawling action finale, it builds up to a somewhat theoretical and conceptual discussion illustrated by all that came before. It's a daring choice for sure, but it reminded me of the 90s and early 00s anime that gave the genre (if you can call it that) a good name. It's not just a fancy premise that is abandoned in favor of simpler entertainment value. It's not just some tired good versus bad stand-off with a simple conclusion. At the heart of Hamoni lies an interesting ethical challenge that is examined to its fullest, but leaves it to the audience to figure out an appropriate answer.

Maybe the soundtrack could've been a little better, maybe the visuals appear a little empty at times, but that's just nit-picking. Hamoni looks astounding, Itoh's source material is handled with the proper respect and so is the audience. It's not an easy film, it does require a bit of effort on the viewer's part, but it's a very welcome diversion from the more light-hearted animes that dominate the current landscape. Arias and Nakamura keep the Studio 4°C reputation high and deliver a film that should have no trouble appealing to slightly older anime fans.

Wed, 05 Apr 2017 09:55:58 +0000
<![CDATA[Bai Du Ren/Jiajia Zhang]]>

The name Jiajia Zhang may not ring a bell, but don't be mistaken. This might be Zhang's first feature film, Bai Du Ren [See You Tomorrow] is no mere freshman effort. This is a Wong Kar-wai backed film made to celebrate the 25th birthday of Wong's Jet Tone production company. A lush and lavish project that aims to wow and spares no effort in doing so. Wong Kar-wai may never direct a comedy of his own, but if you ever wondered what that would look like, look no further.

screen capture of Bai Du Ren

Jiajia Zhang isn't a complete nobody though. He made name as a writer and earned screenplay credits for Wuershan's Dao Jian Xiao. He also wrote the short story this film was based upon and shares writing credits with Wong Kar-wai. Even so, that alone doesn't score you a multi-star cast, two top notch cinematographers and all the promotional backing you could wish for. Wong Kar-wai acted as producer for this film and at times it's difficult to assess just exactly how far his influence reached. Not that I want to take away from Zhang's accomplishments here, he is after all still credited as the sole director, but it's quite clear he got some help along the way.

Bai Du Ren is by and large a comedy, but it's far from a simple genre effort. It's as much an ode to classic Hong Kong comedy (with extreme over-acting and overly cheesy effects) as it is a modern comedy about more contemporary problems. There are some funny pop references (hello King of Fighters), but also nods to some of the films Jet Tone produced along the way. All of that is wrapped up in an original concept with a somewhat surprising thread of solid drama running underneath, resulting in a film that feels fresh and unique.

The film follows Chen Mo, a successful club owner who works as a "ferryman", a person who helps lost cases deal with their grief. He runs his club with three friends, each of them dealing with their own set of problems. But Mo becomes infatuated by Xiao Yu, his next door neighbor. Yu in her turn is smitten by Ma Li, her childhood idol. After a failed engagement, Ma Li is stuck in rut and in order to move his life (and career) along, Mo decides to become Yu's mentor, teaching her everything he knows.

screen capture of Bai Du Ren

Wong is renowned for his visual finesse and boy did he coach Zhang. The film is one big explosion of color, not a single frame looks dull or lifeless, everything from camera work to editing and lighting is leveraged to make the film look as dashing and alive as possible. It's a true visual spectacle, but only if you can handle its overly polished look. The film eschews any form of natural flair, going for a crafted and manufactured look instead. I'm sure it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it's by far one of the best-looking films I've seen in a while.

The soundtrack too in instilled with Wong's trademark touches. Chinese films tend to be quite conservative when it comes to integration of music, not quite so here. It's not a completely erratic mix of styles and genres, but when you suddenly hear a jazzy Spanish-language song pass by you know this isn't just any run of the mill Chinese film. Famed composer Nathaniel Méhaly was summoned to work on the soundtrack, a familiar name as Méchaly also worked on Wong's Yi Dai Zong Shi, only further underlining Wong's influence.

