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[Kizumonogatari III: Reiketsu-hen/Tatsuya Oishi and Akiyuki Shinbo]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/kizumonogatari-3-review-oishi-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.

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Thu, 20 Jul 2017 09:52:23 +0000
<![CDATA[Innocence/Lucile Hadzihalilovic]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/innocence-review-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.

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Wed, 19 Jul 2017 09:36:20 +0000
<![CDATA[The Incident/Isaac Ezban]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/the-incident-review-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.

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Mon, 17 Jul 2017 10:07:21 +0000
<![CDATA[T2 Trainspotting/Danny Boyle]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/trainspotting-2-review-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.

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Thu, 13 Jul 2017 09:53:45 +0000
<![CDATA[I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK/Chan-wook Park]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/im-a-cyborg-review-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.

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Tue, 04 Jul 2017 10:00:39 +0000
<![CDATA[Rage/Sang-il Lee]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/rage-review-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.

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Thu, 29 Jun 2017 09:54:13 +0000
<![CDATA[Stereo Future/Hiroyuki Nakano]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/stereo-future-review-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.

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Thu, 22 Jun 2017 09:38:26 +0000
<![CDATA[The Whispering Star/Shion Sono]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/whispering-star-review-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.

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Thu, 15 Jun 2017 09:37:59 +0000
<![CDATA[Sunshine/Danny Boyle]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/sunshine-review-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.

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Thu, 08 Jun 2017 09:53:32 +0000
<![CDATA[Blame!/Hiroyuki Seshita]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/blame-review-hiroyuki-seshita

Last year, word got out that Netflix was doing a full-length anime feature based on Tsutomu Nihei's Blame!, with Ajin and Knights of Sidonia director Hiroyuki Seshita helming the project. Blame! is an all-time cross-medium favorite of mine, but looking at earlier adaptation attempts I tried to keep my expectations low. The film saw its global release on Netflix last week (up yours Cannes) and even though I was prepared for the worst, I was still pretty eager to see how it translated to the (not so big) screen. Turns out my fears were completely unfounded.

screen capture of Blame!

I'm not a big manga reader, but when I first picked up Blame! I was sold on it immediately. I'm an immense cyberpunk fan, but realistically it's a very tough genre to do in cinema. Cyberpunk films turn out either very low budget (think Shinya Tsukamoto's work) or severely lacking in punk (think The Matrix). When doing a manga none of that matters, there's just the illustrator and a blank piece of paper. So Tsutomu Nihei went all-out when he worked on Blame!. The result was a tough, impenetrable but eerily imaginative, attractive and mind-blowing piece of art, to the point where it became my favorite cyberpunk anything, hands down.

Adapting it to the screen was going to be a serious challenge though. There's not a lot of coherent storytelling in the manga, the pacing is all over the place (large sections where nothing is happening are followed by extremely chaotic and brutal fights) and the overall design isn't very commercial. All the praise to Netflix for making it happen nonetheless. They brought in director Seshita (who worked on Knights of Sidonia, a series based on another Nihei manga), they contacted Nihei himself to help out with the adaptation and they put down a decent sum of money, making sure this wasn't just some upgraded TV-series episode. After that they did their typical "hands-off" approach and let the creative people do their job.

Rather than cram the entire manga into one film, they picked a single story arc and expanded on that. Where the manga follows Killy, a stark and enigmatic wanderer looking for surviving humans in an ever-growing megastructure, the film turns it around and tells the story of one of the surviving tribes, who just happen to run into Killy. It's probably a little disappointing if you were expecting to get the full Blame! experience in a single film, at the same time it leaves a lot of potential for future films while making sure there isn't an information overload taking away from the experience. A choice that somehow feels quite deliberate.

screen capture of Blame!

Blame! is an extremely visual experience, so one of my main concerns was whether they'd be able to translate Nihei's unique style (a former architect) to the screen. That dark, gritty, decomposed yet very architectural world is one of the main draws of the manga and not so easy to do in animated form. They did well keeping the cell-shaded look from Knights of Sidonia. It allows for far more detail in the character designs and architecture and it helps to make the action scenes that more frantic and alive. It's not like the same effect can't be achieved in traditional animation of course, but it's a lot more expensive to do. On top of that, there's only a select group of animators who can pull it off and they tend to come with their own signature style (like Takeshi Koike).

Not everyone is going to appreciate that they cut the animation framerate in order to give the film a more traditional animation feel, but I actually prefer it over the slick, full CG look. The character designs are a bit softer compared to the manga, but overall they remain pretty close to the source material and while the film doesn't feature many of the signature bad guys, the more generic Safeguards are pretty kick-ass still. All in all the film looks stunning and well beyond what I'd expected they could achieve.

The soundtrack is a bit trickier though. I'm kind of opinionated when it comes to cyberpunk and music, but realistically speaking I'm well aware that I'll never get to see a true match-up of my preferred music in a (cyberpunk) film. That said, the soundtrack still feels a little too fantastical at times. I do get that they went with a more tribal vibe, but it makes it too Middle-Earth fantasy, which just doesn't work for the setting. It's not just all bad, there are definitely some good parts too, especially when they start playing around with static and noise, but these are a too few and far between. It feels like a missed opportunity. As for the dubs, Netflix was nice enough to prepare 5 different language dubs and just as many subtitle options, so there's plenty of choice. I flipped through them and as always I preferred the Japanese dub, with the English and German ones feeling the most out of place, but if you have trouble reading subtitles there definitely are options.

screen capture of Blame!

