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[Domino/Tony Scott]]>

The first time I watched Tony Scott's Domino the film didn't quite blew me away, nonetheless I was happily surprised to see its relentless stylistic approach. It's not often you come across a Hollywood film that has the audacity to dazzle its audience with style over substance. I was quite curious to see how and if that style had held up over time, so I gave the film a second run. Once again the film managed to win me over, though I couldn't really help but wonder how that reflects on the overall quality of Hollywood's output.

screen capture of Domino

For much of his career, Tony Scott made light, easily digestible yet entertaining Hollywood fare. Halfway through the 00s something clicked though, triggering him to turn up the volume and go all out. Both Man on Fire and Domino stand as outliers in Scott's oeuvre, still going for the same tried and tested storylines put packaging them into a decidedly more modern and outgoing exterior. It's as if Scott tried to carry on the legacy of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, something I can definitely appreciate.

The film is based on real-life bountyhunter Domino Harvey, who died the very same year Scott's film was released. Together with Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko fame) Scott condensed her life story into a 2 hour film that revolves around a single case gone wrong. Like most Hollywood adaptations, there is quite some leeway when it comes to the realism of the portrayal, but Scott did consult with Domino and her fellow bounty hunters extensively while producing the film.

The film is set up as a post-event narration, with Domino being questioned by the FBI about a money bust gone awry. It's an easy and useful setup that allows Scott to go through the key events while at the same time filling in the blanks regarding Domino's past when necessary. There's quite a lot of material to go through, with many marginal characters and plot deviations that add little beyond dragging out the running time. Luckily Domino is more about style than it is about substance so the film itself never really feels slow or ill-paced.

screen capture of Domino

Scott says the style of the film was heavily influenced by the excessive cocaine use of the bounty hunters. Whatever excuse works for Scott, I just wish there were more films that were into the visual storytelling on display here. Rapid editing, rampant cameras, a myriad of filters and a harsh oversaturated color palette turn Domino into a visual onslaught that knows no Hollywood equal. It's definitely not for everybody, with many complaining about suffering from nausea (heh) and headaches (myeah) just from watching the film, but I'm definitely in favor.

The soundtrack too is pretty processed, with some of the dialogues receiving an almost sample-like treatement. The music itself consist of pretty basic but effective high-octane tracks, but in combination with the visuals and dialogues it creates a very clear and definite rhythm that reminded me of Pi. Not in the way it actually sounds (as Pi's soundtrack is more electronic-oriented) but definitely in the way the sound fits into the film. I just wish more films would put this much effort in the way the music and dialogue blends in with the rest of the film.

Portraying Domino Harvey is Keira Knightley, a somewhat suprising choice that paid off quite favorably. Based on her other work I wouldn't have given 2 cents for her casting, but she's remarkably edgy and kick-ass when need be. The same can be said about the rest of the cast, especially Rourke (who I usually can't stand) and Christopher Walken. There's a slew of fun cameos too, ranging from Macy Gray and Mena Suvari to Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green (both of Beverly Hills 90210 fame - playing themselves) and Scott gets bonus points for adding Lucy Liu as the FBI inspector.

screen capture of Domino

Domino is obviously a bit much for most people. If you're hung up on narrative clarity or still reference MTV music videos when valuing a film, I'm pretty sure this is going to be a rather painful experience. From start to finish, Scott keeps the pace high, never putting in any breathers and never dialing back the overall intensity. Domino is an audiovisual trip, but still hooked into the Hollywood DNA. There is a narrative and a strong focus on plot progression, it's just drowned out by stylistic prowess.

Sadly, this was just a little phase for Scott and Hollywood wasn't immediately inspired to follow in his footsteps. Personally though I think it's still one of the few great films to come out of America's big film circus. Domino is loud, bold and in your face, but it's also fun and entertaining while staying clear from Hollywood's usual pitfalls. It's a movie with balls, with a strong female lead and a very clear sense of style. If you're in the mood for something different and you don't mind style over substance, be sure to give this one a chance.

Thu, 17 Aug 2017 10:19:35 +0000
<![CDATA[Hideaki Anno/x10]]>
Hideaki Anno

Hideaki Anno is one of the rogue forces that shaped the anime industry in the 80s and 90s. He's best known as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but he's had a much richer career so far than most people appear to realize. In the early 80s Anno was picked up by Miyazaki to work on Nausicaa as an animator. That same year Anno would cofound Studio Gainax, one of the leading animation companies during the 90s. As a director Anno first got noticed when he released Gunbuster, a short but fun OAV that followed a bunch of young, female mech cadets. But it wasn't until Anno directed Evangelion in '95 that his fame exploded. Evangelion is still considered one of the all-time landmark anime releases and while personally I'm not a big fan, it's simply impossible to ignore its impact on Japanese animation (and international geek culture as a whole).

Anno's first steps into feature film territory were directly related to Evangelion. The End of Evangelion was a rework of the series' finale (to clear some thing up, as people were quite confused by the way the original series ended), Death & Rebirth is an almost abstract compilation of the entire series into a single film. While these are interesting additions to the Evangelion universe, they offer very little to people who weren't too impressed by the original series.

With the whole world going mad over Anno's creation, the man himself surprised friend and foe when he decided to make a 180, suddenly turning to live-action cinema. Love & Pop was his first attempt and turned out to be an interesting experiment, with Anno tirelessly exploring the different possibilities of live-action cinema. The film itself is a little uneven, but it was already clear back then that Anno wasn't interested in simply copying existing conventions. He made that even clearer when he followed it up with Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu], a beautiful, creative and original drama that still stands as one of my all-time favorite films. As an added bonus, the film features director Shinji Iwai as one of the lead characters. It may be somewhat of a challenge to track down, but it's definitely worth the effort.

But Anno isn't one to get stuck in a particular niche, so from there on out he went back to animation, directing the somewhat obscure Submarine 707R and following it up with a Cutie Honey revival (consisting of an animated anthology and a live-action feature film). The animated anthology (Rec: Cutie Honey) is definitely the stand-out of the two, but I'm sure that had more to do with Hiroyuki Imaishi's involvement. The live-action feature is a pretty cheesy anime adaptation, quite cheap and childish and only worthwhile if you're a big fan of the original series.

In 2007 Anno finally returned to the series that brought him his fame. With three new feature films spread out over 5 years, Anno set out to reimagine Evangelion for a third (and final?) time. The first film is pretty tame and remains quite close to the original series, only adding some improved animation. But part 2 and 3 is where things get more interesting. Anno went for a more dynamic and exuberant visual style and really upgraded the films in such a way that they became true stand-alone entries in the Evangelion franchise. They may still cling to the original storyline, but the experience of watching them is quite different and in fact marks the first time I managed to actually enjoy something Evangelion-related.

Not too long ago Anno set out to reboot the Gojira franchise, together with up and coming director Shinji Higuchi. The result was Shin Gojira, a fun and worthy addition to the long-running Gojira franchise that didn't quite reinvent the series, but did showed enough potential for possible future remakes. At the very least, it's a lot better than what their Western counterparts are currently up to with the Gojira franchise. Up next is the fourth and final instalment in Anno's third Evangelion reboot, though no specific date is set for that one.

Even though Anno's name will forever be tied to the Evangelion franchise, he has a much wider range than most people give him credit for. Evangelion is a curse and a blessing, though ultimately it allowed Anno to venture out and do what he wants to do, with surprisingly little restraint, which is something I'm sure many other directors are quite envious of. Not everything he touches turns into gold, but it's always interesting and often surprising to see where he goes next.