And then there's the stellar list of actors of course, a star-studded cast no first-time director could ever hope to afford by himself. Leading the pack is Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, assisted by Takeshi Kaneshiro, Eason Chan and Angelababy. Another notable performance comes from Sandrine Pinna, who is well on her way to become one of Taiwan's more recognizable faces. A big A-list cast is not always a successful match for a comedy like this, but compared to most A-list actors from other countries Chinese actors seem less worried about making a fool of themselves. Even celebrated actors like Tony Leung (The Eagle Shooting Heroes) or Takeshi Kaneshiro (who reprises Leung's lip-joke here) show no shame when they're asked to wear weird prosthetics in order to pry lose a quick laugh. Something I can definitely appreciate.

screen capture of Bai Du Ren

I guess it's pretty remarkable that through all the crazy comedy and the eye-popping presentation, Jiajia Zhang still finds a way to insert some proper drama. And not in that cheap way where halfway through the comedy disappears and the mood suddenly makes a complete 180, but simply by inserting some poignant moments in between all the comedy bits. This way Bai Du Ren actually takes on a little more weight than you'd expect based on the first 30 minutes or so. It's a subtle balance that is sure to give the film some extra lasting power.

Bau Du Ren is a pleasure to behold. It works both as a super stylish genre flick and as more accessible entertainment. There's plenty of talent involved and nobody disappoints. It's somewhat of a mess of influences, but the film itself always feels coherent and solid. It's a perfect ode to 25 years of Jet Tone and a testament to Wong Kar-wai's genius. On top of that, it's a more than pleasant introduction to Jiajia Zhang's directorial skills. Definitely one of the best Chinese films I've seen in a while.

Thu, 30 Mar 2017 09:59:30 +0000
<![CDATA[Yi Lu Shun Feng/Mong-Hong Chung]]>

One of the prime survivors of Taiwan's most recent cinematic renaissance is Mong-Hong Chung. He may not be the most productive director, but whenever he releases a new film I take notice. Needless to say I was quite eager to get my hands on his latest, Yi Lu Shun Feng [Godspeed], a decidedly more genre-focused effort that sprung from his mind (and pen). While not entirely up there with his very best, there's still plenty to love here.

screen capture of Yi Lu Shun Feng

It's not that Shi Hun or Di Si Zhang Hua are completely without genre influences, but the balance definitely shifted with Yi Lu Shun Feng. It still isn't your typical crime film, for that Chung's trademark style is way too pervasive and demanding, even so Yi Lu Shun Feng shows all the traits of a typical crime film. It makes it a rather difficult film to market, but if you're in the camp that liked Chung's previous films then there's very little to be worried about.

It takes a while for Yi Lu Shun Feng to get going. Chung isn't really interested in easing people into his film, instead he starts with a couple of different angles that are poised to come together later on. But Chung tends to meander a little, letting scenes determine their own rhythm rather than construct a sensible plot structure from them. That's a bit of a problem if you don't like being left in the dark, personally I like it when a director deviates from classic narrative-driven structures. It reminded me of the work of Hiroyuki Tanaka, though the mood here is completely different.

Yi Lu Shun Feng follows Na Dow, a somewhat lackluster criminal who ends up making drug pickups after reacting to an ad in a local newspaper. On his way to the pickup point, he is scouted by an older taxi driver looking for an extra buck. The two head off together on a lengthy journey through China, but things don't go quite as planned. Various drug gangs are eyeing each other's territory and the two end up in the middle of a violent gang dispute. Afraid they might anger their bosses though, they push through.

screen capture of Yi Lu Shun Feng

Chung's films are in part known for their visual excellence and luckily Yi Li Shun Feng is no exception. Chung took the cinematography upon himself again (under his Nagao Nakashima moniker — but don't be mistaken, it really is him) and delivers another stunning-looking film. Not quite up there with his best work, but with great framing, strong use of color and lighting and some very nice compositions Yi Li Shun Feng has plenty to offer for the more visually inclined film fan.

The music is up to par with the visuals. Maybe it's not the most memorable score as there aren't any stand-out compositions or pieces you can hum along to, but as a whole the soundtrack gives off a very unique vibe. Dark and ominous, but not without a touch of light-heartedness. It's really a perfect match with the film, underlining the absurdity of some moments while effectively building up tension a couple of scenes later. It's the kind of score that reveals a director who cares about the overall quality of his film.

