onderhond blog - onderhond.com http://www.onderhond.com/blog/onderhond The onderhond blog is a collection of gathered thoughts about my work and my personal life. Find out about what drives me as a person and how I get about in my professional life. en-us underdog@operamail.com (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[Ying Xiong/Yimou Zhang]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/hero-review-yimou-zhang

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

screen capture of Hero

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

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

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

screen capture of Hero

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

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

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

screen capture of Hero

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

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

Tue, 30 Sep 2014 11:20:50 +0200
<![CDATA[Zukan ni Nottenai Mushi/Satoshi Miki]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/insects-unlisted-review-satoshi-miki

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

screen capture of The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia

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

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

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

screen capture of The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia

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

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

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

screen capture of The Insects Unlisted in the Encyclopedia

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

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

Tue, 16 Sep 2014 12:31:58 +0200
<![CDATA[Kim Ki-duk/x20]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/kim-ki-duk-x20
Kim Ki-duk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 11 Sep 2014 11:35:10 +0200
<![CDATA[september 2014 updates/more movies and small design tweaks]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/blog-updates/september-2014-updates

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

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

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

Wed, 10 Sep 2014 11:54:20 +0200
<![CDATA[Soseiji/Shinya Tsukamoto]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/gemini-review-tsukamoto

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

screen capture of Gemini

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

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

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

screen capture of Gemini

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

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

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

screen capture of Gemini

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

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

Tue, 09 Sep 2014 11:50:52 +0200
<![CDATA[The Living and the Dead/Simon Rumley]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/living-and-the-dead-review

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

screen capture of The Living and the Dead

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

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

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

screen capture of The Living and the Dead

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

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

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

screen capture of The Living and the Dead

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

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

Tue, 02 Sep 2014 12:32:15 +0200
<![CDATA[Yume no Ginga/Sogo Ishii]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/yume-no-ginga-review-sogo-ishii

As an avid fan of Asian cinema, keeping up to date with the latest and greatest can be somewhat of a chore. But once in a while you get lucky. Before I was even fully aware of what I was about to watch (this is more than 10 years ago mind), Arte (a French/German artsy TV station) aired Sogo Ishii's Yume no Ginga (Labyrinth of Dreams). I struggled with the French subs, but was so smitten by the film's atmosphere that I didn't even care. It's been one of my favourites ever since.

screen capture of Yume no Ginga

It would take years before I even realised I'd seen one of Sogo Ishii's most obscure collaborations with Tadanobu Asano (Dead End Run, Electric Dragon 80000V). The film is still pretty much impossible to find (unless you don't need subtitles) and it's unlikely you'll see it mentioned by anyone apart from the most hardened Ishii fans. It's one of those film that, should the opportunity present itself, you simply cannot miss out on.

While Ishii is known as one of the front men of Japanese punk cinema (a niche with very limited appeal), there's more to the man than just his punk-inspired films. Even his biggest fans forget sometimes, but movies like Kyoshin and Mizu no Naka no Hachigatsu are clear indications of Ishii's broader directorial skills. His recent name change to Gakuryu Ishii (with Ikiteru Mono wa Inainoka as accompanying film) is another solid indication. Yume no Ginga belongs in that list of deviant films, which in part explains its obscurity.

Yume no Ginga is based on a novel written by Yumeno Kyusaku and marks one of the few times Ishii worked with pre-existing material. While Ishii has no trouble making the film his own, the plot is actually rather pulpy. Everything revolves around a mysterious bus driver (Niitaka) that joins the bus crew in a rural Japanese town. Niitaka's appearance is linked to an urban legend that tells of a young charmer who seduces his co-workers and ends up killing them before moving on to the next town. Tomiko is stuck in the middle when she gets paired to Niitaka and falls madly in love with him.

screen capture of Yume no Ginga

Sogo Ishii is a visual artisan and Yume no Ginga is solid proof of his artistry. Even though I prefer high-contrast black and white, the hazy, muted look Ishii applied is perfect for this film. With a strong focus on lighting and excellent framing he dishes out amazing imagery, only improved by some excellent fetish-like close-ups (clear remnants of his punk aesthetic). Add to that Ishii's perfect sense of timing and razor-sharp editing skills and this film is every bit as stunning as you'd expect an Ishii film to be.

No matter how impressive the visuals are though, it's the sound design that truly stands out. It's not uncommon for Ishii's films to have an outspoken soundtrack, but Yume no Ginga is a little different. None of the loud and in-your-face punk-style music here, instead Ishii opts for amazing ambient drones and lots of sound filtering to heighten the impact of isolated sounds. The effect is mysterious and laden, a treasure trove of atmosphere that would remain intact even if you'd air it on the radio.

