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[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
<![CDATA[Gekijoban Mozu/Eiichiro Hasumi]]>

A single glance at the poster art was all I needed to decide whether I wanted to see Eiichiro Hasumi's Gekijoban Mozu. The moment I recognized Takeshi Kitano's face, I knew this film would be a worthwhile gamble. When I sat down to watch the film I was completely clueless about what exactly I was getting myself into, I didn't even know who directed the film. I have to admit that made it a little challenging at times, but at the same time I'm quite confident it made me like the film even better.

screen capture of Mozu

The thing with Gekijoban Mozu is that it follows a 2-part TV series, which in turn is based on a series of novels written by Go Osaka. That's a lot of back story missing for people not familiar with the franchise. On top of that, the film makes no effort whatsoever to properly introduce the characters or recap anything that happened before. There are some flashbacks, but they probably make things even more confusing. The film simply begins where the series left off and sets out to tie a few remaining knots, coherence be damned.  

The film received quite a lot of flack for that from non-familiars, but personally I didn't mind at all. Sure enough you're missing out on some details and several characters appear and reappear almost randomly, but considering the cast of larger than life characters and the over-the-top, convoluted plot I can only wonder what people think they're missing. Gekijoban Mozu isn't a delicately scripted affair, nor does it have subtle and/or layered characterization. Whatever gaps there are, they're easily plugged by anyone remotely familiar with the genre tropes.

The film follows Naotake, a disillusioned cop who just happens to be in the right spot when a group of black suits tries to kidnap Elena, a young but mentally disabled girl. Naotake intervenes, unaware of the fact that the kidnappers are from the very organization that killed his wife and daughter. Together with Ryota, an ex-cop turned private eye, he vows to protect the girl, but when the people behind Elena's failed kidnapping get to Ryoto's daughter, they have no choice but to submit to the wishes of the criminals.

screen capture of Mozu

One of the main reasons I tend to dislike films based on TV series is their typical lack of cinematic muscle, but that clearly wasn't a problem here. From start to finish, Gekijoban Mozu looks exceptionally slick. The most eye-catching aspect of the film is definitely the way color and light turn every frame into a flickering yet atmospheric living painting. Also notable is the abundance of horizontal camera work, moving the frame from one perfect shot to the next. There's always this slight sense of disappointment once the camera starts moving, but that quickly fades when you notice it slowly morphing into the next awesome shot. Add to that some stunning locations and you have a film with plenty of visual bravura.

The soundtrack is a little less demanding. It's actually quite decent for this type of film, rising moderately above the mostly generic background music that's expected of the genre, but memorable it is not. It adds the right amount of tension and adrenaline to each scene and it fulfils its duty effortlessly, but it never steers or dictates the atmosphere of the film. All in all it's a decent enough soundtrack, but I tend to expect just a little more.

As for the cast, it seems that all the important actors from the TV series returned to their parts. Leading the pack is Hidetoshi Nishijima in one of his coolest roles to date, other notable performances come from Teruyuki Kagawa and Yusuke Iseya. And then there's Takeshi Kitano of course, who revels in his part of Daruma, the film's ultimate bad guy. His role is relatively small, even so his presence looms over the film and when he finally does appear, he lives up to the promise.

screen capture of Mozu

Critic Edmund Lee wrote that Gekijoban Mozu feels like a 2-hour highlight reel of a 6-hour film. I agree, but where Lee used it as a knock against the film, I see it as something that speaks in favor of Gekijoban Mozu . I don't think the "extra four hours" would've added anything substantial to the film and the last thing I'm looking for is a bunch of generic plot filler and pointless exposition so each and everyone is on board with what is happening. Instead we get a wide range of crazy characters, some very cool action scenes and a 2-hour rollercoaster with exceptional entertainment value.

If you don't like the bewilderment of not being able to follow every small detail and you prefer your film plots nailed shut, Gekijoban Mozu clearly isn't the film for you (unless you watch the series first, but I'm not even sure that clears up everything). But if you like 120 minutes of stylish showdowns, explosive action scenes and over-the-top characters, Eiichiro Hasumi delivers one of the best films in ages. It's a terrific ride and one of the best live-action TV series adaptations I've seen.