I'm not sure if Na-Dou Lin is a perfect fit for Na Dow or whether he shaped the character to fit his style, but he does a great job as the film's lead. More remarkable is the casting of Michael Hui as the cab driver though. Hui is a well-known and well-respected comedy actor, who's given a perfect stage here to show that he has more qualities beyond drawing a couple of laughs from the audience. The two are aided by a strong secondary cast, with Leon Dai and Matt Wu in strong supporting roles.

screen capture of Yi Lu Shun Feng

Yi Lu Shun Feng isn't a comedy, though there is a strong comedy vibe running underneath the film. It's quite black and deadpan, also a little absurd, but never as extreme as seen in Ming-liang Tsai's films. Don't expect any overt jokes or laugh out loud moments of wit, but there is plenty of room for some sly smirks. It's also very possible some people won't ever pick up on the comedy, simply because it is so subtle and subdued. It does give the film a little extra flair though, further elevating it above the typical crime films it borrows from.

Depending on where you're coming from, Yi Lu Shun Feng is either a superb crime flick or an ever so slightly disappointing Mong-Hong Chung film. Not that the film has any obvious weaknesses or comes out short on anything it tries to do, but compared to Chung's previous films it's just a smidge less of everything. That still leaves a beautiful, unique and quirky genre film that should do well with people who aren't too attached to rigid narrative structures and one that's easy to recommend if you don't mind a good crime film.

Thu, 23 Mar 2017 10:39:50 +0000
<![CDATA[Yi Sheng Yi Shi/Snow Zou]]>

Greater China has somewhat of a tradition when it comes to fated but troubled romances that transcend national borders, with Peter Chan's Tian Mi Mi [Comrades, Almost a Love Story] as one of the biggest spear points of the niche. Snow Zou continues this tradition with Yi Sheng Yi Shi [But Always], a self-written, self-directed romance that feels quite familiar and comfortable, but has one major selling point. From start to finish, the film looks drop-dead gorgeous. And as it turns out, that's enough to make a difference.

screen capture of Yi Sheng Yi Shi

No matter how you look at it, Chinese cinema remains a tough cookie to crack for a Westerner with little to no roots in China. China is quickly becoming one of the biggest producers of new films, but separating the wheat from the chaff can be a daunting task. With so many new directors and so many people trying to find their place in this booming industry, there are very little certainties. Usually it just boils down to randomly watching stuff while hoping for the best.

Don't watch Yi Sheng Yi Shi if you're looking for something mind-blowingly original. At its core, the film is a very simple romance about two people who seem fated to be together, but keep missing the change to hook up because of circumstances. In that sense, it's very much a genre film, with all the typical mechanics of a romantic drama firmly in place. The writing itself isn't all that special or unique, but if you don't mind a romantic movie from time to time that's not going to be too much of an issue.

The film starts with Zhao Yongyuan and Anran meeting up as very young kids. Zhao is a poor boy, often made fun of by the rest of this classmates. Anran feels sorry for him and decides to watch over him. But their blossoming friendship is cut short rather abruptly when Zhao's father reenters his life, moving him to another city. It isn't until years later that the two meet up again. Zhao is working in a local store while Anran is waiting for a chance to study abroad. Once again the two hit it off and once again life is poised to intervene.

screen capture of Yi Sheng Yi Shi

While plot-wise Yi Sheng Yi Shi may be pretty derivative, the cinematography and art direction provide the film with the necessary flair. There's hardly a scene where the lighting doesn't play at least some part in the film's visual appeal. Coupled with blisteringly beautiful colors and dreamy, almost weightless camera work it makes for a stunning visual presentation. It reminded me a little of Di Yi Ci and I consider that quite the compliment.

The music is less defining, instead it's the kind of soundtrack that will merely enhance the vibe people are already getting for the film. If you think the romance is cheesy and the visuals are overdone, the soundtrack is probably going to make it worse, if you can stomach the romantic perils and you swoon at the visuals than the music will feel more than supportive and appropriate. It's not a great score, it's not a very memorable one either, but it works well as long as you don't hate the rest of the film.