Best film: Ritual [Shiki-Jitsu] (5.0*)
Worst film: Evangelion: Death & Rebirth [Evangelion: Shito Shinsei] (1.5*)
Reviewed films: Ritual
Average rating: 2.60 (out of 5)

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 09:42:04 +0000
<![CDATA[Raw/Julia Ducournau]]>

For the first time in years, a French horror film made some serious headlines again. Julia Ducourneau's Raw [Grave] enjoyed reports of people fainting, throwing up and leaving the theater prematurely. Hell, there were even stories about heart attacks. I finally caught up with the film and I have to say that it didn't disappoint. Is it as crazy as the hype promises? Of course not, then again the film was never intended to become a renowned shocker. So go in with an open mind and prepare yourself for a nice slice of French unease.

screen capture of Raw

People going in expecting a film matching the likes of Inside or Martyrs are sure to leave disappointed. While there is definitely some graphic content and Ducournau never shies away from showing what needs to be shown, the film doesn't set out to scare or gross out its audience. Raw is a darker, more unsettling kind of horror. It's more interested in presenting a world that's overtly disturbing while sharing a feeling of tension and unease that keeps its viewers on edge.

Raw is a film about the blossoming sexuality of a young university student, only it's disguised as a mix of coming of age and cannibalism. It doesn't really blend in with the French horror films of the '00s, instead if feels more like a crossover between Fabrice du Welz and the Dardennes. Raw has in fact a very Walloon feel to it (a solemn bleakness combined with splash of dark comedy), maybe not all that surprising knowing that the film is in fact a French/Belgian coproduction. So if you're looking for references, films like Alléluia and Small Gods should give a much better idea of what to expect.

The film follows Justine during her first week at vet college. She may be one of the brightest students of her year, but she has a hard time fitting into her new environment. The fact that she's being hazed quite thoroughly isn't exactly helping to improve her mood either. Things get worse when she's forced to eat raw rabbit liver (she was brought up a vegetarian) and ends up with a terrible rash. Even so, that first bite of raw meat awakens a dormant longing in Justine, who finds it increasingly difficult to suppress her urges.

screen capture of Raw

Ducounrau joined forces with Ruben Impens (Broken Circle Breakdown) to give her film the necessary visual flair. While Impens does a commendable job, I think cinematographers like Debie, Dacosse or Karakatsanis could've brought something extra to the table. Impens does a great job at capturing the somewhat dim and gloomy setting of the campus and its surroundings, but when things get a bit craftier (like the party scenes or the paint scene) there's a lingering wish for a little more visual oomph. Raw doesn't look bad by any means, it's just that there's some untapped potential there that could've given the film that extra push.

The score does go that extra mile though. Ducounrau isn't shy to let the music take over and let it dictate the rhythm of a scene. One of the film's core moments is built entirely around Orties - Plus Putes que toutes les Putes, a rather dark and gritty hip-hop/electronic cross-over track that Justine is listening to when she finally gives in to her inhibitions. It's scenes like these that define the film and it's nice to see that Ducounrau understands the importance of a great soundtrack when building up these key moments.

Taking on the lead role is Garance Marillier. Marillier teamed up with Decournau before when working on Junior, a short film that marked the first steps into the film business for both. Marillier is still pretty new to film, but she really applied herself to what stands out as a difficult part and came out on top. Ella Rumpf too puts in solid performance as Justine's sister, but fans of European horror will be more delighted by the (albeit short) appearance of Laurent Lucas (Marc Stevens in Calvaire) as Justine's dad. Definitely was a nice little touch, even though his part is pretty limited.

screen capture of Raw

While the wild stories about people fainting appear grossly overstated, there is definitely a certain harshness to Raw that many people will find hard to stomach. It's not about scaring people's socks off or making things super gruesome, instead there's a more realistic sense of horror that runs underneath the film. It's like that feeling you get when you drive past a car crash (also a direct reference in the film). A mix of dread and unease that's scarier than any horror film out there, because in some weird way it hits much closer to home. It may not satisfy commercial horror fans or hardcore gorehounds, but it doesn't make it any less horrific.

Raw is a great film for a director just starting out in the business. Ducournau not only showed that she's a very capable director, she also demonstrated the ability to bring something new and unique to the table. Coining that second film will still be a challenge I think, as Raw developed into something beyond the immediate control of Ducournau, but the talent is definitely there. For now though, Raw is an easy recommend if you like horror cinema in a broader sense of the word, just keep your expectation in check and you'll be fine.

Mon, 07 Aug 2017 10:04:49 +0000
<![CDATA[Your Name/Makoto Shinkai]]>

For a while now, Makoto Shinkai has been knocking on the gates of international breakthrough. Your run-of-the-mill anime fan will recognize his name, but somehow Shinkai never quite managed to take his fame beyond his own niche. That is, until he released Your Name [Kimi no Na Wa.]. Shinkai's latest was a tremendous success, both locally and internationally, finally placing him next to anime greats like Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii. Looking at Shinkai's oeuvre so far, that token of respect is well-earned.

screen capture of Your Name

Shinkai himself is bit weary of his newfound success and I must admit that it's somewhat of a double-edged sword for Western fans too. Your Name was released exactly a year ago, but its success kept it in cinemas and festivals for a much longer period than normally the case. The home release took a full year to materialize, just because of import worries and tight distribution control. For someone like me, who prefers the comfort and quiet of his own living room to watch a good film, that's pretty annoying. For a full year I've been ignoring reviews and online commentary about the film, needless to say I jumped on the home release the moment it became available.

Your Name is a film that blends the fantasy of Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below with the romance of 5 Centimeters per Second, making it a pretty logical continuation within Shinkai's oeuvre. The fantasic elements are mostly there to propel the story forward and to conjur up a unique romantic dilemma, while the romance forms the true core of the film, providing the atmosphere and emotional pay-off. It's a fragile balance that, when not executed perfectly, could've easily brought out the worst in Shinkai's work, yet he pulls it off with great elegance.

The story revolves around Mitsuha (a girl living in a rural village) and Taki (a boy living in Tokyo), who swap bodies randomly. They go to bed being themselves but they wake up in the other one's body. At first they assume they're just being a little hazy and forgetful, but it doesn't take them too long to realize what is happening to them. It's the "why" that has them puzzled though. When they finally decide to meet up in real life, it turns out that's actually a little harder than originally exptected.

screen capture of Your Name

Shinkai gained notoriety because of his extremely detailed and overpoweringly romantic visuals, with Your Name he takes his style one step further. The level of detail is almost unmatched, making it virtually impossible to take everything in the first time around. The colors are bold and striking and even though Shinkai toned down the use of his trademark lens flares just a little, his play of light is still as impressive as ever. One of the more remarkable visual feats of Your Name is that Shinkai succeeds in making the urban scenery just as attractive as its rural counterpart. Modern-day anime is so rural-mad that it's nice to see someone who still knows to conjure up the beauty of our urban society.

The character models are a bit more detailed compared to Shinkai's earlier work. There's more nuance in the facial expressions and the characters have a bit more technical complexity. It takes away a little of their cuteness, at the same time it does add an extra layer of humanity. The animation too is top notch, with elaborate camera work, lots of movement and some stunning adaptations of live action techniques (like the timelapse scenes, which are beyond amazing). Needless to say, Your Name is a visual feast from start to finish.