Mon, 06 Feb 2017 11:01:53 +0000
<![CDATA[Richard Linklater/x10]]>
Richard Linklater

He was once the voice of a young generation, but nowadays Richard Linklater is a lot harder to define. Going through his oeuvre can be a somewhat bewildering experience, especially when picking the wrong films (or picking them in the wrong order). That's not to say his oeuvre houses a random collection of styles and genres. Linklater does keep to a somewhat limited set of approaches, it's just that each one is wildly different from the next. It makes him an interesting director to explore, but it also increases the chance you might run into some stinkers along the way.

Linklater started out in the 80s, but very few have seen It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, his very first feature film. People only started to notice Linklater when he directed Slacker and Dazed and Confused, two films that focused on young kids growing up, doing very little of anything at all. Dazed and Confused in particular grew out to become a real cult favorite, though I can't say I found much to like there. The clichés and stereotypes are so thoroughly American that it became impossible for me to relate to Linklater's 70s nostalgia.

In '95 Linklater started the Before trilogy, probably his most broadly appreciated set of films to date. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy take on the parts of two fated lovers, with each film running through different key moments in their relationship. While very dialogue-heavy, there's a certain lifelikeness and spontaneity to the films that makes them quite irresistible. The first two films (Before Sunrise - 1995 - and Before Sunset - 2004) are more romantic in nature, the last one (Before Midnight - 2013) is a bit more dramatic. Watching them in order of appearance is recommended, though not absolutely required.

I lost track of Linklater during the late '90s, but early on in the '00s he gave his career a surprising twist. Waking Life is a daring experiment that delivers 100 minutes of philosophical meanderings in animated form. Linklater made use of early rotoscoping techniques to transform live action footage into animation, effectively turning the whole film into a painfully long trip into uncanny valley. It didn't really help that the philosophical topics were quite weak and were never explored in any meaningful way. Linklater would revisit this setup five years later. A Scanner Darkly would add some more explicit scifi elements (and Keanu Reaves), which ended up only making things worse. A Scanner Darkly is by far the worst film he ever made.

But Linklater also tried his hand at some more commercial projects. School of Rock is a Jack Black comedy aimed at a younger audience, Bad News Bears a sport flicks with a post-Bad Santa Billy Bob Thornton looking to repeat his success and Bernie is another Jack Black comedy, though with a slightly darker edge to it. These film are quite variable in quality, but it's clear that Linklater fares better when he can do more personal projects.

In 2014 Linklater put himself back on the map with Boyhood, a project he worked on intermittently for 12 years. The idea was to follow a family, with the actors aging in real time. While the setup is intriguing and the execution was clearly geared at providing a grand dramatic experience, the mediocre drama and overly long running time stood in the way of Boyhood becoming a great film. I found it rather lifeless and overdone, which is a shame as the idea did appeal to me. The film was received extremely well though, so your mileage may vary.

Linklater's career isn't finished yet. Just last year he directed Everybody Wants Some!!, a more "modern" version of his early films, this time harking back to the 80s. Not quite as successful, but Linklater's entire career is characterized by ups and downs. I'm not the biggest fan, but I do keep an eye on him and I do try to watch his films whenever I get the chance. If you're looking to break into his oeuvre, the Before trilogy is probably the best place to start. If you're a bit more seasoned, films like Boyhood and Walking Life might be more to your liking, but there's just no guarantees with Linklater.

Best film: Before Sunset (4.0*)
Worst film: A Scanner Darkly (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.35 (out of 5)

Fri, 03 Feb 2017 11:10:14 +0000
<![CDATA[Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu /Yoshio Kuroda]]>

The time was right to give Yoshio Kuroda's Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu [The Dog of Flanders] another spin. It's been ages since I last watched the film and late 2016 a brand new statue dedicated to the memory of Nello and Patrasche was revealed right in front of Antwerp's cathedral. A perfect excuse to revisit this tragic story, on top of that I was also pretty eager to find out how well Kuroda's version had held up over time. Luckily the film didn't disappoint.

screen capture of Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu

The original book was written by Ouida, a 19th century British novelist. The story is set in Flanders, but never really got much love over here until a popular comic book series (Spike and Suzy - Suske & Wiske in Dutch) picked it up and rewrote history to include its main set of characters. More importantly though, the Japanese heard of the tale and fell in love with its premise. Nowadays just about everyone who ever attended school in Japan knows the story of Nello and Patrasche by heart.