The acting is on point, with Nicholas Tse and Yuanyuan Gao being a near-perfect cast for this type of film. Tse isn't the best actor and as a couple the sparkle isn't 100%, but they're a very nice on-screen duo and there's more than enough romance there. Also (and this might be just my imagination), there were more than a handful of moments where Yuanyuan Gao reminded me of lot of Maggie Cheung, making the Tian Mi Mi link even more obvious. Secondary roles are decent too, with Sam Luet probably being the most remarkable one.

screen capture of Yi Sheng Yi Shi

The film's structure is cyclic and is kept up almost all the way through to the end, even so the finale still has a big surprise in store. I won't spoil anything, but if you're checking US reviews of this film you might want to take into consideration the fact that it's more than likely they weren't too happy with the ending, greatly affecting their overall appreciation of the film. Personally I liked the ending, but if you can't stomach the Chinese running with one of the more defining events in recent US history than you might want to give this one a pass.

For the bigger part, Yi Sheng Yi Shi is a simple romance about two people who are behaving like alternating magnets. They're madly attracted to each other, but once they come too close they're pulled apart again. You've probably seen this kind of film already, but the presentation gives the film a strong edge and the central duo fits the film like a glove. If you don't mind romantic movies, I'd say you could do little wrong with giving this one a fair chance. That is, if you can track it down.

Thu, 16 Mar 2017 10:28:36 +0000
<![CDATA[The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover/Peter Greenaway]]>

I'm rapidly running out of 4.5* films to review, with the few remaining ones being quite low on my list of priorities. Needless to say, I tend to dial back my expectations when watching these films, but not always deservedly so. The first time I watched Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was some 10 years ago. I loved it back then, but it quickly faded from memory and I haven't paid the film much attention since. That is, until I watched it this weekend and fell in love with it all over again.

screen capture of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

I think it's fair to say that Peter Greenaway is a pretty unique director. I haven't seen too many of his films yet, but the ones I've watched are decidedly different from the norm and each one has some or other interesting angle that sets it well apart from other films. Point in case The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, a disturbing tale of love, deceit and revenge that takes place in a lavishly decorated restaurant and grows more grotesque with each passing minute.

If at times the film feels like a stage play, it's probably because many of the film's sets were built in a single, straight path, with the camera zipping past them. Characters are constantly on the move and the camera keeps trailing them throughout the various rooms, never taking any turns or passing any corners. It's not a start to finish experience (like Russian Ark), there are different locations and Greenaway does cut between scenes from time to time, but the effect is clearly there.

The film follows Albert Spica, a small but wealthy criminal who owns a fancy restaurant. Spica and his gang of crooks visit the place on a regular basis, with Albert's wife trailing behind him. What Albert doesn't know is that his wife his cheating him with one of the restaurant's regular customers. The restaurant's cook, clearly more devoted to the well-being of Albert's wife, is helping the two enjoy some privacy while he entertains Albert and his guests.

screen capture of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

While the stage play setup may sound a little boring, Greenaway makes sure there's always plenty going on. Each room is viciously stylized, with very deliberate layouts and dress-ups, excessive lighting and almost overpoweringly strong use of color. The characters' costumes were designed by Jean-Paul Gautier and change whenever a character changes rooms (to match the color of the room). It's visual details like that which give The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover a pleasant visual edge.

The score feels classical, very big and always used to its fullest effect. Not quite what I'd listen to by myself, but it does give the film a very strict, powerful flow and rhythm and it's a tremendous asset when bringing the scenes to their climaxes. I love it when directors don't shy away from giving the music a definite place in their films (unless it is overly sentimental of course) and Greenaway demonstrates he understands the value of a great score.

Acting-wise, it would be easy to say this is a Michael Gambon one man show and leave it at that. And Indeed, Gambon does steal every frame he's in. He's loud, he's obnoxious, his accent is atrocious. He's the perfect guy to hate and the ideal subject for ultimate revenge. Even so, focusing just on Gambon would be to discredit the Helen Mirren's performance, who is just as vital to the success of this film. Her role might be more subdued and restrained, but she poses a great (and necessary) counter-weight to the rambling rage of Gambon.

screen capture of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

The first half of the film is basically just a build-up, with Greenaway putting all his pieces on the chess board. When he starts moving them around things heat up pretty quickly and by the time the finale is in sight he has everyone in just the right place for a perfect stand-off. It's quite a feat really, considering how confined his working space was, but he pulls it off seemingly effortless. There's a little patience involved at the beginning of the film, but it pays off lavishly if you persevere.

