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[Isao Takahata/x10]]>
Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata will forever live in the shadow of Hayao Miyazaki, though die-hard animation fans will more than likely tell you that Takahata is the better director of the two. And they are right. While I wouldn't want to discredit the work of Miyazaki, Takahata made a few masterpieces that rise far above the works of his former pupil. He has made a bigger impact on people's views of Japanese animation than any of Miyazaki's films could ever dream to do.

Back in 1969, Miyazaki and Takahata teamed up for Takahata's feature film début. Taiyou no Ouji Horusu no Daibouken (Prince of the Sun: The Great Adventure of Horus) is a cute little adventure, not unlike the outline of your average J-RPG. The animation is impressive for its time and it's a fun diversion, but it isn't exactly masterpiece material. Over the course of the next 15 years (and in between his TV work) Takahata managed to direct three other feature films. Panda Kopanda is cuteness overload directed at younger children, Jarinko Chie is a little harsher and arguably Takahata's worst film, while Sero Hiki no Goshu (Goshu the Cellist) shows the first signs of Takahata's true skills.

Right before releasing his big breakthrough film Takahata went on to direct a massive documentary on the Yanagawa canals. Yanagawa Horiwari Monogatari is an in-depth look at all things related to these canals, though it must be said that the subject is a little dry (pun intended) and 167 minutes is rather long for a documentary that talks about nothing else than waterways. Unless you're really really interested in them of course, then it's a treasure trove of information.

One year later Takahata would release his first film under the Ghibli flag. Released back to back with Tonari no Totoro to soften the blow, Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) is a deeply moving and strangely critical story of a young boy who loses his parents during wartime and ends up raising his younger sister all by himself. A film that opened the eyes of film critics around the world, most notably Roger Ebert who vehemently promoted the film at a time that nobody even considered Japanese animation to be a force to be reckoned with.

Hotaru na Haka was a tough act to follow up, but Takahata managed wonderfully when he made Omohide Poro Poro (Only Yesterday). Equally mature, but dreamier and a lot softer in nature. It's the ideal couch-vacation combined with a sweet yet respectful love story. In comparison, Pom Poko (his next film) felt more like an eco-themed filler project. Not a bad film by all means, but not up to the standards of Takahata's previous Ghibli projects.

Right before the turn of the millennium Takahata went on to direct Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun, the first fully-computerized Japanese animation feature. Based on a 4-panel comic, it's not a typical plot-driven film, rather a collection of vignettes held together by a selection of Basho quotes. The hand-painted look might sounds like an odd option for a CG film, but the result is nothing less than stunning. To me, Yamada-kun remains Takahata's best film to date.

It's only a week ago that I watched Takahata's latest (and possibly final) film, Kaguyahime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya). Based on Japan's oldest narrative, it tells the story of a princess born from a bamboo sprout. While visually amazing, there are some pacing issues that keep it from becoming the masterpiece that's hidden away in its 137 minute running time. It's still a great film, but at the same time it's also a red flag that hints at the fact that Takahata's career as a director is nearing its end.

Takahata has never been happy with the status quo. He pushed the boundaries of Japanese animation time and time again and transcended the niche that Japanese animation was. There's no other director like him, animation and live action alike. He made a few absolute masterpieces and rose to heights Miyazaki would never dream of reaching. A wonderful man and a superb director that deserves all the praise he can get.

Best film: Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbors The Yamadas) (5.0*)
Worst film: Jarinko Chie (Chie the Brat) (2.5*)
Reviewed film(s): Omohide Poro Poro, Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun, Hotaru no Haka, Kaguyahime no Monogatari
Average rating: 3.70 (out of 5)

Thu, 21 Aug 2014 11:32:30 +0200
<![CDATA[Kaguyahime no Monogatari/Isao Takahata]]>