The soundtrack is still going to be as divisive as ever. Shinkai has no problems using J-Pop ballads in his films, which doesn't always go over too well with international fans. I do have to say that he seems to have chosen some more subdued tracks this time around, which should make it a bit more bearable for those who are allergic to J-Pop. I don't particularly mind, though I would prefer a more tailored and unique choice of music. The dub is great, as can be expected from a high-profile film like this. Not quite sure if they made an English dub, but I don't see any reason to bother with one. If you can't take in all the visual detail because you're too busy reading the subtitles, that's just more reason to see the film a second time.

screen capture of Your Name

There's quite a lot of plot to go through during the first half, but Shinkai makes sure that the bond between Mitsuha and Taki keeps growing tighter, never letting the plot eclipse it. The second half reverses that balance, putting the romance front and center while keeping the plot going forward in the background. There are some nice twists and turns along the way, clearing things up without explaining too much, keeping part of the mystery alive. The emotional pay-off is kept until the very end though, with Shinkai conceiling his ending until the very last scene. While a bit more crowd-pleasing compared to some of his other films, I felt the ending fit the film and having it end any other way wouldn't have added much extra.

The real-world setting mixed with slight fantasy elements makes the film a bit more accessible compared to Shinkai's earlier films. Add to that an even higher level of stylistic finish, a 90 minute plus running time and an ending that is a bit easier to swallow for mainstream audiences, and it's no surprise Your Name turned out to be the hit that it is. While not my absolute favorite Shinkai, it's definitely up there with his best and it should have no trouble finding its way on the international home market. You have to wonder where Shinkai will go from here, then again that's the feeling I always have after watching his latest film and somehow he still finds ways to improve on his previous films. I just hope his next one doesn't take as long to arrive.

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 10:01:43 +0000
<![CDATA[The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk/Corey Yuen]]>

The year 1993, no doubt one of the most mythical years in Hong Kong cinema history. When I was just getting into Hong Kong films, I quickly realized there was something unmistakably unique about the martials arts/fantasy period films produced in '93, so I went on a mad frenzy trying to watch every single one I could get my hands on. That was quite a long time ago though, and the idea of getting myself reacquainted with these film was something I've been looking forward to for a while now. First in line: Corey Yuen's The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk [Fong Sai Yuk].

screen capture of The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk

Hong Kong is a pretty small place, but it does have a rich cinematic history. I don't have an exhaustive explanation as to why that is, but part of it definitely has to do with the work ethic of the Hong Kong people. To be a part of the film industry there means working hard and diligently, taking on whatever job opportunity presents itself. It's not all exceptional to find people with acting, writing, production and directing experience under their belt. Cinema is not so much an art as it is a job and getting better at it is very much an iterative and cooperative process rather than an artistic or creative one.

That's also why it's an ideal breeding ground for genre cinema, which is all about taking familiar structures and concepts and polishing them to perfection. So when fantasy and period martial arts films gained traction in the late '80s, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and started churning out films with a very similar vibe and aesthetic at increasingly crazy speeds. The bigger it grew, the more experienced people got at making them, snowballing the genre forward to '93, the year when it finally exploded (and ultimately plateaued). The niche collapsed on itself soon after, but the films that were produced that year are some of the best martial arts films ever conceived.

Fong Sai-Yuk's plot is as generic as they come, but what did you expect. There is a 30 minute introduction that's basically just playtime, used exclusively for introducing the characters and having them do silly things in the name of comedy. After that a hastily good vs bad showdown is set up, pitching Fong Sai-Yuk with the rebels and having him fight off some of the emperor's evil minions. There's a little additional drama, but really it's all just filler stuffed in between the spectacular fight sequences. Fong Sai-Yuk is all about the action, so it's best not to expect too much story-wise.

screen capture of The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk

Just like its peers, Fong Sai-Yuk is a film with much grander ideas than its budget allowed for. Showing lengthy overview shots of elaborate fight sequences was simply impossible, but cutting back on the choreography wasn't acceptable either. The solution was a combination of smart camera angles and rapid editing, cutting up the fights to get an almost animation-like effect and creating the illustion of the characters' insane fighting abilities. As an added bonus, it upped the pacing dramatically while making the action much more vibrant. Camera work is overall great and nighttime scenes look beautiful too, though by contrast the daytime filler scenes do look a bit frumpy and rushed.

The soundtrack on the other hand is just an afterthought. It sounds like stock music that you might hear in a million similar films. It's not annoying or irritating, but you'll be hardpressed to remember any specifics afterwards. Another area where you can clearly notice the rush job quality of the production is the dub, which is quite atrocious. You don't have to speak a single word of Cantonese to see that the timing is way off. I guess it has to do with the dual Cantonese/Mandarin post-dubs that were made for pretty much every Chinese film back then, even so the result is subpar. Still, it's always better than going for the English dub, which is truly offensive.

As for the acting, it solemnly depends on what you expect from a film like this. There clearly aren't any award-winning performances here, but keeping in mind this is all about the martial arts and the comedy, I actually found very little to complain about. Jet Li is stellar as Fong Sai-Yuk, Michelle Reis is pretty good too and Josephine Siao proves that women can kick ass and be funny at the same time. Sung Young Chen is the only one that goes full Hong Kong comedy, making him the weakest of the bunch.

screen capture of The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk

Fong Sai-Yuk is very focused. The whole film is constructed around three extended action sequences, evenly spread out throughout the film. If you're going in expecting a more complete, fleshed out experience, I'd say it's probably just better to avoid this one altogether. If on the other hand you're looking for spectacular martial arts wizardry, Corey Yuen more than delivers. The action choreography is insanely creative and extremely explosive, gracious yet hard-hitting and most important of all: spectacular from start to finish.

There's some stiff competition for Fong Sai-Yuk and I guess the coming months will reveal whether this film truly is the top of its class. But regardless of how its peers hold up, Fong Sai-Yuk is one of the very best 90s Hong Kong martial arts films and by extension one of the best Corey Yuen films out there. You have to be a fan of wire-fu antics and elongated martial arts scenes to appreciate a film like this, but if you do then you're getting one of the most spectacular and creative films in the genre.

Mon, 31 Jul 2017 09:59:02 +0000
<![CDATA[Evolution/Lucile Hadzihalilovic]]>

Lucile Hadzihalilovic made a sizable arthouse splash with Innocence, her first feature film. That was 13 years ago though and a second film failed to materialize. Hadzihalilovic drifted back into anonymity, so much in fact that I almost overlooked the 2015 release of her second feature film. That would've been a real shame, because Evolution [Évolution] turns out to be a worthy successor. It's a film that references Innocence quite often, but still manages to be a different experience altogether.

screen capture of Evolution

What made Innocence so unique was the combination of a tangible but cloaked unease combined with a setting that was never truly explained. Evolution takes a very similar route, but does away with the fake fantasy world coating and brings its grim, often disturbing essence much closer to surface. There is absolutely no doubt that something is seriously off this time around, though Hadzihalilovic still only hints at what might be going on. If you were turned off by Innocence's lack of explanation, you'll still feel at a loss here.

Evolution is set on a remote island, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. There's only one small commune on the island, a little society where all the adults are women and all the kids are young boys. There is a sect-like feel surrounding this little commune, but it's clearly not a religion-inspired setup. Apart from the little village (where each family owns a modest house), the island also houses a mysterious hospital where the boys are taken to once they reach a certain age.

The story follows Nicholas, one of the young boys on the island. One day Nicholas stumbles upon a dead body lodged between the coral, freaking him out. He races back home to warn his mom, but she seems rather unfazed by his story. Slowly Nicholas starts to suspect there's something his mom isn't telling him and he ventures off on his own in order to find out what secret the island is hiding. It doesn't take too long before he's found out, soon afterwards Nicholas ends up at the hospital for a checkup.

screen capture of Evolution

Benoît Debie wasn't on board for Evolution, luckily Hadzihalilovic found an excellent replacement in Manuel Dacosse. The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island that proved itself the perfect location. Lanzarote's grim, relentless but pristine beauty gives the island a remote and alien-like quality and it gave me the impression of having been transported to another world. Dacosse's dark and brooding cinematography then adds an extra layer of primordial beauty, further distancing Evolution from Innocence's more idyllic setting. The overall effect may be a little too dark for some, but the image is always clear and contrasting enough, making sure there's no need to squint and second-guess what is going on.