There's a Japanese animated series that dates back to the 70s, Kuroda's film is best seen as a modernization of that series. This explains why the art style looks a little outdated (think Candy Candy or Spoon Obasan), but underneath that simple exterior lies a very tragic and touching story, so don't let its innocent looks fool you. The story and execution put Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu firmly into Watership Down and Hotaru no Haka territory. While those films enjoy broad recognition though, Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu's lack of general availability has made it way more obscure.

The plot of the film stays pretty close to the original. Nello is a young boy who lives with his grandfather on a farm. He is best friends with Aloise, but she was born into a rich family and Aloise's dad doesn't like Nello hanging out with her. Things take a turn for the worse when Nello's grandfather is forced to pay off Nello's dog Patrasche, a setback that leaves the two with little money to survive. Not long after Nello's grandfather falls ill, putting the burden of survival on the shoulders of Nello and his faithful dog.

screen capture of Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu

The simplistic character art takes a while to get used to, but 30 minutes in I hardly noticed it anymore. For a feature film it looks pretty bare and basic, luckily Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu is helped by its more elaborate background art and a pretty decent level of animation. The animation in particular helps to bring the characters to life. It may not be as in-your-face or detailed as your average Disney feature, but it does capture the actions and emotions with surprising subtlety. Sadly the ending features some very out of place (and technically limited) CG. There's only one such scene, but it does happen smack in the middle of the emotional payoff. A strange decision maybe, but I guess that's just a sign of the 90s.

The soundtrack is rather present and can be a little sentimental at times. It walks a fine line between emotional and sappy, but never overreaches. Your mileage may vary of course. If you demand absolute subtlety from a drama soundtrack, then the music will no doubt be a bit too much, but all in all there are way worse offenders out there. The dub is a little trickier. The film is set in Antwerp, so you'd think a Dutch dub would make sense here. Sadly Dutch/Flemish subs are quite atrocious and to add insult to injury, they even changed the names of the characters to Martijn and Marieke. There's also an American dub out there, which makes no sense at all, and then there's of course the original Japanese dub. While it's a tad weird to hear Belgian characters speak Japanese, it's by far the best dub and in combination with the art style it's probably the sanest option available. Finding the Japanese dub with English subs will be quite the challenge though.

screen capture of Gekijoban Furandaasu no Inu

The story of Nello and Patrasche is incredibly sad. Very little goes right for the boy and his dog and when luck is finally on their side there's always standing something in the way. The outcome of the story is inevitable and knowing what is to come actually makes repeated viewings more depressing. The strength of this film lies in the sweet and innocent portrayal of Nello and the love he shares with his dog Patrasche. There's not much complexity there, but it does feel extremely genuine and truthful. This setup was very deliberate too, as is illustrated by the way Kuroda worked this reasoning into the plot itself. It's not quite often that you see a film arguing its own choices within its own narrative. 

Ideally I would advise against watching a Dutch or English dub, but if you're able to stomach it this film is just too rare and too beautiful to pass up simply because a Japanese dub isn't readily available. The character art takes a little getting used to, but lush background art, smart animation and a good score make up for that. And when you strip all that away, what remains is a very touching, very dear yet very sad story about a boy that got a lot less out of life than he deserved. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you can watch this film, make sure you do.

Wed, 01 Feb 2017 10:53:05 +0000
<![CDATA[Tai Bei Piao Xue /Jianqi Huo]]>

If by now you still don't know who Jianqi Huo is, you haven't been paying attention to my reviews. The past few years I've been busy plugging the gaps in his oeuvre and discovered a director with an excellent nose for traditional Chinese romance. In a rare change of pace, Huo travels to Taiwan to helm a more contemporary Japanese production. The result is Tai Bei Piao Xue [Snowfall in Taipei], a vintage Huo with a little twist, but still bearing all the perks I've come to expect from his films.

screen capture of Snowfall in Taipei

Huo is someone who loves to incorporate China's traditional cultural customs and values into his films. They are typically set in a somewhat idealized China, which functions as a cosy background to the romantic or filial relationships that take center stage. I don't feel Huo's work is intentionally soft on China's more extreme policies, but it's safe to say that Chinese censors probably prefer his films to those of some of China's more internationally recognized directors.