While the world is mourning for Hayao Miyazaki's retirement, another one of Ghibli's monuments is more than likely celebrating the release of his final film. More than 5 years in the making, Kaguyahime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) sees Isao Takahata returning to the big screen. The result is remarkable, though not entirely without fault. Still, Takahata demonstrates one final time why he's a bigger loss to the world of animation than Miyazaki could ever dream to be.

screen capture of The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Even though Miyazaki's output is a bit more consistent across the board, Takahata (Omohide Poro Poro, Hotaru no Haka) made the better films. While Miyazaki enjoys a broader commercial appeal, Takahata has done more to push the boundaries of people's expectations when it comes to animation. Excelling in maturity and pushing forward different art styles for different projects, Takahata is clearly the more visionary of the two and, at least for me, counts as a greater loss.

Kaguyahime is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, the oldest known Japanese narrative to date. It's a classic Japanese tale about a princess born from a bamboo sprout and raised by a couple of farmers living close by the bamboo forest. While Takahata did play around with the original story, the adaptation feels like it could have used some extra rejuvenation. While there lies plenty of beauty in the original story, it's also a bit repetitive and long-winding and it could have done with some extra cuts.

In her early years, the princess leads a happy and care-free life amongst the fields and hills where the farmers live. But when her earthly parents decide to move to the city to let the princess flourish in a more civilized and cultured environment, she becomes more and more depressed. She declines all her suitors and even ends up turning a cold shoulder to the emperor. All the while her parents wonder why the princess can't get used to the city life.

screen capture of The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Even though Ghibli has a recognizable visual style that most of their films adhere to, Takahata himself broke free from that when he made Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun. Kaguyahime feels like a continuation of that sober yet delicate hand-painted look. While there's a bit more detail here, the film looks as if an old Japanese painting just came to life. Lines and contours don't always connect and characters lack superficial details, but the beautiful water color style easily overcomes that.

The true beauty lies in the animation itself though, which is of extraordinary quality. Just as Takahata managed to do with Yamada-kun, the animation lends a certain depth and detail to the visuals that transcends the need for a detailed art style. The way characters move and interact with their environment is spot on, unique to the work of Takahata. Sadly the animation is let down by a camera that's a bit too static for its own good. While it lends a more painting-like quality to the film, the lack of different camera angles or camera movement becomes just a little dull after a while. Especially when compared to the 3 or 4 scenes where Takahata does let the camera run free. It's a shame because these scenes do manage to lift the rigidity embedded in the narrative.

Once again Ghibli (and former Kitano) regular Joe Hisaishi is responsible for the soundtrack. The music is a subtle mix of Hisaishi's trademark piano sound with more traditional Japanese music, resulting in a beautiful yet slightly unadventurous set of tracks. There are a couple of songs (co-written by Takahata himself) that add to the vintage feel of the film, but they are few and far between. The dub is, as can be expected from a Ghibli film, top notch. As far as I know there's only a Japanese dub available, which in this case is essential to get the most out of the film.

screen capture of The Tale of Princess Kaguya

While all the ingredients are here for a full-blown masterpiece, Kaguyahime has some serious pacing issues. While the intro and finale are both excellent, the middle part of the film is repetitive and drags on for too long. The sequence with the 5 suitors in particular is too drawn-out and needlessly holds up the film. This kind of repetition is not unusual in older stories, but without new angles or new insights it gets boring pretty fast. It's a shame, because with some cutting in the middle part the film could've been a lot better.

Kaguyahime is still a marvel to behold and definitely worth your time, but it's also a film that feels like a natural end to Takahata's career. While Miyazaki finished on top of his game, Takahata's latest feels as if a decline in quality has settled in. Visually it's one of the bravest and most unique things you'll see coming out of Japan this year, but there's an overall lack of vitality and some pacing issues halfway through that work against the abundant beauty present. Ghibli fans shouldn't be too worried, but unless you have a soft spot for animation and classic Japanese tales, don't expect an absolute masterpiece.