That is, if you appreciate the vulgarities. Even though the film itself is quite refined, its character are everything but. It's a tough film to recommend as it is probably a bit too outrageous for commercial audiences and a smidge too extreme for your classic arthouse fan. If you like your films a little edgy, with some artistic influences though, then The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is probably right up your alley. And as an added bonus, it aged really well, so watch it as quickly as possible.

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 10:56:08 +0000
<![CDATA[Gantz:O/Kawamura and Saito]]>

Out of the blue a brand new Gantz film (Gantz:O) landed on Netflix. Now, I'm not the world's biggest Gantz fan, but I did watch the two previous live action adaptations and found them to be pretty entertaining. Needless to say, I was eager to give this latest Gantz incarnation a run for its money. The result was surprising, to say the least. Yasushi Kawamura and Keiichi Saito's film not only trumps the previous Gantz efforts, it set a whole new bar for Japanese action cinema.

screen capture of Gantz:O

Gantz is an established franchise by now, with a manga, a two-season anime adaptation, a video game, a novel and two live action films all adding to the lore. Gantz:O is the latest addition to the franchise, taking the manga's Osaka story arc and turning it into a CG-animated feature film. If you're not familiar with the franchise the first half hour may be a little puzzling, but the setup of Gantz is simple enough as long as you don't worry too much about the finer details.

While Gantz:O spends very little time explaining the basics, there are enough pointers to figure out the general idea behind the film. As always, a group of recently deceased is gathered in front of a mysterious black ball. After a short introduction the group is sent off to battle an army of monsters in order to save humanity from extinction. While this all sounds pretty serious, the battles are set up as game-like challenges, where contestants can earn points to buy bigger and meaner weapons, revive fallen team mates or buy their way to freedom. Enter demeaning video game reference here, personally I think it makes for a slick and focused premise.

Masaru Kato is the latest addition to Tokyo's Gantz team, yet when the team is summoned for a new challenge they end up fighting in Osaka, working together with Osaka's all-star team of Gantz warriors to battle a mysterious old fella. Osaku is completely overrun with yokai and Kato needs a little time to get accustomed to this new reality. But when he remembers his younger brother waiting for him in an empty home, it prompts him to fight his hardest and score his way back to freedom. Again, if it's a good plot you're after, you're not going to find it here.

screen capture of Gantz:O

I'm usually not too fond of CG animation, but Gantz:O is quite something else. For one, it makes excellent use of motion capture techniques to gives its characters some much-needed vitality. From composure, body language and facial expressions (the eyes in particular), everything feels incredibly life-like. Characters' faces are still missing some muscles and hair is still a little too overdone in order to make it all-natural, but Gantz:O comes freakishly close. The settings and monsters too look incredibly detailed, though it must be said that during lighter, less action-packed scenes (mostly in the beginning and at the end of the film) things still look a little too polished. Even so, I was blown away by the visual intensity and detail of Gantz:O. This is easily the best CG feature I've ever seen.

Because of the motion capture technique, the character models resembling their actual actors and a proper lip sync job, the Japanese dub is clearly the go-to option here, but people who don't like to read can also change to a more grating American dub. I wouldn't recommend it myself, then again I'm pretty accustomed to hearing Japanese. The soundtrack is decent enough too, but it's mostly the sound effects that make the biggest impression. The guns sound pretty cool and the thumps and growls of the monsters make them even more menacing. The music itself is pretty generic and loud, but decent enough for an action film and it does add the necessary drive during the action sequences.

screen capture of Gantz:O

If you're looking for proper character development or a well-thought out plot, Gantz:O isn't going to do it for you. This is a bare-bones action flick that puts all its money on style, crazy action sequences and out of this world monster designs. In that sense it reminded me a lot of games like Bayonetta and Asura's Wrath, which have its protagonists pitted at increasingly weird, colossal beasts. The boss-man of Osaka is pretty insane (in all its incarnations), but it's the giant woman made out of women's bodies that takes the cake here. A mad, almost inconceivable creature which will remain forever etched in my brain.