Tai Bei Piao Xue feels more like an outlier in Huo's body of work. Not so much thematically, but stylistically. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Yibai Zhang's films, in particular Zhang's short in About Love. That's not a bad thing mind, Zhang is Huo's modern counterpart and one of China's best directors when talking about romantic cinema. It was actually quite nice to see Huo break outside of his usual confines as it allowed him to showcase his broader talents, while still operating within a familiar genre.

The film follows Xiao Mo, an orphan collectively raised by the people in a small village. Xiao Mo grew up a nice young man who spends his day helping out the older people in his neighborhood. His life is turned upside down when one day May, an up and coming singer, arrives in his town. May is running away from the stress and pressure of stardom and the two immediately hit it off together. But they both realize that their relationship is doomed to fail, as May can't stay in the village and Xiao Mo isn't willing to move away.

screen capture of Snowfall in Taipei

Despite the change of scenery, visually not so much has changed for Huo. The small village amidst the Taiwan mountains isn't as oldskool or strikingly rural as its Chinese equivalents, but it's still cosy and romantic enough to evoke that typical Huo atmosphere. From time to time the film moves to the big city, but those moments are actually quite sparse and don't take too much away from the film's rustic feel. Colors are striking, the lighting is moody and the camerawork is fine, making for a great-looking film.

The soundtrack is fitting, meaning it makes no effort at all to break from the mould. There are some poppier tracks dispersed throughout the film, mostly relating to May's character, but the larger part of the soundtrack is just mellow string and piano music that feels appropriate, but is also a little boring. I prefer a more daring soundtrack, then again the music never irritates or becomes too sentimental, which at least maintains a nice status quo.

The cast too is adequate. Bo-lin Chen does a fine job. Once hailed as one of Asia's biggest talents, he never quite made it to the top but he fares well in more commercial films and the part here fits him like a glove. Yao Tong also does a commendable job in her first ever feature film. Her film career never truly took off, but she seems to pick her parts with care. The two of them make a fine couple, the rest of the cast is solid too, but they clearly play second fiddle to the central duo.

screen capture of Snowfall in Taipei

Tai Bei Piao Xue is a pure genre film, so don't go expecting many surprises. The ending might not be 100% fan service, especially when comparing it to Western romance/dramas, but that's actually not too uncommon for an Asian film. More importantly, the execution isn't too melodramatic or cheap, making for a nice romance with likeably characters and just enough depth. If romance isn't your thing this film most likely won't change your mind, but genre fans should find little to dislike here.

While there are clear differences with Huo's earlier films, Tai Bei Piao Xue still looks and feels like a vintage Jianqi Huo film. Whether that's good or bad depends on how tolerant you are towards romantic movies. The film looks great, the actors do a good job and even though the soundtrack is a little inconspicuous the atmosphere is warm and inviting. It's a pleasant, sweet and endearing film that might not leave an enormous footprint, but should be easy enough to love nonetheless.

Thu, 26 Jan 2017 10:49:27 +0000
<![CDATA[Natural Born Killers/Oliver Stone]]>

It was such a long time ago since I last watched Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers that I really didn't know what to expect. I remembered it as a pretty wild, energetic, experimental and explosive film, but I had no idea whether these memories would hold up 5000+ films down the road. There was only one way to find out of course, so I sat down to revisit Stone's masterpiece once more. And guess what? It turned out to be pretty amazing still.

screen capture of Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone is known for producing somewhat divisive films, often based on slightly risqué subjects. He also has a knack for political portraits and biographies, but nothing you've seen from his hand could possibly prepare you for the madness that is Natural Born Killers. The script was written by Quentin Tarantino (and while heavily revised later on, you can still expect it to be pretty violent and over the top), but the real draw is Stone's monumental and energetic direction. I don't think Hollywood has seen a similar film since.

Stone and Tarantino take a serious stab at the mediatization of reality, with the media being presented as an insatiable beast, pushing the boundaries of morals and good taste in order to show the most gruesome and spectacular footage possible. In a way this is still quite topical, only nowadays we've shifted from reality TV and live TV reporting of war, death and accidents to live-streaming vileness on Twitter and uploading torture videos on YouTube. Maybe Stone should consider a sequel.