Tue, 19 Aug 2014 11:38:36 +0200
<![CDATA[Shi Hun/Mong-Hong Chung]]>

It was only three years ago that Taiwanese cinema suddenly exploded, sadly this new generation of film makers has had a rough time confirming their new-found status. Mong-Hong Chung is doing his best to keep the buzz alive though and with Shi Hun (Soul) he delivers another sprawling example of first-rate Taiwanese cinema. It's not the most accessible of films, but you'd be doing yourself a great disservice for not giving Shi Hun a shot.

screen capture of Soul

While Mong-Hong Chung's The Fourth Portrait was a perfect example of Asian arthouse drama, Shi Hun throws some different genre elements in the mix. The film bears all the usual traits (or defects if you don't like that kind of thing) of stilted Asian drama cinema, but the story is one that involves murder and intrigue, royally borrowing influences from the thriller genre. An odd mix for sure but definitely one that helps to set this film apart from a million others.

It takes a while to get a firm grip on what the hell is going on though. Chung doesn't fully conform to established genre elements so it's difficult to try and predict where the film is headed. The first murder comes as a complete shock and Chung's cold-hearted effectiveness in showing it is nothing less than staggering. One moment you're looking at an idyllic rural scene, the next cut blood is everywhere. Chung's strength is that he manages to keep this tension going throughout the entire length of the film.

The film follows Ah-Chuan, a kid who traded in his mountain home to work as a cook in the big city. When he simply falls to the floor one day, his co-workers take him back to his home town where his father and sister have vowed to take care of him. Ah-Chuan hardly interacts with his family, but after a day or two he wakes up from his detached state. Only Ah-Chuan doesn't seem to recognize his family and acts as if he is a completely different person.

screen capture of Soul

After watching The Fourth Portrait I don't think there was anyone left who still doubted Chung's visual prowess, but Shi Hun is, if at all possible, even more stunning. It's without a doubt the most beautiful film I've seen all year. And it's not just the lighting or the delicate framing, it's the whole package that amazes. From the unique editing rhythm, the impeccable lighting and the original camera angles to the sublime use of color and excellent use of surroundings, Chung fires landmark shot after landmark shot at the viewer.

The soundtrack alternates between slightly enhanced ambient soundscapes and grim, tense-sounding music. It's a more than solid soundtrack that doesn't necessarily surprise, but does enhance the overall mood of the film. In combination with the editing it makes for some chilling scenes that don't miss their effect. In other words, it's a thriller soundtrack done right.

Chung works with a very limited cast, but he made sure to include some interesting names. Hsiao-chuan Chang should look familiar to fans of Leste Chen's Eternal Summer, but it's Yu Wang who makes the best impression. An old veteran who earned his stripes in the early 70s as a Shaw Bros actor/director, Wang portrays his character with such cold determinedness that simply seeing him strut around the mountain while tending to his orchids is frightening in itself. Leon Dai, probably the most well-known name, makes a short appearance later on, though his role remains limited to just a couple of scenes.

screen capture of Soul

Even though the film doesn't stray too far from typical thriller tropes, the presentation makes sure that you're never quite certain what to expect. The characters are icy and distant, the twists abrupt and razor sharp. And all the while Chung keeps serving the most beautiful imagery, making for a spectacular contrast. While the slow pacing and primal characters might not be to everyone's liking, arthouse enthusiasts shouldn't have too much trouble getting through this film.

Mong-Hong Chung clearly outgrew his image of upcoming talent. His direction is so purposeful and to the point that it almost feels as if he's a veteran already. Shi Hun is pretty much perfect, though it might not be very accessible to those who fail to appreciate the mix of arthouse and genre film ideologies. Apart from some slight pacing issues in the middle and one or two redundant scenes near the end, there isn't anything I can fault. Without a doubt one of the best films I've seen all year.

Thu, 14 Aug 2014 10:59:15 +0200
<![CDATA[Robert Zemeckis/x10]]>
Robert Zemeckis

Some directors I pursue, others I just bump in to from time to time. Zemeckis is of the latter kind. Even though I've seen 10 films by the man, it all came about somewhat "by accident". There were various reasons why I picked out his films, but never because they were directed by him.