Gantz:O is brutal, action-packed and a bit mad in the head. It's everything but subtle and if you don't have any affinity with overdone action sequences and fit people in tight suits battling it out with freakish monsters using crazy scifi weaponry, then no, Gantz:O isn't going to do it for you. Personally I find it refreshing to see a film that doesn't aim wide but gives it its all in order to do what it wants to do as well as possible. It's an awesome action flick, nothing more, nothing less.

Mon, 06 Mar 2017 11:05:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Jam Films S/Various]]>

Jams Films S is the third and final instalment in a respected series of Japanese anthology films. The Jam Films anthologies were established to help unearth young and talented Japanese directors, 10 years later we can safely say they completely failed in their mission(as almost none of the directors involved in the Jam Films series made it big). Nonetheless, the series did yield some very worthwhile anthologies. Even looking back at them now, they haven't lost too much of their shine.

screen capture of Jam Films S

Jam Films S takes a rather mediocre start though. The idea behind Kenji Sonoda's Tuesday is solid enough, with a guy creeping through other people's apartments and looking in on their lives, but the execution is clearly lacking. Image quality is poor, camera work subpar and even the editing doesn't do the film any favors. It's a shame because the idea is rather fun and playful, but the short as a whole doesn't leave a big mark. Not the best way to start an anthology. 3.0*/5.0*

Luckily there's Ryuichi Takatsu's Heaven Sent, a short that knows how to make the best of its limited running time. Heaven Sent features the always cool Kenichi Endo as a contract killer, revived by a fallen angel. What follows is a rooftop conversation between the two that will alter the course of both their lives. The short looks stylish, the acting is up to par and the setup is intriguing. It's also the short that most closely resembles the work of Ryuhei Kitamura, who produced all 7 shorts. 4.5*/5.0*

Up next is Hitoshi Ishikawa's Blouse. The film features a very modest and simple setup about a blossoming relationship between a drycleaner and one of his loyal customers. Koyuki and Ren Osugi do a solid job, a series of small, poignant moments do the rest. On paper it's one of the dullest shorts of the bunch, but Ishikawa does a terrific job bringing this one to life. If you're into Japanese (romantic) dramas, this is the one to look out for. 4.0*/5.0*

screen capture of Jam Films S

The most un-Japanese short of the anthology is without a doubt Ryo Teshima's New Horizon. At times it feels like a weird Jeunet clone, somewhat resembling Delicatessen's setup, with several odd stories and slightly surreal characters intersecting within a single building complex. The foreign actors are a little flaky and Haruka Ayase feels a little lost in between all the weirdness, but it's a pretty fun short regardless and definitely one of the most memorable ones of the entire anthology. 3.5*/5.0*

Yuichi Abe's Suberidai is another timid, but slightly more light-hearted drama, somewhat in line with Blouse. It follows the reunion of two teens, after a near-fatal accident drove them apart. With the girl moving away to another village, she tries to make amends before it's too late. It's a cute little short with one of the best endings of the bunch, though it would've benefited from a bit more stylistic finesse. Even so, Suberidai is a pleasant diversion that helps to fleshen out the anthology. 3.5*/5.0*

Good isn't good enough for an anthology though, so Daisaburo Harada's Alpha comes at the right time. It's a fun and stylish look into the future with just the right amount of awkward thrown in. Thematically it's a typical reflection on the effect clones would have on our everyday life. While it doesn't offer any amazing new insights, it does come up with some novel angles and interpretations. It's well acted, the film looks good and Harada established a nice universe in the limited time he's given. 4.0*/5.0*

screen capture of Jam Films S

Ending Jam Films S is Masaki Hamamoto's Suit, a funny take on what it must feels like to be a country's chosen hero. The CG is a bit shady and post Dai-nihonjin Suit just isn't as funny as I remembered it to be, but it's still a pretty amusing short with a pretty daft premise and a couple of harmless laughs. It probably isn't the ideal way to end a film like this, but still a worthy entry. 3.5*/5.0*

Japan's animation anthologies tend to bring together the best in the genre while their live-action counterparts are more concerned with finding new talent. It isn't surprising then that their animation anthologies are better equipped to stand the test of time. Even so, Jam Films S still proved to be a very fun, diverse and surprising collection of shorts. It lacks a second stand-out short, but there aren't any truly weak entries and each short brings something interesting to the table. Definitely worth watching if you're into anthologies.