The soundtrack is somewhat expected, featuring lots of moody soundscapes (mostly built from low hums) in order to create a disturbing and foreboding atmosphere. It's a formula that horror films have been exploiting for the larger part of the new millennium, and while Evolution doesn't take it beyond the familiar it does commit to it with commendable conviction. In combination with the brooding visuals it makes for an unsettling, eerie and slightly disturbing overall impression. While I felt that the soundtrack could've been just a little more explicit, it's still much better than the half-arsed execution most horror films end up with.

Remembering the somewhat stilted performances in Innocence, I went in prepared this time. Not too surprisingly Hadzihalilovic strived to achieve a very similar effect. There isn't much spontaneity and most characters appear extremely closed off, with dialogues often stripped down to the bare minimum. This might be a hurdle to some people, but in the end it only increased the otherworldly vibe of the film for me. There is just very little room for emotion here and the stoic, icy attitude of the characters only added to the overall mystery of the film.

screen capture of Evolution

I've seen people refer to Evolution as a horror film, but that kind of pigeon-holing isn't going to do this film many favors. It's true that it bears plenty of the trademark elements of horror cinema, but everything here appears in function of the mystery. There are some moments of dark, gloomy and even gory beauty, but the film never seems to aim for dread, fear or grossing out its audience. I'm pretty certain the average horror fan isn't going to find much to his liking here, instead these elements are merely there to further develop Evolution's mysterious, nightmarish atmosphere.

Hadzihalilovic delivered what I consider to be an almost perfect second feature. It's different enough to avoid a direct comparison to Innocence, at the same time there are many distinct elements that bind these two films together. Evolution gives direction to Hadzihalilovic's artistic persona and establishes her as a director with a strong sense of style and a knack for mystery. It's a film with a pretty tough exterior, but if you loved Innocence I'm quite confident that Evolution is an easy recommend and might even surpass the appreciation for Hadzihalilovic's first. If you haven't seen anything by Hadzihalilovic yet though, Innocence might be the easier film to start with.

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 09:51:32 +0000
<![CDATA[Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen/Tatsuya Oishi and Akiyuki Shinbo]]>

After being blown away by the first film and immensily enjoying the second one, it's no surprise that is was looking forward to Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen, the third and final instalment in the Kizumonogatari film series. The slight drop in quality (and originality) of part II had me slightly on edge, but as it turns out that fear was completely unfounded. Reiketsu-hen is a more than worthy finale and helps the series back on track to become one of the landmark anime releases of the '10s.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen

Part one gave me quite the shock the first time I watched it. Even though Kizumonogatari I: Tekketsu-hen consists of very recognizable anime extremes, it is constructed in such a way that it still feels completely alien and otherworldy. The second part was a slight letdown because it didn't really add much to Tekketsu-hen, instead it merely reiterated the novelties and original ideas that made the first one stand out. While still very enjoyable, that sensation of being utterly perplexed was completely gone, leaving behind a feeling of familiarity that simply didn't suit this film series.

Luckily Reiketsu-hen does away with that slight feeling of disappointment completely. While there are plenty of familiar elements present, tying this film to the other two, Reiketsu-hen either takes a fresh approach with them or supplements them with original ideas. The plot itself may be a direct continuation of the first two films, this third instalment feels like a stand-alone feature that just happens to be a part of a film series. It's a tough and tricky balance to pull off, but Kizumonogatari is all about getting away with tricky, implausible balances.

Story-wise, the film simply continues where part two left off. Araragi has assembled all of Kiss-Shot's body parts, so she can finally be whole again. This also means that Araragi can become human once more, leaving his short but well-lived vampire life behind. But Araragi is quite uncertain about what to do next. He can't go on as a vampire as he still feels connected to the human race, but he also has a hard time leaving Kiss-Shot behind, knowing she need to feed off of his kind. It's a pretty tough conundrum that's about to come to an explosive conclusion.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen

Visually there's a lot going on. The animation itself is the easiest to get a grip on, as that part is constantly impressive. It's clear there's major talent at work here and the budget was definitely there to back them up. It's the art style that's a little tougher to graps. It's not that it is actually lacking, it's just that there are a lot more conflicting ideas there. Parts of each frame are delicate and intricate, while other parts feel consistently clinical and empty. What binds these two together is an amazing level of detail, even though both styles give off a very different vibe. I reminds me a little of those pictures that hold two different images, depending on how you look at them. On the one hand there's a deceptive simplicity to the art style, at the same time there's a lot intricate details that are hard to take in all at once. And it's not just a mistake or happy coincidence either, as this can be seen and felt in every single shot of the film.

The music too plays its part in confusing the audience. It there to help and dictacte a rhythm that makes very little logical sense, but works on a more primordial, visceral level. The film has a wonky space-time continuum and all the jumping around between different visuals styles and stylistic ideas could've turned it into a big old mess, but somehow the soundtrack provides a flow where it all comes together. That's not to say Oishi and Shinbo merely see the soundtrack as glue, there are plenty of times where it's just as surprising and conflicting as the rest of the film (often in the use of peculiar sound effects), but it's probably the single most coherent element of the film. The voice acting is on point too. I'm not even sure if there's an English dub for this one but Kizumonogatari provides such a distinctly Japanese experience that it's not even worth bothering with any dubs. Just watch it a second time if you feel the subtitles take away from the visual experience.

screen capture of Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen

The sheer genius of Reiketsu-hen lies in the fact that it plays on conflicting feelings and structures. Oishi and Shinbo are constantly trying to align elements that don't belong together, while at the same time contrasting elements that are meant to go along well with each other. On the one hand it's all about balance, when at the same time it's about chaos and discord. And what makes it truly special is that it's incorporating this schizophrenia on all possible levels. Be it the clear segments within this film that still draw in influences from the other segements, or simply the constant flux in pacing with a single scene, the film keeps you on your toes at all times.

After seeing 7000+ films it's kind of rare to find a film that can still surprise me, but it does happen from time to time. What's truly rare and precious though is when I find a film that actually manages to confuse me, and that's exactly what Reiketsu-hen accomplished. I realize I used a lot of expensive words reviewing this film, but Reiketsu-hen is just as easily described as a lewd, juvenile anime that is more preoccupied with boobs and gore than it is with presenting something artistic and thoughtful. I personally wouldn't be surprised if it's exactly how many people will end up experiencing it, but that's just half the story and Kizumonogatari is really about these two conflicing halfs constantly fighting for dominance.

The bottom line is that, all things considerend, Reiketsu-hen shouldn't work as well as it does. I can give a hundred examples of things that I'd hate when I'd see them pop up in any other film, but somehow Oishi and Shinbo are able to manage the film's schizophrenia up to a point where I'm simply at a loss for words. The whole Kizumonogatari experience is impossible to recommend, rather it has to be experienced. Reiketsu-hen provides perfect closure to this film series and conjures up the genius of the first film once more, but I'm well aware this won't be everyone's cup of tea. That said, just watch it.