Zemeckis is somewhat of an ideal Hollywood director. He hasn't got much of a trademark style but he often manages to make his projects into something unique without coming off as too weird or different. He can work in different genres and doesn't mind exploring new techniques. Over the years he's directed quite a few memorable films, even though I think it's fair to question the praise that some of these films received.

Zemeckis started his career in the early 80s, with Romancing the Stone as his first breakthrough film. One year later Zemeckis would hit the jackpot when he released Back to the Future. A fan favourite (especially people from my generation) that spawned two sequels, though when I watched it again a few years ago it served as little more than a personal reminder that nostalgia is often wasted on me. The first two films are pretty lame and I cringed quite a lot.

In between the two first BttF films Zemeckis made Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the first testament of his love for animation. The film's a great technical feat, but is pretty grating on every other level. It would take 16 years before Zemeckis would try his hand on another animation film. The Polar Express is the first of a trio of motion captured films that would keep Zemeckis occupied throughout the second part of the 00's. Beowulf and A Christmas Carol were solid follow-ups that refined the technical accomplishments, but they never managed to become much more than technical showcases.

Mid-90s Zemeckis struck gold again. Forrest Gump is probably his most famous film and remains a quirky, fun and off-kilter Hollywood project even by modern standards. Sadly it also marks the start of a lesser period, with complete (artistic) failures like Contact, What Lies Beneath and Cast Away (Hanks is absolutely terrible in that one) messing up Zemeckis' track record.

I'll never be a fan of Zemeckis. Some of his films are better than others, the man has enough skills do to a decent job, but he lacks vision and a signature style. It makes that his films don't age all that well and that I'm never truly amused by what he directs.

Best film: Forrest Gump (3.5*)
Worst film: Contact (0.5*)
Average rating: 2.00 (out of 5)

Tue, 12 Aug 2014 13:52:02 +0200
<![CDATA[Strings/Anders Ronnow Klarlund]]>

Puppetry is a rarity in film land. When Strings finally popped up in 2004 there seemed a window of opportunity for like-minded directors, but nobody followed in Anders Ronnow Klarlund's footsteps. And so Strings remains one of the most unique films to date. A technical tour de force and a hellish ride for the entire crew involved, but also a stunning fairy tale with a big, beating heart. A movie that everyone with a love for fantasy films should be able to appreciate.

screen capture of Strings

Puppetry is a bit strange. It falls somewhere in between the realms of live action cinema and animation. It's not a method that requires frame by frame processing to fake motion, but it's also far from a registration of our everyday world. It's the live action equivalent of claymation and because of the technical challenges involved it's probably not that strange that there are few puppetry films out there. Looking back Klarlund's undertaking was quite preposterous, but that's often how the best films get made.

Strings is not just a film with puppets though, it's a film that incorporates the entire puppetry physique and draws a lot of creativity from that. The strings that control the puppets play a crucial part in their lives, giving them life force and allowing them to move their limbs, but they also prohibit them from entering spaces with a roof. In that same vein, the city gates are little more than a raised log of wood. It's details like these that raise the film to a new level and they continue to pop up way deep into the second half of the film.

The story itself is pretty basic. When the king of Hebalon is killed by his own brother, the king's son (Hal Tara) is sent out to take revenge on the Zeriths (Hebalon's life-long enemies), not aware that the betrayal came from inside Hebalon's own walls. When Hal Tara finally meets up with the Zeriths though, a different side of the story is revealed and Hal Tara pledges to right all wrongs. Fans of multiple layers will be happy to hear Klarlund hid an entire 9/11 analogy into the film's plot, but it can be safely ignored when you're just out to get a solid dose of good old fantasy storytelling.

screen capture of Strings

Clearly a lot of time was spent on the building the sets. Everything looks incredibly detailed and the scale of the String's miniature world alone is absolutely impressive. The puppetry (as far as I can judge) is exceptional too, with surprisingly emotive characters and some pretty strong performances. Character design in nice, so is the actual camera work. The strange thing is that after a while you're actually forgetting you're not watching a regular live action film. That is probably another thing that separates it from animation, which, due to its more abstract means of expression, usually flaunts its animation style.