Thu, 02 Mar 2017 10:37:53 +0000
<![CDATA[Daemonium: Soldado del Inframundo/Pablo Parés]]>

It's become quite rare for a film to take me by surprise, but once in a while it does still happen. When I sat down to watch Pablo Parés' Daemonium: Soldado del Inframundo, never had I expected to see a film that holds the middle between Mad Max and Tokyo Zankoku Keisatsu. Now, my knowledge of Argentine cinema is pretty limited, which is probably why it stayed below the radar for such a long time, even so Daemonium is a film that defies expectations, for better or for worse.

screen capture of Daemonium: Underground Soldier

I've seen people describe Pablo Parés as the godfather of Argentine genre cinema. I don't know nearly enough about Argentine genre cinema nor Parés' other films to assess whether he truly deserves the title (though he's sure to have had some serious competition from guys like Adrián García Bogliano), but based on Daemonium and his current accomplishments (more than 10 horror features and double the shorts for a guy that hasn't hit 40 yet) I'd say there must at least be some validity to the accolade.

Daemonium originated from a series of online shorts, which were later reworked into a full-length feature film. It's a project that took up 4 years of Parés' life, but the result is definitely something worth watching. That is, if you can appreciate the demented weirdness that is typical for the Sushi Typhoon style of horror on display here. It's pretty niche material and a film like this will likely never appeal to a wide audience, but if you can stomach some over-the-top monster madness Daemonium can easily hold its own.

The plot has quite a few crazy sidetracks, but the bottom line is actually pretty simple. A wizard is captured to summon an age old demon. A trade made with the demon opens up the sealed pathway between the human and the demon world. Razorback is the only one who benefits from the deal, but as his powers grow his time on Earth is running out. A clock is invariably counting back the minutes to his demise and nobody seems to be able to save Razorback from his doom. Nevertheless, he isn't planning to go down without a fight.

screen capture of Daemonium: Underground Soldier

People familiar with Sushi Typhoon type cinema understand that there will be some visual compromises. There are a lot of monsters, post-apocalyptic wastelands and crazy fights and not a whole lot of budget to cover all of it. Even so, Parés makes great use of the finances and delivers a film that's notably better than many of his Japanese counterparts. There's still some shoddy CG here and there and some of the monsters looks decidedly rubbery, but I was actually quite impressed that he managed to pull it off so well. Fine camera work, creative creature/character design and good use of filters help to hide some of the film's shoddier effects.

The soundtrack is also quite interesting. Nothing too conspicuous or demanding, but there are several scenes where it did help to make a difference. Not everything is up to par, some of the music can be a little too generic, blending a bit too quickly into the background, but it never becomes grating or overly cheesy. On top of that, a film like this doesn't typically depend on a good soundtrack to succeed. It's clear though some proper thought was put into the choice and timing of the music, which is always appreciated.

As for the acting, when watching a film like this you know you're not going to get any A-grade actors. Luckily the people involved are well aware of the type of film they were making and what they lack in unfiltered talent, they made up for with pure enthusiasm. The acting isn't great, but they do manage to bring their characters to life with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek badassness. In any case, if you end up being disappointed by the acting, I'm sure there are more pressing things that ruined this film for you.

screen capture of Daemonium: Underground Soldier

The fact that Daemonium comes from a continent not exactly known for producing these kind of films could've been its main pull, but it's not just curiosity value that makes this film worth your time. It's the fact that every character, every monster and every prop feels like something unique. Something with a very specific backstory that is part of a grander fantasy world. The link to Japan is obvious, but Parés' influences go way beyond that. South-American crime gangs, modern wizardry and even some cybergoth aesthetics all come together to make up this crazy horror/fantasy/sci-fi/action universe. And there's no cutting corners, no taking the easy way out, no "I guess this should do"s.

Even so, Daemonium: Soldado del Inframundo is probably a little too bonkers to appeal to mainstream fans. You have to appreaciate a special kind of weird to like a film like this, but if you do than Parés delivers one hell of a film. Availability could be a problem as a physical release seems to be lacking at the moment, but if you have access to Netflix you can stream it freely. There's little harm in giving it a go, Daemonium is sure to be a very memorable experience, even when you don't end up liking it.