The film follows Mickey & Mallory Knox, America's most popular mass murderer newlyweds. While they divide their time between keeping themselves out of reach from the police and keeping their killing spree alive and kicking, their popularity turns into a veritable hype amongst viewers at home. So much in fact that popular TV personality Wayne Gale sees it as an opportunity to further his career. He gathers a TV crew and starts live-broadcasting his hunt on the crazy couple.

screen capture of Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers is an extremely visual film. By modern standards it may appear a little crude and/or unfinished, but the experience is so energetic and in your face that it hardly matters. Stone incorporates every visual trick in his repertoire. From stark color filters to severely over-exposed scenes, crazy camera angles and manic editing, it's all there. Add to that a couple of animated shots, some black and white moments and a dash of handheld camera work and you might begin to grasp the visual onslaught on display here. And best of all, it never slows down, not even a little.

The soundtrack is a little less daring, though I must admit that the classic rock 'n roll sound goes well with the setting. The south-western USA vibe is one of the cornerstones of the film and the juke-box rock is a perfect fit for the characters (who look and sound like modern-day cowboys). It's not a soundtrack I would listen to separate from the film and for the most part it's more background noise than a real driver of atmosphere, but all in all it's a fitting selection of tracks that doesn't do the film any harm.

If the visuals weren't crazy enough, brace yourself for some larger than life characters. Both Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis deliver career-defining performances. I'm not a big fan of either actors (Lewis in particular can be more than a little grating in lesser films), but both are completely nailing it as Mickey and Mallory Knox. The secondary cast is equally impressive, with Robert Downey Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones as most notable additions. Tom Sizemore and Rodney Dangerfield are the cherry on the cake.

screen capture of Natural Born Killers

The first hour of the film is mainly focused on the hunt, but the real meat of the film is reserved for the second part. One year after their inevitable capture, Gale returns to prison for a live interview with Mickey Knox. It's the setup for an insanely hectic and bloody finale that explores how far Stone can push the concept of live TV beyond the norm of the acceptable. It's not for the squeamish and Stone really pulls out all the stops, but at the same time it's pretty refreshing to see an American film that goes full in rather than hit the brakes during its final act.

Despite its surprisingly high average on IMDb and general critical acclaim, Natural Born Killers isn't a very accessible film. It's a pretty crazy ride that revels in the violence on display, while at the same time lashing out at the media's sensationalism and the audience's lack of critical standards. If that isn't enough, the presentation itself is also quite taxing, resulting in a film that's possible a bit much for mainstream audiences. That said, I was impressed with how well the film held up after all this time. The execution may be a little crude, but the heart and soul of the film haven't aged a single day. Not the easiest film to recommend, but if you don't mind extremes, make sure your give this one a shot.

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 10:22:06 +0000
<![CDATA[Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen/Tatsuya Oishi and Akiyuki Shinbo ]]>

The first Kizumonogatari was the best thing I watched last year. It was an original mix of all things anime, a film that took me completely by surprise. This is a luxury Kizumonogatari II: Nekketsu-hen didn't have. I came in with similar expectations, which might have been unfair for a sequel that aims to be little more than a mere continuation of the first film. Nekketsu-hen wasn't a big disappointment mind, but it never raised the bar like follow-up episodes of FLCL (its spiritual twin) managed to do.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

Nekketsu-hen is the central part of a 3-part story arc. Even within the context of a traditional feature film, that middle part is always the toughest to get through. The beginning of a story is supposed to be novel, fresh and exciting while the finale holds all the big build-ups and emotional payoffs. The middle part functions as the connection between start and finish and that's exactly what this film aims to be, though Oishi and Shinbo do their best to add some extra spice where possible.

This second film is a direct continuation of the first one, meaning you can't really treat this as a series of stand-alone films. Order is of utmost importance here. While the story itself could maybe stand on its own (at least to a certain degree), there are too many references and unexplained parts to make sense (or as much sense as possible) of the events in Nekketsu-hen. If you want to counter the mid-arc lull you could possibly wait and watch the films back to back, but I simply wasn't that patient.