Even though Strings is a Scandinavian film, it was made with an international audience in mind. I believe there are localized dubs available (meaning dubbed in Swedish/Danish), but the official dub is actually the English one. The voice cast isn't super, but it helps that it's comprised mostly of British actors, which lends the film at least some vocal class. With people like James McAvoy and Catherine McCormack on board they have some famous names to put on the poster, I'm just not sure if they were the best actors for the job. Then again, it never feels cheap or grating, so at least that's something.

screen capture of Strings

Strings works best as a fantasy film. Klarlund went through a lot of trouble to construct a very elaborate world with its own specific habits and mythology. This sense of continuous wonder is what makes String tick. The plot itself is quite basic and is little more than a catalyst for characters to move between different settings and plot points. The ending is pretty limited in scale, though I guess that's only to be expected when working with real-life puppets. Still, you never feel like you're missing out on something better and Klarlund makes sure there's always something to be in awe of.

Strings is a film that would probably appeal best to fans of animation, though I'd recommend it to everyone who likes to watch something outside the norm. The puppetry skills are outstanding, the setting is elaborate and due to its economic running time the ideas and creativity put into it never run dry. It's an amazing watch that makes you forget you're looking at human-controlled puppets. I hope Klarlund will return to film making in the future, because I'd sure like to see more of this.

Mon, 11 Aug 2014 13:09:58 +0200
<![CDATA[alfred hitchcock/x10]]>
Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock needs no introduction. Above everything else he's the director of Vertigo, a film that occupies the number two spot on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list and the number one spot on the Sight & Sound 2012 list, probably the most prestigious movie rankings around. Crowned the master of suspense, Hitchcock directed numerous classics that still have an avid following today, sadly I haven't been quite able to share in people's enthusiasm.

To me Hitchcock is probably the most lifeless of all the big classic directors. With a strong focus on plot, suspense and characters, I usually end up bored and apathetic while watching his films. The characters in Hitchcock films feel too forced to be witty (not helped by some horrid actor choices - I'll never be a James Stewart fan). His scripts are generally too detailed and long-winding, ending up spoiling too much for the viewer and effectively erasing whatever suspense there is and his affection for indoor studio shooting often resulted in needlessly fake-looking scenes.

It's a rare occasion when Hitchcock tries to break out of his own little safety zone. With The Trouble with Harry he dropped the suspense and used one of his scripts to set up a dark comedy, with Rope he made a film without (visible) edits. Not surprisingly I consider these two films his best works, even though they remain quite tepid and uneventful and offer little beyond their gimmicks.

At their worst, Hitchcock films radiate a certain amateurism that I can't match with his image of being a perfectionist. Awkwardly edited scenes (Vertigo) and setups that feel so unrealistic they take all the tension out of a scene (various moments in Notorious and North By Northwest spring to mind) are rampant, but for some reason I'm one of the few people on this Earth that seems to mind. And it's not an age/signs of the times thing either, I've seen older films that come off as way more convincing.

I've tried all the famous ones. Rebecca, Strangers on a Train, Dial M For Murder, Rear Window, even Psycho. There isn't a single Hitchcock film that had anything to win me over. The only thing I can appreciate so far is his sense of wit when it comes to staging his own cameos. Hitchcock himself is a peculiar presence but even then he does manage to hide himself quite well from time to time. These are rare moments of joy in otherwise lifeless films.

Not that I'm giving up already, but with his biggest works behind me Hitchcock clearly won't be a priority any more.