Wed, 22 Feb 2017 10:42:54 +0000
<![CDATA[Rippu Van Winkuru no Hanayome/Shunji Iwai]]>

Shunji Iwai is back. After a slew of documentaries and a lackluster American debut, last year's animated return to the world of Hana and Alice was the first sign that Iwai had rekindled his love for feature-length cinema. With Rippu Van Winkuru no Hanayome [A Bride for Rip Van Winkle], Iwai returns to the comfort of live action drama and he does so with style. Fans of early 2000 Iwai have a lot to get excited about, not in the least because his latest manages to stay fresh and interesting for a whopping 180 minutes.

screen capture of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

While the Japanese movie industry took a qualitative nose dive, Iwai simply moved his focus elsewhere and went on to do other things. Of course it's not like the past 10 years didn't yield any good Japanese films, but for directors, getting their films made became a much bigger struggle compared to the early 00s. And for a director like Iwai, someone entrenched in the Japanese drama genre, it just wasn't a very nice place to be. Now that things are starting to look up again, it's the ideal moment for Iwai to take back his rightful place.

Beware of the shortened version of Rippu Van Winkuru though. There's a 120 minute cut that no doubt appeals to more narrative-focused audiences out there, but Iwai fans should make sure to seek out the 180 minute director's cut. While bring back the running time without harming the plot directly shouldn't have been too difficult, Iwai's genius is typically found in the moments in between and Rippu Van Winkuru is no exception. I'm generally not a big fan of films overshooting the 120 minute mark, but it's just necessary here.

Rippu Van Winkuru follows the life of Nanami Minagawa, a young aspirant teacher who decides to settle down once she finds out that she isn't really cut out to be a teacher. Nanami submits to the typical Japanese housewife life (she gets married, drops her career and tends to the house), but forces outside her marriage are plotting against her happiness. These events drive her in the arms of Mashiro Satonaka, a free-spirited young woman who opens Nanami's eyes.

screen capture of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

Iwai is a seasoned director and it shows. His visual signature is all over this film, with dreamy camera work, a knack for catching just the right light, the occasional visual frivolities and some very nice visual compositions as the icing on the cake. His style lends grace to the film and the characters, complementing their state of mind without ever feeling too rigid or constrained. It's an approach Iwai has been honing since his very first films and he continues to improve on it with each film he makes.

The soundtrack too will be familiar territory for Iwai fans. A combination of famous classical songs and original piano tunes make up most of Rippu Van Winkuru's music. It's a proven formula and it does work well, but the actual choice of songs may come off a little lax at times. Even people who are generally unfamiliar with classical music will recognize the songs, a more adventurous selection could have lent the film some extra credibility. It's only a minor complaint, when all is said and done the soundtrack is effective and that's what counts, but there's definitely some missed potential there.

Taking up the lead role is Haru Kuroki. She does a tremendous job bringing her somewhat fleeting and wayward character to life, even so her presence had me quite confused. She reminded me a little too much of Yu Aoi and I kept wondering if Iwai picked Kuroki because of the resemblance she bares to what is generally considered one of Iwai's favored actresses. It was a little uncanny at times, though I'm sure people not familiar with Iwai's history will look right past it. The secondary cast is up to par, with Cocco and Go Ayano delivering stand-out performances.

screen capture of A Bride for Rip Van Winkle

The narrative isn't exactly complex, but there's a lot of it and the film packs a couple of nice twists to boot. Kuroki's character has quite a journey in front of her and Iwai doesn't cut any corners. He does find a nice balance between atmospheric and narrative-driven scenes though, easily justifying the film's 180 minute running time. That said, you do need to be in the mood for a Japanese drama, if you're craving some simple-minded action fun then Rippu Van Winkuru isn't going to keep you entertained for the full 3 hours.

It's comforting to know Shunji Iwai is back and hasn't lost his touch. Hana to Alice Satsujin Jiken was a solid indication that there was some magic left in him, but with Rippu Van Winkuru no Hanayome he returns to his core style, picking things up right where he left off back in 2004. Strong acting, an intriguing plot and a warm, dreamy atmosphere make this an easy recommend. If you're not familiar with Iwai's work this might not be the best place to start, but fans of his earlier work should make sure they don't miss out on his latest.

Thu, 16 Feb 2017 10:55:35 +0000