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 09:52:23 +0000
<![CDATA[Innocence/Lucile Hadzihalilovic]]>

I watched Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence when it was first released in cinemas (back when such films were still released in cinemas over here), which was a good 12 years ago. I really loved the film back then, but haven't really seen it ever since. Still, it's a film that stuck with me and I was pretty excited to give it a second run. I was even happier when it turned out it hadn't lost any of its appeal over the years, still serving up a captivating and unique experience that lingers long after the credits have vanished from the screen.

screen capture of Innocence

Hadzihalilovic is often introduced through her collaborations with Gaspar Noé. The two worked together a lot, ended up marrying each other and do share quite a lot of influences (both citing Shinya Tsukamoto amongst their inspirations). But Hadzihalilovic isn't just a female version of Noé. She has her own style, her own aesthetic. Both make somewhat impenetrable and tough, artistic movies, but I feel they're still on different sides of the spectrum. Just to say that (dis)liking one says very little on how you might appreciate the work of the other.

Innocence was inspired by/adapted from Mine-Haha, written by Frank Wedekind. Coming from an anime background though, I felt like I watched this movie before in the form of Haibane Renmei (originally written be Yoshitoshi ABe, of Lain fame, who in his turn referenced Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland as one of his main inspirations). The similarities between both works truly are uncanny, though I guess both creators arrived at it from very different sources and ultimately the differences between the two are as outspoken as the similarities. It's definitely not a question of copycat behavior, just peculiar coincidence.

Innocence follows the lives of three young girls living in a boarding school. It's not just any regular school though. New girls arrive in coffins, the students aren't allowed to leave the premisses and there are weird, communal traditions that need to be adhered to. It feels like an otherworldly place, a universe with its own rules and laws. The film focuses on Iris (who just arrived), Bianca (who is about to graduate) and Alice (who is planning her escape). Through their eyes we get to know the school and all its peculiarities.

screen capture of Innocence

Hadzihalilovic's choice to work with cinematographer Benoît Debie wasn't just a practical one, it was also the best and most obvious one. Debie (Lost River, Enter the Void, Vinyan) is by far the greatest talent Belgian cinema ever put forward and having him on board is certain to give your film that extra edge. Innocence may not look as ambitious or extreme compared to some of the other films he worked on, but the lighting is magnificent, the camera work is beautiful and there's a certain dark elegance to the visuals that helps to define Innocence. More importantly, 12 years down the line the film hasn't lost any of its visual impact.

But it's not just all visual prowess, Hadzihalilovic was smart enough to look for a score that doesn't just complement the visuals, but actually goes a long way in enhancing the atmosphere. The mix of sweet, classical music and darker soundscapes makes for an uneasy, foreboding ambience that touches at the core of the film. It's exactly this feeling of unfulfilled dread that makes Innocence so unique and to have that conveyed by the score is a pretty big win.

The acting is where it might get a little tougher for some. Most of the cast consists of young girls and the acting isn't always all that spontaneous or natural. It took me a while to get used to the stilted performances, but some 30 minutes in I felt that it really started to add to the uncomfortable atmosphere. Cotillard and Fougerolles add a softer touch to the cast, though their unresolved drama is another thing that might irk people looking for more and clearer resolutions.

screen capture of Innocence

What makes Innocence stand out is that Hadzihalilovic is more interested in showing this peculiar world rather than explain it. I've seen people describe the film as a feminist statement, I've seen others dismiss it as downright pedophilia. And these are far from the only popular interpretations once you start looking around. The thing is, there's something to be said for most, if not all of them. I feel that Innocence is a trip that reflects the viewer itself more than it contains inherent meaning. In that sense it's more about the experience than it is about solving a puzzle, something I definitely appreciate in a film.

That said, Innocence is not a very easy film to recommend. It's quite stoic, mysterious and enigmatic, both plotwise and stylistically. There's a definite appeal to that, but it might be more suited for specific audiences who know what they're getting themselves into. I feel it's a film for the ages though, as it lost none of its appeal since the first time I watched it and it remains absolutely unique, almost impossible to put in a specific niche. If anything, this second viewing reminded me that I need to check out Hadzihalilovic's latest (Evolution) as soon as possible, because Innocence is unmistakable proof of her talent.

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 09:36:20 +0000
<![CDATA[The Incident/Isaac Ezban]]>
El Incidente poster

South-American genre cinema used to be a deep, dark void for me. We may live in a world where everything is just one Google search away, but that doesn't mean all our cultural boundaries have been torn down yet . Luckily services like Netflix are making it much easier to try less obvious films a la carte, hence how I stumbled upon Isaac Ezban, a Mexican director with a clear vision and an outspoken aesthetic. After seeing and liking The Similars, it was time to give The Incident [El Incidente] a run for its money.

The Incident was Ezban's first feature film, which isn't too much of a surprise when you look at the final result. It's a film that is high on concept, brimming with ideas and almost overflowing with potential. It may lack balance and refinement in places, but it makes up for that with plenty of energy and vitality. It's somewhat of an acquired taste though and if you're looking for more polished, mainstream genre entertainment it's probably best to go with The Similars first, but I tend to prefer these more rash and frivolous films.

That said, the first hour does feel a little derivative. Ezban takes his time to develop the setting, which is two-fold. The first story is about a cop chasing two criminals in a closed off stairway, the second one tells about a family on their way to the beach. Both get stuck in a time loop, which drives the protagonists to near-insanity. Both stories are told seperately and feel like familiar territory, so roughly halfway through you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is just a simple copy/paste affaire.

But then Ezban starts to switch things around. I've seen quite a few time loop films already, but none where characters are actually stuck for life. Seeing them 35 years later, still trapped in that same loop is a nifty and surprisingly disturbing novelty. On top of that, Ezban further expands his concept by giving a unique explanation for the loop phenomenon during his final act. By then the film is racing full force ahead and keeping up with all the craziness requires a little extra attention, so make sure you don't plan any toilet breaks during the second part of The Incident.

Stylistically the first half of the film is a little hit and miss. The are some interesing visual ideas and the soundtrack suits the atmosphere, but the timing feels a little off and some scenes look as if Ezban was hitting his budgetary limitations. Where that budget went becomes apparent during the second part, which features more elaborately constructed settings. It's a nice build-up that goes full crescendo towards the final act. Ezban delivers a nice spin on the explanatory montage and turns a cheesy film cliché into an emotional payoff, with all the right bells and whistles in place.

The Incident is a pretty cool film. The first half looks like classic genre fare, but once Ezban starts moving the pawns around it becomes much more than that. Between The Incident and The Similars, Ezban has already proven himself to be an interesting director who can bring a novel twist to dusty and chewed out concepts. I hope Netflix keeps track of him, because I have no idea how else I would have to keep up with his work. If you like a good mind trip and you don't mind Mexican cinema, The Incident is an easy recommendation.

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 10:07:21 +0000
<![CDATA[T2 Trainspotting/Danny Boyle]]>

It's been 20 years since Danny Boyle directed Trainspotting, his breakout hit. To celebrate this milestone, Boyle decided to work on a sequel, summoning the old cast of characters to the silver screen once more. Making a follow-up to a landmark film like Trainspotting was always going to be a tough challenge and T2 Trainspotting (as the official title goes) is sure to leave some people disappointed, but that's just how sequels work. Considering the legacy of the first film, I think Boyle did a pretty terrific job modernizing the original.

screen capture of Trainspotting 2

Luckily for Boyle, Irvine Welsh (writer of the Trainspotting novel) also penned a follow-up, titled Porno. Boyle used this novel as a sort of template to bring the original characters back to life, though T2 Trainspotting didn't turn out to be a straight adaptation of Porno. There's just enough of a connection to feel the ghost of Irvine Welsh haunting the sequel, at the same time it's also very much a Danny Boyle film and a sequel to his own success. Those worrying that it's just a desperate cash-in can rest assured, it's clear some thought went into this film.