Best film: The Trouble with Harry (1.5*)
Worst film: North by Northwest (0.5*)
Average rating: 1.05 (out of 5)

Thu, 07 Aug 2014 11:14:57 +0200
<![CDATA[The Signal/William Eubank]]>

Sci-fi is doing well these days, but so far all the major films have failed to truly entice. Films like Elysium and Oblivion were decent enough, but they never managed to amaze the way only a good sci-fi can. Luckily the broader appeal these blockbusters are currently enjoying means smaller genre films are getting a better shot at success, and that's where things get interesting. The Signal may lack the big bucks and the mass appeal, but it's a damn fine film nonetheless.

screen capture of The Signal

I missed Eubank's freshman film Love, but based on the qualities of The Signal it won't be long before I'll be checking that one out. Reviews seem to indicate that both films share quite a bit of common ground, so fans of Love probably shouldn't hesitate to check out Eubank's latest. For some reason Love seems to have garnered quite a few detractors though, so Eubank might not be a director with a very broad appeal. Whatever the case, The Signal is a film worth giving a shot.

The Signal starts off like a regular horror flick. Two geeks and a girl head out on a hunt for a mysterious hacker. Put some teens in a car on their way to a deserted spot and seasoned horror fans out there are going to catch on pretty quickly. It gets even better when they arrive at an abandoned house and the film switches to a first person camera view. But right when the scares are bound to pop up, Eubank switches gears and puts his sci-fi adventure on the rails.

Saying anything more about the story would be spoiling too much, but it's safe to say that things get freakier as the film progresses. It's never quite clear what the hell is going on and Eubank has a lot of fun hiding the truth from his viewers. Each revelation introduces more questions and each plot twists just opens up a path with more twists and turns. The Signal is equal parts mystery and sci-fi, luckily Eubank never forgets to pay ample homage to the film's sci-fi roots.

screen capture of The Signal

Eubank is a former cinematographer and it shows. On a shoestring budget he still manages to deliver a fine-looking film. Even the CG is convincing, though there still are a few shots that betray the film's low-budget background. Lighting and use of color are impeccable though and both help to create a grim and atmospheric film. Also props for some very neat tech design. The science part looks pretty cool and feels different enough from your average blockbuster fare. Near the end the film goes into visual overdrive and even then Eubank doesn't fall through, which is actually rather surprising for a film like this.

The soundtrack is moody and effective, not the most original stuff (lots of dark ambient soundscapes and some softer piano tunes for the flashbacks) but certainly helpful in setting up the right atmosphere. It's not a very memorable score and the music itself never really jumps out, but it does a good job becoming one with the movie. I like my soundtracks to be a bit more outspoken and involved, but at least it's effective enough not to bring the film down.

Laurence Fishbourne is clearly set up as the actor who has to draw in the crowds, ironically enough he's also the weakest link. For what's little more than a poster-name though, he plays a surprisingly big part in the film. Thwaites, Cooke and Knapp do a much better job as the central trio and find the necessary drama in their characters. They give them a little extra that makes you care, even when the concept and plot are clearly more important than personal drama. And of course Eubank deserves extra points for Lin Shaye's cameo, she's probably the most peculiar horror icon alive today and it's always a joy to see her perform.

screen capture of The Signal

What begins as a horror film and switches over to sci-fi halfway through ends up being a pretty effective mind fuck at the end. Not everyone is going to appreciate these sudden shifts in genres, but even though they are quite sudden they never tear the film apart in different segments. Eubank carries over elements from one genre into another and manages to maintain a solid bottom line throughout the entire film. It's quite a feat, considering all the different ideas put into The Signal.

Eubank is clearly a talented director with a vision. He might not transcend the genre film segment to become a big blockbuster director, but that's probably just for the better. He can make magic happen on a small budget and at least this way he can push his own concepts and ideas forward. The Signal is everything a good genre film should be, and a little more. Purists should approach with caution but broader genre film fans can do little wrong with watching The Signal.