Rena Komine and a young Tadanobu Asano take up the lead roles. They do a splendid job, though people not taken (or familiar) with the rigid Japanese way of acting might be a bit harder to convince. While their seemingly impenetrable facade adds an extra dimension to the mystery, they might come off as icy and emotionless. A common complaint but unfounded if you ask me. I found both characters to be enigmatic and rich. The secondary cast doesn't reach the same heights, but suffices.

screen capture of Yume no Ginga

If you only consider the plot then Yume no Ginga is on the plain side. There's only one real strand of mystery which is played out throughout the entire film, with enough obfuscation for the coin to fall either way. If you're only interested in how it all plays out then this film is probably not for you. On the other hand, if you love to see a mystery build up through superb sound design and lush visuals towards a gratifying ending then Ishii's Yume no Ginga is a must.

Those who really want to see the film will be required to be a little adventurous, but fans of Ishii and/or Asano would do good to go through the trouble. Even though it's not a typical Ishii film, there are enough stylistic remnants to please the fans while making sure it's not just a rehash of his other films. There really isn't all that much to compare it to, which is probably why it has lost so little of its appeal through the years.

Thu, 28 Aug 2014 13:13:06 +0200
<![CDATA[Sonatine/Takeshi Kitano]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/sonatine-review-takeshi-kitano

Revisiting Takeshi Kitano's older films has been a true delight so far, still Sonatine passed its 20 year anniversary last year so I was anxious to see how one of Kitano's first films would hold up after all this time. Whatever worries there were, they quickly disappeared once the film started. While the film has clearly aged in some departments, Kitano's trademark style more than makes up for whatever dust gathered on its celluloid.

screen capture of Sonatine

Back in 1993 Kitano (Autoreiji, Autoreiji Biyondo) was working hard to get his career as a film director off the ground. Sonatine was his fourth film already, but it was the first one that brought all of his typical traits together. Kitano fans will surely recognize the flashes of genius that would become the basis of success for films like Hana-Bi and Kikujiro no Natsu. With a little help of Tarantino (and his production company) it even became an internationally acclaimed film, though Kitano would have to wait more than 7 years for that to happen.

Sonatine is the blueprint of what would be known as the "typical Kitano Yakuza flick" (a classification Kitano would try to fight off eventually with Dolls and his trilogy of self-referential films: Takeshis', Kantoku: Banzai! and Achilles to Kame). A mix of sudden, violent outbursts with silly Yakuza characters and poetic (yet often childish) moments of goofing around. All of that topped off by Kitano's own film persona. It's a peculiar mix that may feel a little offensive to real-life Yakuza, luckily for Kitano their sense of humor turned them into big fans of his films.

The plot itself is pretty basic. The film starts off with some standard Yakuza ramblings. Murakawa's fraction is making a name for itself (and quite a lot of money to go with that), which brings up the worst in some of his fellow clan members. They ship Murakawa off to Hokkaido on the pretence of helping out a friendly clan boss. When Murakawa arrives in Hokkaido he quickly catches on, but by then it's too late already as their adversaries are well on their way to decimate Murakawa's forces.

screen capture of Sonatine

Visually the film is definitely starting to show its age. Sonatine looks a little grim, lifeless and grey, while the camera work is a bit too loose and unstable at times. Kitano does his best to introduce some interesting angles and does manage some nice compositions, especially during the middle part, but it's the sharp and precise editing coupled with Kitano's unique sense of timing that keeps the film interesting on a visual level.

As was usually the case with Kitano's older films, Joe Hisaishi was put in charge of the score for Sonatine. The effect of Hisaishi's score on the overall atmosphere here cannot be underestimated. The fact that the leisurely interludes work is in part due to Hisaishi's sober yet beautifully upbeat music. Even though not all tracks are equally successful, the music used for the beach scenes is legendary and immediately recognizable. The way a good score should be.

When Kitano takes up a lead role all the attention is immediately drawn to his persona. It doesn't matter if he fills up the screen or merely trots by in the background, he has a special aura that lends him a tremendous screen presence. He's also one of the very few people who can pull off the combination between a violent madman and an adorable manchild, which is exactly what his character is supposed to be here. With Kitano on board you hardly need a secondary cast, then again, when people like Tetsu Watanabe, Ren Osugi and Susumu Terajima are willing to assist, things only get better.

screen capture of Sonatine

The first part of Sonatine is solid Kitano fun, but the film truly blossoms when Murakawa's crew is forced to hide out in a shack near the beach. With nothing to do, Murakawa and his henchman end up passing the time with silly games. The sumo wrestling show, the shower scene and the nightly fireworks stand-off are all Kitano classics and give the film a pleasantly unique edge that lifts it far above standard Yakuza fare. Not everyone will appreciate this lengthy intermission, but those people can warm themselves on the fact that the finale is every bit as explosive as you'd expect it to be.