But doing a sequel remains tricky. Some people want to relive the actual experience of the first film (seeing something original, daring and edgy), others want to see a modernized continuation of the Trainspotting universe and a third group might just want to revisit the setting of the original. Trainspotting is very much defined by the early/mid-90s UK scene and there's just no way to bring that back to life in 2017 without it feeling extremely retro. Boyle tries to reconcile all these different elements, but I felt that in doing so he diluted the experience a little.

The story picks up after Renton's mom passes away and Renton returns from Amsterdam to visit his dad. Back in Edinburgh, he reunites with his old pals, though they are still pretty sour about him leaving with the money all these years ago. Even so, old bonds are hard to break and Renton and Simon (Sick Boy) decide to open up their own business. All goes relatively well, until Begbie escapes from prison and runs into Renton by accident. Begbie isn't willing to forgive and forget so easily and vows to bring Renton to his knees.

screen capture of Trainspotting 2

Trainspotting was a film with lots of visual creativity and youthful flair, T2 Trainspotting has a more overall polished feel to it. What's lacking in originality (think the infamous toilet scene or Renton's cold turkey montage) is replaced by markedly more stylish visuals. While not as in your face or immediately memorable, they do leave a sense of refinement that gives the sequel its own direction and makes for a very pleasant viewing. Not Boyle's absolute best, but even then the film looks way above average.

As for the soundtrack, I'm pretty much in two minds. While I am aware that the music of the first one was mostly rock-inspired, whenever I think Trainspotting I think Underworld's Born Slippy. There's such a strong connection between the two that I'm glad Boyle didn't reuse the track in the sequel, though he did include a beautiful homage halfway through. As for the rest of the soundtrack, I felt Boyle tried a little too hard to modernize it, especially as much of it still sounded quite old and passé to me. I think he would've done better to either go with the music of tomorrow, or just stick with the vibe of the first film. That's not to say the soundtrack is completely terrible, just not up to Boyle's own standards.

As the for the cast, Boyle succeeded in reuniting all the main actors from the original film (except for McKidd, since his character didn't survive the first film). McGregor, Carlyle, Henderson, Miller and Macdonald all pick up their old parts, but to me there's only one true star and that's Ewen Bremner. His rendition of Spud was so incredibly spot on and seeing him get back into the part is definitely one of the highlights of the film. There's only one new addition to the main cast and that's Anjela Nedyalkova (who does a commendable job), fans of Welsh will be happy to hear he once again secured a small cameo.

screen capture of Trainspotting 2

While the first half of T2 Trainspotting feels like a drawn-out epilogue of the original, Boyle gradually builds up a new narrative, subtly adding splashes of emotional baggage left and right. It all adds up to a pretty spectacular scene where Begbie laments on his past, comparing the relationship he had with his father to what he's going through with his own son. It's at that exact moment that T2 Trainspotting finally yanks itself loose from the original and comes into its own right. Maybe Boyle could've delivered that moment a little earlier into the film, but considering the legacy this sequel was up against it's quite an accomplishment to have it even surface in the first place.

T2 Trainspotting is a damn good companion piece to the first film. I don't think it's a sequel that can be seen separately from the original, but it doesn't take away from Boyle's and Welsh' original vision and even manages to add something substantial. Boyle tries to balance many different ideas and directions regarding what a good sequel should be, and as a result the sequel is a just a little less pure and pristine, but the quality is definitely still there and fans of the first film have a lot to look forward to.

Thu, 13 Jul 2017 09:53:45 +0000
<![CDATA[I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK/Chan-wook Park]]>

My relationship with Chan-wook Park is one defined by a lot of ups and downs. There are films where I truly appreciate what he's doing, but then there are also quite a few where I just don't give a damn. I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK [Ssa-i-bo-geu-ji-man-gwen-chan-a] is generally seen as one of Park's lesser films, yet the first time I watched it I ended up liking it a lot. It has been a while since that first viewing though, so I was eager to find out how well it had held up over time.

screen capture of I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK

Chan-wook Park is one, if not the most acknowledged South-Korean director in modern cinema. He earned international recognition and gained considerable popularity with his Vengeance trilogy, though personally I wasn't too impressed. There is a certain edge to his films that puts him outside of regular commercial boundaries, but leaves him short of some of the edgier directors I count amongst my favorites. I find this unfulfilled potential pretty disappointing and in fact exemplary for many other South-Korean films.

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK isn't as overworked as his earlier work. It's still pretty whack and quirky, but it feels a lot more like its own thing rather than a film that tries to combine 10 different genres and incorporate a billion different ideas better executed in other films. It's not completely without comparison though, if you'd hire Jean-Pierre Jeunet to direct a One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest remake you'd get something remarkably similar to I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK, but at least the elements that stand out do feel very much attributed to Park's own style and vision.

The story follows Young-goon, a young girl who got committed to a sanatorium after she tried to kill herself. Spending too much time with her demented grandma as a child, Young-goon came to believe she is a cyborg brought to this world on an important mission. Her health is quickly declining as she refuses to eat regular food, convinced her body needs unfiltered electricity rather than organic fuel. Inside the sanatorium she meets Park Il-sun, a young boy who takes pity on Young-goon and tries to help her with the limited means and freedom he has.

screen capture of I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK

Park's films are known for their visual finesse and there's plenty of that here. The styling is meticulous, from props to colors and camera work, everything reinforces the quirky, upbeat feeling of the film. There's some CG that is starting to show its age, but it's never gratuitous or overdone and adds value whenever used. While the visual finish could've been a little sharper and tighter, the overall look compliments the atmosphere of the film graciously and makes for pleasant viewing.

The soundtrack is similarly upbeat. A combination of more classic tunes and novelty songs (yes, there is some yodeling going on at one point) adds to the whimsical feel of the film. While not particularly memorable, the score supports the film adequately and even though none of the stand-out scenes are defined by the music, the music as a whole feels solid and refined. I tend to prefer a more creative soundtrack, especially when a film is pretty out there already, but there's really not much to complain about.

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK also benefits from having a strong lead. Soo-jung Lim is perfect as Young-goon. She looks a little otherworldly, but that's perfect for the character she is portraying. She turns Young-goon into a loveable oddball with just the right amount of depth and intrigue. She also has a superb partner in Rain, who takes on the role of Park Il-sun. The two make for a unique, but kind and likeable couple, drawing plenty of sympathy from the viewer even though their characters aren't always that relatable or easy to understand.

screen capture of I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK

While there's a lot of surface-level fun to be had with I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK, it's not just a simple freak show. Underneath all that weird and outlandish finish, there's an endearing bond forming between Young-goon and Park Il-sun. Without drawing too much attention to it, Park slowly shifts the focus so that it becomes the heart of his film. It's a surprisingly subtle balance, but one that pays off in the end. Not everyone will appreciate the more subdued ending, especially those expecting a grand finale, but it works and it grants the film some extra class.

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK may be one of Park's lesser known films, it's definitely not for lack of quality. There are few thriller and horror elements here and comedy is more sensitive when it comes to international appreciation, so I do understand why it's a tougher film to market, but there's still plenty to love. Quirky characters, smart ideas and plenty of creativity make for a fun, surprising and fast-paced comedy with enough charm and heart to keep everything glued together. I just wish Park made more films along this line, because it's clear he has talent to spare.