Now that Koyomi has become a vampire and with Kiss-shot still yearning for her lost limbs, the stage is set for a little battle count-down. If Koyomi wants to become human again, he has to return all stolen limbs to Kiss-shot. In order to do that he needs to defeat the three esteemed vampire hunters who stole the limbs from Kiss-shot. While any normal person would try to focus on the task at hand, Koyomi still finds the time to hang out with Tsubasa, the girl he has got an enormous crush on.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

Visually Nekketsu-hen is pretty much on par with its predecessor. While that's definitely good news, it's also a little disappointing at the same time. The upside is that all the awesome parts of the first Kizumonogatari are still here. The zany editing and ridiculous pacing, the varying visual styles and the lush animation all add up to a superb visual experience. The downside is that nothing really new was added. The first film introduced all these cool visual tricks, this second film does very little to build on that. It's still a sight to behold, but the wonder and surprise of the first film are definitely gone here.

The same can be said about the music. The strange mix of jazzy and electronic sounds hasn't lost any of its appeal and still functions as a great differentiator, but it doesn't really offer anything extra compared to the previous film. It's still a great score and it fits the film like a glove, but it didn't quite exceed my expectations. And of course the voice actors are the same too, though that's only natural considering it's a direct continuation of the storyline, with pretty much the whole cast of characters intact. The only notable addition to the cast is Hochu Otsuka, a man with a very unique and instantly recognizable voice, but he has a pretty limited part. No English dub is available for now, which is a blessing as the film is so entrenched in anime culture that anything besides Japanese audio wouldn't make sense.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari II

I compared the first film to FLCL, based on novelty value, creativity and surprise. But where a series like FLCL tried to improve upon itself with every new episode, Nekketsu-hen tries to consolidate the strengths of the first film. Oishi and Shinbo are treating the three films as a single entity, which makes for a slightly different experience. It's difficult to fault them for their decision, as right now the anime industry isn't as open to experimentation as it used to be, but personally I would've preferred a more daring approach.

If all of that sounds a bit negative, it's because the first film set the bar pretty high. Nekketsu-hen is still a jolly bundle of weirdness and a breath of fresh air compared to most other contemporary anime productions out there. And with this middle part out of the way, the road is wide open for a sprawling finale. I'd wager that seeing the three films back to back is probably going to be the best way to enjoy Kizumonogatari, seeing how connected the films are, but I still found a lot of greatness in this second part. This film series is a real treat for people with a soft spot for anime, though I'm not sure I would recommend it to others.

Thu, 12 Jan 2017 10:58:41 +0000
<![CDATA[Zhangke Jia/x10]]>
Zhangke Jia

Pre-2000 China didn't have much in the way of arthouse cinema. There were the Zimou Yangs, Kaige Chens and Tian Zhuangzhuangs of course. They all made films that appealed to the arthouse crowd, but those films were mostly poverty porn dramas that followed very similar outlines. Along with the industrialization of China a new generation of film makers rose to the top, both on the commercial and the arthouse side. Nowadays Zhangke Jia is China's biggest arthouse representative, though not quite a personal favorite.

While Jia is no stranger to poverty porn cinema, most of his films have a more contemporary and/or urban feel. No more films about poor people in faraway rural villages being supressed by the government, but films about city youngsters or the older Chinese generations adapting to the industrialization of their towns and cities. It may sounds like a rather small variation on an existing theme, but it does have a strong impact on the overall feel of his films.

Jia started in the mid-90s, though his first film never made much of a splash. Xiaoshan Huijia [Xiaoshan Going Home] is very much a student film. It shows traces of Jia's trademark style, but it's also severely lacking in execution. It's little more than a badly preserved personal experiment that will only appeal to the very biggest of Jia fans. In the following years Jia would hone his skills, with films like Xiao Wo [Artisan Pickpocket] and Ren Xiao Yao [Unknown Pleasures] showing clear improvements upon is first effort.

Zhantai [Platform] was Jia's first internationally acclaimed film, but I couldn't stand it. It's just too ugly, too obvious and impossibly slow. Its most defining scene is the one where a car drives down a dusty hill, just to find out the road is closed, reversing its way up the hill again. The whole thing takes about 2 minutes and all Jia does is register the event in real time. Your mileage may very though, seeing as many people ended up liking Zhantai, but this just isn't my kind of cinema.