Even though the films Kitano made prior to Sonatine aren't bad at all, Sonatine is the first true testament to his genius. The blend of sudden violence with quirky fun forms an explosive cocktail that's not only great to watch, but helps to get a feel for what would otherwise be lifeless characters. Sonatine is the ideal starting point for people who want to acquaint themselves with Kitano's oeuvre and it's essential viewing for everyone who likes to dabble in Asian cinema once in a while.

Tue, 26 Aug 2014 12:01:33 +0200
<![CDATA[Isao Takahata/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/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[The Checkbox Parable/Logical Order Vs Visual Order]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/logical-order-checkbox-parable

Even though a lot has changed (both good and bad) since I started working as a front-end developer, there have been a few constants in my line of work that have persisted no matter how much I wrote or talked about them. I'm not a quitter though, so I've prepared yet another article in an attempt to try and bare the core of what makes an html developer tick. What exactly it is that makes us choose one particular html structure over another.

visual order vs logical order

At first glance there might be a strong bond between visual and logical order, but upon closer inspection you'll find that our eyes behave very differently from our brains. Our eyes don't always follow a logical path (top left to bottom right for us Westerners) when scanning for information and they often manage to skip ahead based on what attracts them or what they have learned from previous experiences.

For example, when browsing through a site our eyes will start to skip the site header after a while because they know from previous pages that they're not going to find anything of interest there, instead the eyes skip immediately to the content section of a new page. Then there are also color and alignment impulses that help our eyes to focus, whereas a logical order might dictate a different structure.

These alignment impulses is what I'm going to talk about here, as they perfectly illustrate the way we deal with checkboxes (or radio buttons is you want) on our websites. It's a perfect example of how the mind of someone who writes html works (or should work).

the checkbox

Checkboxes don't pose a big challenge these days, not for developers nor for designers. Just line up the checkboxes to the left, then add the labels to the right and when a label spans multiple lines make sure it doesn't wrap around the checkbox. It's easy as can be.

At least, that's how our eyes interpret it. By lining up the checkbox elements to the left they are a lot easier to spot (useful for quickly checking which ones are active). If we'd put the checkbox elements behind the labels they would be a lot harder to find, so to the left they go. But from a logical perspective, putting the checkbox first makes no sense at all.

Instead of thinking like a blind user (who probably has a screenreader that couples the label to the input element for him), just imagine going through the html code from top to bottom. If you'd match the html to the visual structure, you'd be putting the checkbox first in the html structure. So basically, you'd get a checkbox without the slightest idea of what its label is going to be. There is no context at all that tells you what this checkbox is about. Only when continuing you'd get to read the label. Should you then want to activate the checkbox, you'd be required to hop back before you could check the checkbox. It's like asking someone to reply "yes" or "no" without posing the question first. Silly, no?

So from a logical point of view, the label comes first, followed by the checkbox. And in short, that's what I try to take into account when I write html code. It's css that's supposed to bridge the gap between logical and visual structures, where html makes sure everything is presented in a logical order. As for the practical side, a position absolute and some padding will do the trick, or you can be all modern and flexbox both elements in the right visual order, but that's a css thing, not a html thing.


Don't get me wrong, I fully understand that this is quite the purist example. If you put the label after the checkbox, nobody will die and your site won't be much harder to use by the people visiting it, but to me this example perfectly illustrates the difference between what you see in a design and what you code in html. Other popular examples include "see all" links laid out next to the heading of a list or "back to top" links laid out in the same spot. Share buttons above an article or images that appear above headings are other popular examples.

Sticking to logical html structures can put some extra stress on the css and unless you're confident enough I wouldn't recommend going all the way, all the time, but it's good to keep things like this in mind whenever you're writing html code. Just read it from top to bottom and consider whether it makes sense without a visual design, because that's what html is all about.

Wed, 20 Aug 2014 12:45:47 +0200
<![CDATA[Kaguyahime no Monogatari/Isao Takahata]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/princess-kaguya-review-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]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/soul-review-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]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/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]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/strings-review-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]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/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