Tue, 04 Jul 2017 10:00:39 +0000
<![CDATA[Rage/Sang-il Lee]]>

I started off Sang-il Lee's oeuvre on a false note (not a fan of 69), but ever since that first film he's been redeeming himself. Every new Lee film I watch turns out better than the previous one and he's quickly working himself up to become a personal certainty. Rage [Ikari] is his latest feature, a thematic companion to Villain, but executed with more style and panache. It's a bold film that might rub some people the wrong way, but I watched those 142 minutes fly by, which is a rare feat in itself.

screen capture of Rage

Villain was a film that combined drama and thriller elements to build up a strong central character, Rage takes a slightly different approach. Rather than focus on the story of the killer, Lee builds up three unrelated plotlines, with a fourth one detailing a gruesome murder. It makes for a somewhat slower start where the audience is left to decypher how everything might be connected, but it's a structure that pays off in the end, with both the whodunnit aspect of the story as well as the dramatic impact hitting high notes.

What sets this film apart from countless others is the mix of classic island drama and thriller elements. The styling of Rage is a meticulous copy of the Japanese island drama (and not a very shabby one at that), but where those films tend to be quite chill and uneventful, Rage is a high-intensity thriller that doesn't pull any punches. I'm not sure if the surprise is as effective for people who aren't all that familiar with this very specific niche, but if you've seen a few (think Naoko Ogigami's Glasses or Ryuichi Hiroki's Locomotive Teacher) then the clash of universes is definitely tangible.

The stage is Okinawa, one of Japan's prettier areas, especially during the summer months. Three (unrelated) loners have left their old lives behind and are trying to settle in into their new surroundings. Things are slowly looking up for the three, but then the news breaks that there's a serial killer on the loose. Things get worse when the police releases a statement that the killer might have undergone cosmetic surgery since they first report the case. Suddenly the three become the center of suspicion, uprooting their new lives.

screen capture of Rage

The visuals are extremely breezy and light, sporting beautiful scenery bathing in bright, powerful blues and greens. It's typical island drama material, going for that leasurely, downtempo atmosphere, but with a little extra visual push. The camera work is meticulous, the editing smooth and the film looks expensive from start to finish. Cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu (Electric Dragon 80.000V, Blue Spring) did an amazing job and reaffirms his talent.

The score is pretty high profile too. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto was brought in to complement the visuals with a unique sound. While most of the film follows the expected aesthetic rather elegantly, the expressive thriller and drama elements are heightened by fierce but beautiful music. On top of that, Lee is also agressively mixing sounds and visuals from different storylines, often during the more dramatic moments of the film. A bold move, but one that works wonders, making the drama less obvious and adding a little depth through mystery.

With all the big drama, it's nice that Lee could count on a seasoned cast. With names like Aoi Miyazaki, Suzu Hirose, Ken'ichi Matsuyama and Satoshi Tsumabuki taking up key roles there's no lack of acting talent. Even Ken Watanabe redeems himself for his questionable Hollywood performances, showing his worth when his skill are put to good use. It's a superb cast, especially considering people like Go Ayano, Eri Fukatsu and Kirin Kiki are there to take care of the secondary characters.

screen capture of Rage

While the first half may be a little puzzling, the film doesn't leave too much ground uncovered. During the second part all the loose ends are tied and each story gets its own dramatic finale. That may be a bit much for some as the film ends up having three separate endings that are just tangentially connected. That said, each ending is captivating and emotional in its own unique way, so it's not like you're watching three variations of the same thing. It's somewhat of a shaky balance, which I'm sure is going to divide audiences, but I feel Lee managed to give each plotline a fitting finish.

Rage sees Lee doing what he's good at. The combination of thriller elements with big drama is a tough trick to pull off, but Lee does it with such flair and conviction that it's difficult not to go along on the journey. The superb cast and impeccable styling ease you into the film while Lee's bold and contrasting touches keep you engaged throughout. Rage is without a doubt my favorite Lee film so far, though I feel that's still room for progression. Can't wait to see what he'll do next.

Thu, 29 Jun 2017 09:54:13 +0000
<![CDATA[Stereo Future/Hiroyuki Nakano]]>

Back in 2001, director Hiroyuki Nakano had some big plans. Stereo Future was the second episode in a prospected series of 'SF' films (the first one being Samurai Fiction), a somewhat haphazard concept that linked his movies by their initials. I remembered Stereo Future as a pretty dashing, funny and polished film, but I have to admit that the actual specifics hadn't really stuck with me over time. The perfect excuse to get myself reacquainted with this film in order to see how it had survived 10 years of cinematic evolutions.

screen capture of Stereo Future

Hiroyuki Nakano is one of Japan's lost souls. Once a very promising director, his career took a stark nose dive right after he finished working on Stereo Future. It's not that he suddenly fell off the Earth, but the quality of his films decreased considerably and apart from a couple of documentaries aimed at the local market, his output during the past 10 years has been pretty much negligible. While a little disheartening, none of that affects the quality of Stereo Future of course.

In fact, Stereo Future is one of the films that helped fuel the somewhat short-lived success of Japanese cinema during the early 2000s. While definitely not the most well-known example amongst fans, it's not a stretch to say the film is a direct predecessor of films like The Taste of Tea and Survive Style 5+. Not quite as polished and out there, but definitely a little crazy, a little fun and done in such a way that it comes across very stylish and classy.

The plot structure is a little disjointed, though the plot basics are actually pretty simple. The film follows the romantic woes of Keisuke and Eri, two young adults madly in love. While they make a great couple, the transition from their teenage years to adulthood puts a big strain on their relationship. Keisuke can't materialize his dream to become a successful actor and when he decides to give up and become a bartender instead, the two of them start drifting apart.

screen capture of Stereo Future

On the visual side of things, Stereo Future still has plenty to offer. The camera work is fun and floaty, the colors are bright and extravagant while the editing keeps the pacing high. But Stereo Future is more than just a hip and trendy-looking film, there's also room for subtlety and thought in there. Some scenes feature more elaborate camera work and while the colors pop, the palette is also pretty stylish. It all makes for a very pleasing visual experience.

The soundtrack has a very similar vibe, though it comes off just a tiny bit more dated. It has an electronic sound that places it in the early 2000s, at the same time a film with an electronic score still feels quite modern and out there, even by modern standards (sad as that may be). Nakano uses the music wisely, making sure it's not just a couple of random tracks spread throughout the film. There's a nice feedback between score and visuals, effectively raising the overall appeal.

As for the casting, Stereo Future is a who's who of actors that would make it big in the years following its release. Masatoshi Nagase is as cool as ever, Naoto Takenaka and Kumiko Aso are great in supporting roles and Akiko Mono is quite the revelation. The only disappointing performance comes from Daniel Ezralow, who puts it on a little too thick. But he's actually pretty easy to ignore, while the rest of the cast makes the most of their characters.

screen capture of Stereo Future

The combination of drama and comedy is a little peculiar. It doesn't really blend together, instead Nakano alternates between moments of unfiltered comedy and solemn drama to create a strange tapestry of emotions. It's a little divisive no doubt, but I quite loved the effect. Also interesting is the film's focus on ecology, highlighting several problems and solutions that feel way more current than they felt at the time of release. In that sense, the film was actually quite ahead of its time.

Stereo Future is a film that is starting to show its age in places, but Nakano's playful yet targeted direction makes sure it's not just an artifact of its time. The film feels light and breezy, while still harboring enough depth, warranting multiple viewings. It takes a while before everything falls into place, but the ending of the film cements the idea that Nakano knew what he was doing. It's a shame he wasn't able to continue his career in the same vein, but at least he gave us Stereo Future.