Wed, 06 Aug 2014 11:04:09 +0200
<![CDATA[Posutoman Burusu/Hiroyuki Tanaka]]>

Hiroyuki Tanaka (better known as Sabu) must be the single-most undervalued Japanese director out there. I know of no director who has made so many great films which subsequently failed to land international (read English-friendly) releases. Posutoman Burusu (Postman Blues) is one of Sabu's better (and older) outings, yet it remains an unknown gem to most. While it is almost impossible to catch nowadays, those who have the chance to watch it should do so without hesitation.

screen capture of Posutoman Burusu

Even though Sabu's more recent output (Kanikosen, Usagi Drop, Miss Zombie) sees the director diversifying a little, his earlier work was all pretty identical. Not so much the stories, the characters or the events, but the setup and build-up of Sabu's first few films (Kofuku no Kane,Monday) all follow a pretty rigid pattern. While it makes his films sound derivative, the fact that Sabu kept perfecting his own style resulted in quite the opposite effect.

To be honest, I'm usually not a big fan of escalation-like coincidence/misunderstanding-based comedies. They tend to be too loud and attention whoring (safe a few that go completely over the top), but Sabu's films are actually quite the opposite. There's a downplayed, subdued and calm atmosphere that eases characters from one situation into another and actually lends a certain wit to the whole escalation process. Posutoman Burusu almost feels like watching a master class on how to do these types of films properly.

Sawaki is a bored mail man, disappointed with his job (and life in general). Until one day he delivers a letter to an old school pal who ended up working for the Yakuza. While this meeting sets off a number of events that introduces Sawaki to a colorful crowd of people, little does he know the police is shadowing him after this fateful visit to his old friend. And with every new person Sawaki meets, suspicions about his criminal behavior grow bigger.

screen capture of Posutoman Burusu

Sabu's visual style isn't an exact copy of Takeshi Kitano's, but it sure borrows some of his most typical elements. Static shots with characters walking in from the sides are used to great effect, razor sharp editing complements the deal. While the film looks a little grim and colorless, the solid camera work and Sabu's great sense of timing make up for that. It isn't Sabu's most beautiful film and he was clearly still developing his style, but the potential is definitely there.

Even though Sabu showcased his excellent talent for incorporating soundtracks more than once (Monday, Miss Zombie), Posutoman Burusu is a surprisingly quiet film, relying mostly on ambient sounds. There is some music left and right, but mostly tracks that feel like a quick shortcut to evoke a certain mood. The soundtrack is pretty meagre and while the music itself doesn't irritate, it's hard to pass the fact that Sabu can do much better.

One thing Sabu never lacked was actor support and Posutoman Burusu features just about every Japanese actor that mattered back then. Shinichi Tsutsumi is of course taking up the lead (a true Sabu regular), but with actors like Ren Osugi, Tomorowo Taguchi, Yoji Tanaka and Susumu Terajima filling in secondary roles you know you're well equipped to deal with a comedy like this. A sublime cast all-round and those in the know can even spot Tanaka himself in a small cameo.

screen capture of Posutoman Burusu

Posutoman Burusu is one of those films that keeps getting better as Sawaki continues his way forward, landing himself into more and more trouble with each move he makes. The difference here is that Sawaki is never actively aware of his ordeal, simply adding more smiles as times passes by. The only catch is that you have to be able to enjoy the occasional story branch. Sabu is known to wander off when he feels like it and this film has several such occasions. For me these scenes only make the film better, but not everyone will appreciate this seemingly pointless interludes.

It was more than 10 years since I first watched this film and so I wasn't quite sure if it would still hold up after all this time. But reacquainting myself with Posutoman Burusu ended up being an immensely joyful experience. The film remains witty, smart and contains just the right amount of drama and depth besides the obvious comedy. Sabu is a master film maker and deserves more international exposure, starting with English-friendly DVDs. Sadly this appears to be a far off dream, so in the meantime I'll grab any chance to praise his work and hope for the best.