The first Jia film I did like was Shijie [The World]. The battle between rich and poor/old and new is still very much present, but this time it's happening in an urban environment rather than a rural one. For a Chinese film, it was an overdue variation on an overused theme. For the next couple of years Jia would remain pretty consistent, with films like Sanxia Haoren [Still Life] and Hai Shang Chuan Qi [I Wish I Knew] doing pretty well at film fests around the world. In 2008 he made Er Shi Si Cheng Ji [24 City], a fake doc that felt more honest and real than most other documentaries out there and ended up becoming my favorite Jia film so far.

In recent years Jia has been branching out a little. The themes and characteristics of his films haven't really changed, but he's been trying out different genres. Tian Zhu Ding [A Touch of Sin] contains crime and action elements, whereas Shan He Gu Ren [Mountains May Depart] plays with slight sci-fi influences. These genre elements do little to change his films though, if anything it highlights that Jia is still telling the same story and is still making the same point as he did 20 years ago.

Even though things were looking up in the mid-00's, it's clear that Jia and I will probably never agree on what makes a great film. As he's the sole (consistent) representative of the Chinese arthouse scene I'll probably keep an eye on his future work, but my expectations are rather low. If you're into poverty-indulgent cinema and films reminiscing about a nicer past then Zhangke Jia might be worth checking out. The man has a pretty decent arthouse following and is regarded highly by the festival crowds, so there's definitely some appeal there. Start with his mid 00s work though, his later films don't really benefit from the added genre influences and his earlier films are crude and clunky.

Best film: Er Shi Si Cheng Ji [24 City] (3.5*)
Worst film: Zhantai [Platform] (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.45 (out of 5)

Tue, 10 Jan 2017 10:29:05 +0000
<![CDATA[Next Generation Patoreiba: Shuto Kessen/Mamoru Oshii]]>
The Next Generation Patlabor: Tokyo War poster

Some ten years ago I stopped looking at the films Japan was producing, instead focusing on Japanese films that were actually ready for Western consumption. I got tired of setting myself up for disappointment. That doesn't mean I'm completely unaware of what's happening over there though. When Oshii revealed his new Patlabor live action project, my Facebook wall lit up with trailers. I left it for what it was, well aware of the slim chance I'd ever get to see it. But lo and behold, sometimes luck is on my side and when the option to see Mamoru Oshii's latest Patlabor film presented itself I jumped at it right away.

The Next Generation Patoreiba: Shuto Kessen [The Next Generation Patlabor: Tokyo War] tails a 13-episode series, very much like the original setup of the franchise. In theory it's a sequel to Kido Keisatsu Patoreba: The Movie 2, but in reality it feels a lot more like a live action remake of said film. The plot is a continuation of the Tsuge storyline introduced in the second Patlabor feature, but Oshii revisits so many landmark moments of his '93 animation classic that it becomes impossible to look at it as a mere sequel. 

Oshii has been going through some rough patches the past couple of years and those struggles are still apparent in Tokyo War. Adapting anime to live action is no easy task, regardless the film has some problems with pacing and tone. Anime-specific comedy doesn't mix well with real-life actors and the jumps between comedy and contemplative moments come quite sudden. It just feels a little awkward at times, especially when comparing it to original film, where pacing and tone were stand-out elements.

That doesn't mean there isn't a lot to enjoy though. Once you get past the weirdness of seeing all those recognizable Patlabor 2 moments redone in live action, there's plenty of vintage Oshii to soak up. From the elaborate camera work to the excellent use of music and some exquisite action scenes, there's hardly ever a dull moment. And if all the Patlabor 2 nods weren't enough, Oshii is also referencing some of his other films (the Ash basketball and of course the famous basset shot - with Oshii's very own silhouette next to it if I'm not mistaken).

There are times when Oshii's genius shimmers through, but those moments are too often interrupted by short comic interludes. I did find out afterwards that I watched the short version (there's also a director's cut that lasts an extra 30 minutes), which is a bit of a bummer since those extra 30 minutes could go a long way towards fixing the pacing problems. Whether you should watch Patlabor 2 first is also a tough question. It's a direct sequel so knowing the plot of its predecessor is definitely helpful, but there are so many references to the original that you might get stuck comparing the two rather than enjoying this film for what it is. I'm sure to give it another go when I get my hands on the director's cut, but for now it isn't quite the masterpiece I'd hoped for. Still a very good film though, especially if you're partial to the work of Oshii.

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 11:11:41 +0000