Thu, 22 Jun 2017 09:38:26 +0000
<![CDATA[The Whispering Star/Shion Sono]]>

With no less than 6 films to his name, it's no secret that 2015 was a magical year for Shion Sono. So far only one of his 2015 films had eluded me, luckily I was able to catch up with The Whispering Star [Hiso Hiso Boshi] this past week. After watching the film, it's quite easy to see why this one is the hardest to find, though it's very much a problem of commercial appeal rather than intrinsic value. I feel The Whispering Star is a close contender to become my favorite Sono, which is saying a lot.

screen capture of Hiso Hiso Boshi

With so many films in a single year, you may suspect that Sono was just rushing from one film to the other, but you sure can't tell from the films themselves. While Sono's hand is clear in every single one of them, they're still very unique and very different from each other. The Whispering Star is the film that combines Sono's love for genre cinema with the more arthouse-orientend experimental stretches that defined his early work. You can feel Sono's influence in every frame, at the same time it's something you haven't seen him do before.

The result is a daring and fresh take on scifi, but one that's quite difficult to sell. Genre fans will be taken back by the slow pacing and lack of clear plot, arthouse fans will be tripped up some of the quirkiness and obvious genre element. Finding films to compare it with directly is tough, though when you mix up Kanji Nakajima's The Clone Returns Home with Sono's own The Land of Hope you may at least get a sense of direction.

The Whispering Star isn't what you'd call a very narrative-driven feature, even so revealing anything about the plot details feels like a major spoiler to me. Maybe it's because the film is structured like one big exploratory voyage, only sparingly revealing bits and pieces along the way, but leaving the surprises untouched feels like the right thing to do. I will say that the film touches upon the pecularities of what makes us human, if you want more specific plot points you'll just have to watch the film (or read a more spoiler-heavy review) .

screen capture of Hiso Hiso Boshi

Visually it's by far one of the most accomplished films Sono directed so far. The entire film (save one single scene) is draped in a beautiful sepia filter. It's definitely not one of the most original color schemes, but the contrast is rich, the finish is extremely clean and the lighting is superb. It makes for a stunning effect which is quite different from the more grainy, retro-look that is usually associated with sepia. Add to that some amazing camera work and strong compositions and you have a slick and polished-looking film that shows Sono has class.

The soundtrack is equally interesting, though it's the entire soundscape of the movie that leaves the biggest impression. While there's little dialogue and actual music is quite sparse, Sono has a lot of fun playing around with sound effects. From a tin can stuck underneath someone's boot to the low hum of the spaceship or the high-pitched, child-like voice of the ship's AI, there are always some stand-out sound bytes that add to the film's unique rhythm. Sono has shown he understands the power of a good soundtrack many times before, even so he never quite used it to this effect.

Fronting the film is Megumi Kagurazaka, Sono's better half. She's appeared in quite a few films of him already, but never in such an attention-grabbing role. There are a few other actors around, but they rarely appear for more than a couple of shots. Sono sticks with Kagurazaka's character for most of the running time and since she has few people to talk to, it all comes down to posture and facial expressions. It's easy to see how the familiarity between director and actor helped to bring Kagurazaka's character to life, but ultimately Kagurazaka's deserves all the credit for doing such a terrific job.

screen capture of Hiso Hiso Boshi

There isn't much dialogue, the setting is exploratory and the pacing is deliberately slow. The only way to enjoy The Whispering Star is to invest in Sono's journey and hope for the best. If for some reason you can't get yourself past that barrier there's really no point in watching this film. Whether Sono can deliver on his promise depends on how much you plan to take from the film. There's definitely some meat there and it's not just an exercise in style, but there's also not too much happening beyond what Sono puts on display.

If you're a fan of Sono's work, I feel quite confident in recommending The Whispering Star. It's yet another take on Sono's trademark style and while difficult to compare to his earlier films, I feel that fans shouldn't have too much trouble adapting to the film's particularities. If you're unfamiliar with Sono or you downright hated his other films, this might not be the film for you. I'm firmly in the first category though, and I feel it's one of the best things Sono has done so far. It's original, quirky, stylish and otherworldly. A tough cookie on the outside, but incredibly rich in taste and texture on the inside. Getting your hands on the film is something entirely else of course.

Thu, 15 Jun 2017 09:37:59 +0000
<![CDATA[Sunshine/Danny Boyle]]>

Sci-fi cinema is all the rage right now, but when Danny Boyle released Sunshine back in 2007 there was a noticeable void of good sci-fi films. Back then I caught the film in our local theater and was properly amazed at Boyle's proficiency in a genre that wasn't really his own. But that was 10 years ago and I was wondering whether Sunshine would still carry that same impact. Luckily the film held its own and in my opinion it still stands as one of the best post-2000 sci-fi films out there.

screen capture of Sunshine

Even though Boyle had little to no prior experiencing making sci-fi films, he is a prime genre director, so maybe it's not all that surprising that he managed to crank out such a wonderful film with such deceptive ease. He pulled a very similar trick a couple of years earlier, when he injected some new life into the British horror scene with 28 Days Later. With Boyle it's not so much about the genre he's working in, it's about the way he approaches his films.

One of the things that still draws me to Sunshine is the sleek execution of its sci-fi elements. It's not the dark and gritty dystopian vision of space travel that Alien brought forth, nor is it the near-future with slight sci-fi touches that is currently occupying much of the sci-fi space. Sunshine is a proper space flick, with plenty of futuristic elements that combine futuristic aesthetics with functional improvements. While sci-fi may be back in vogue, films like that are still quite rare.

The plot is pretty simple. We follow an international space crew on their way to our dying sun. With them they carry a huge, experimental bomb that is meant to kickstart the sun back into first gear, a last resort attempt with little to no chance of survival for the crew of the mission itself, but when effective will give human kind a fighting chance. Needless to say, the mission isn't going as planned and as they get closer to their target the crew is forced to pull some crazy tricks in order to complete the mission.

screen capture of Sunshine

Boyle has always been a very visual director, slightly ahead of the curve. Still Sunshine is looking incredibly slick and polished even by his standards. The CG is up to par, the use of color is spectacular and the editing is clean and sharp. Boyle finds room for a little experimentation too, while making sure that it remains a clean and accessible genre film. Visually there's just a very nice balance between author and genre going on, elevating it above basic genre fare but still allowing for a broader audience.

Boyle's films also tend to benefit from above average sound design and Sunshine definitely isn't an exception. Some of the most impressive scenes in the film are set to a superb mix of ambient and more classic film sounds. It's a soundtrack that brings out the best in the visuals and aids in creating all-encompassing moments of wonder that pull you right into the film. It's not really unexpected for a Boyle film, but the execution is flawless and an example for many other directors.

The cast is also a real asset to the film. It's not often that you see an international group of actors like this brought together, but the mix of talent gives the film an extra edge. With people like Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans on board, there's enough range in the crew members without it feeling overly forced or checkboxey. There are no weak links and even though I felt Murphy and Yeoh jump out the most, that might just be because prior preference on my side.

screen capture of Sunshine

While Sunshine has all the marks of a core sci-fi film, the latter third drifts off into horror territory. There's a little Event Horizon in there, but with a much better director keeping it together. Still, not everyone will appreciate the shift in genres, especially as things become a lot more fantastical near the end of the film. It's a sprawling finale and I felt Boyle did an amazing job constructing the ending for the film, but it's still clearly too much for some people. That said, I feel that if you prepare yourself for the genre switch it shouldn't have too much of an overall impact.

Sunshine is a superb example of how genre cinema can be elevated when the hand of an author is added to the mix, though ever so slightly. It's not as freaky or out there as Beyond the Black Rainbow, it's still retaining its commercial appeal, but it's clearly not just a simple genre effort either. The film looks amazing, sounds great and has an impressive cast. Danny Boyle did an amazing job molding everything into an impressive whole, which is why the film still holds up 10 years after release.

Thu, 08 Jun 2017 09:53:32 +0000