Mon, 04 Aug 2014 12:02:00 +0200
<![CDATA[Heung Gong Jai/Ho-cheung Pang]]>

Working his way up from low budget dark comedies, Ho-cheung Pang carved his own path into the Hong Kong movie scene (which doesn't really do dark comedy). Even now, long after he made a name for himself, his films refuse to conform to the status quo. Every new Pang film is an adventure, so when I heard Aberdeen was released it didn't take me long to sit down and give his new film a spin. As always, Pang didn't disappoint.

screen capture of Aberdeen

Where his previous film (Vulgaria) was a throwback to Pang's earlier work, Aberdeen sees Pang (Dream Home, Exodus) furthering his exploration of the drama genre. Aberdeen is a touch more structured than his contemporary dramas Love in the Buff and Love in a Puff, yet more playful than Isabella. In tone I think it reminded me most of Por See Yee (Trivial Matters), one of his lesser known films.

The setup of the story is quite complex, deliberately so. The first 20 minutes is spent amongst unknown characters with little or no obvious connection. But those expecting a big get-together at the end will be surprised when Pang brings everyone together well before the half hour mark. It's quite a shift and it takes a while to register, though Pang changes little about the actual structure of the film, still jumping between characters and segments of the story after everyone is linked together.

There are basically three parties. A father, a daughter, a son (and their respective families). The mother of the family died, the father started his life anew, the daughter feels unloved by her parents and the son struggles with his successful image as he ages. Several sub-plots emerge (one about an ugly granddaughter, one about an unexploded bomb from WWII and one about the son's wife who is struggling to find work as an ageing actress), all combining into one tight-fitted drama.

screen capture of Aberdeen

Through the years Pang emerged as one of the most visual capable directors in Hong Kong and with Aberdeen he only fortifies that position. It's maybe a tad surprising to see him playing around with some of the cheesier effects that Hong Kong cinema is known for (he applies a lot of color gradient overlays here), but the result is 100% classy nonetheless. On top of that Aberdeen contains some of the most detailed and deliberately layouted shots I've seen in a Pang film so far.

The soundtrack is dreamy and subtle enough, but a bit on the safe side. It's probably the least outspoken soundtrack of Pang's drama work so far, fading into the background just a little too often. While the music fits the scenes and atmosphere, it simply isn't memorable enough to do the film much good. Normally Pang does better with his choice of music, so that's a little disappointing.

The actors on the other hand rise above themselves. With leads like Louis Koo, Eric Tsang en Gigi Leung you might not be expecting too much dramatic prowess, but Pang uses his cast to perfection. Biggest surprise is Man Tat Ng (I didn't even recognize him until after the film), who demonstrates there's more to his skills than being at the bad end of a ruthless joke. Extra credits for also including Shawn Yue, still one of Hong Kong's best actors to date.

screen capture of Aberdeen

Aberdeen is more than just a regular drama though. Not only does Pang include some quirky comedy and general light-heartedness (the Stormtrooper suit is a very nice touch), there are also several miniature dream sequences that stand out from the rest of the film. Cute, crafty and memorable moments that play a huge part in defining Pang's latest. It's details like this that truly lift his work above that of the competition.

I think Aberdeen is somewhat of a gamble if you're not familiar with Pang's earlier work. There are probably easier films if you want to get acquainted with his work, but die-hard Ho-cheung Pang fans should feel right at home, even though there are plenty of surprises tucked away throughout the film. It's another great addition to the man's oeuvre and proof that he's a truly unique force in the Hong Kong movie industry. One for the connoisseurs.

Thu, 31 Jul 2014 13:08:15 +0200
<![CDATA[Saint Oniisan/Noriko Takao]]>

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

screen capture of Saint Oniisan

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

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

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

screen capture of Saint Oniisan

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

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

screen capture of Saint Oniisan

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

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

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

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

screen capture of Mimi wo Sumaseba

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

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

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

screen capture of Mimi wo Sumaseba

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

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

screen capture of Mimi wo Sumaseba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

screen capture of Like Father, Like Son

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

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

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

screen capture of Like Father, Like Son

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

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

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

screen capture of Like Father, Like Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wed, 25 Jun 2014 12:52:56 +0200