The main critique I've read so far is that the film fails to give a firm grip on its setting. While that's definitely true, it's actually "worse" in the manga. The difference there is that Nihei had 10 books to expand his universe, something a lot tougher to accomplish in a 100-minute feature. Even so, I felt they did a good job introducing various aspects of the Blame! universe while still keeping things mysterious and adventurous. If you're clingy when it comes to narratives, Blame! probably just isn't the thing for you as part of its appeal is in its expansive universe and the sense of adventure you get when exploring it together with the characters. Not knowing everything there is to know is just part of the deal.

That said, the Blame! universe is far from random. It may take several viewings (and/or reads), but when everything starts to click together it becomes clear that Nihei put a lot of thought and effort in how everything connects. The world of Blame! is something that goes beyond the typical "computers have taken over" future we've become used to seeing in American cyberpunk and its all the better for it. The film honors that depth, but in a slightly different way. Some familiarity with Nihei's universe will definitely come in handy when watching this film, but if you think that the manga will magically clear up all the confusion, think again.

Blame! turned out a whole lot better than I expected. It's not the ultimate adaptation, for that the direction itself is a little too safe and the music isn't on point, but considering the strong niche appeal of the manga and the commercial goals of Netflix, it's far more edgier than I imagined it to be. They left Nihei's appeal and style intact, the action sequences are brutal and the megastructure looks as cool as it looks in the manga. There's still a lot left to explore in Nihei's Blame! universe and the film does feel like a setup for more to come. I for one would be incredibly happy to see a sequel in the same vain.

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Mon, 29 May 2017 10:10:08 +0000
<![CDATA[Akira/Katsuhiro Otomo]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/akira-review-katsuhiro-otomo

It felt like a million years since I last watched Akira. It was one of the films that got me into anime (which goes for a lot of people my age I guess), but as I found better and crazier films out there, I somehow lost sight of Katsuhiro Otomo's masterpiece. I'm still not entirely sure how that happened, needless to say I was quite excited to revisit Otomo's breakthrough film. And it didn't disappoint, not in the least. Akira may be nearing its 30th birthday, it's still a stunner from start to finish and it still managed to conjure up awe as if I was watching it for the first time.

screen capture of Akira

There is no lack of landmark films when talking anime, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that pinpointing the most influential or crucial of them all is no easy task. Is it Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell or do you favor Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies? If you take global exposure into account, there's no way around Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, but if fandom is your primary criterion then Hideaki Anno's insanely popular Neon Genesis Evangelion would probably end up on top. Personally though, I'd argue no anime film or series was more critical than Akira. It's really the first time that the world looked at anime as a viable, mature addition to the cinematic canon. I feel that without it, others would've had a much tougher time building up the following they enjoy today.

Akira is a film adaptation of Otomo's own manga. It's easy enough to forget Akira (the anime) is not an original work, though purists will tell you the manga is actually better than the film. I read through part of it and I can say with a comfortable level of certainty that I'm not part of that group, then again I'm a cinema buff pur sang so you mileage may vary. The film version "suffers" from the typical ails of adaptations, most notably it's severely edited down for brevity. Personally I welcome the stricter pace. It makes for a more overwhelming experience, though if you love back stories and narrative depth than the manga is definitely preferred.

The plotlines are still pretty much the same though. We follow Kaneda, a bike gang leader who gets caught up in a secret government project. Tetsuo is part of Kaneda's gang and is eager to prove himself, but his frail posture and somewhat timid presentation put him at a disadvantage. When Tetsuo bumps into a peculiar kid sporting supernatural powers, he is taken hostage by the government and he becomes part of their experiments. Little do they know they awaked an extraordinary force that's set on destroying the world as we know it. Meanwhile Kaneda is tracking down Tetsuo in an ultimate attempt to stop him from causing global mayhem.

screen capture of Akira

Akira is an 80s anime and it shows. The art style, the use of color and the first minor, subtle steps into the world of CG animation betray its age. But don't let that fool you into thinking that there's nothing to look at. I was positively surprised by the lush animation and how it still trumps many modern-day anime films. There is so much movement and all of it is done with such impressive detail that the film never feels old or dated. And just when you feel like you've gotten used to the high level of animation quality, Otomo finds something to one-up himself. That's pretty impressive for a 120-minute film. On top of that, Otomo's unique design aesthetic is a blessing. The strong blend of steampunk and science-fiction makes for a singular and intriguing setting that goes a long way into defining the overall atmosphere of the film.

What's a good landmark film without a proper, memorable score? Anime features have an above average track record when it comes to strong musical support, but even within its niche Akira is a stand-out. It takes just a few notes of the main Akira theme to conjure up the atmosphere of the film. It's dark, daunting and somewhat alien, but at the same time also very tribal and humane. A perfect mood for a post-apocalyptic setting heading towards a second apocalypse. This being one of the most famous anime films means there's an English dub available. For once I'm not going to burn it to the ground, but that's only because of some weird rave/anime cross-over album that sampled royally from English anime dubs, including Akira's. If you're watching the film though, just go for the Japanese dub. It's way better and more in line with the personality of the characters.

screen capture of Akira

Akira has a lot going for itself, from the magnificent animation to its lively setting and the superb score. Add to that some properly explored themes and a cast of loveable characters and you have all the ingredients for a proper classic. But to get to that landmark spot, Otomo went all in on the film's insane finale. A mind-blowingly grotesque and over-the-top celebration of both genre cinema and overwrought philosophy, it made Akira into a film that anime fans could fully embrace and use as a defence when people were bringing up words like "cartoons" and "tentacle porn". The combination of strong genre influences with a detailed setting and a somewhat puzzling finale turned Akira into a film that could leave a mark beyond its own niche.

If Hollywood has anything to worry about (they're in the process of remaking this film, moving the setting from Tokyo to New York) it's adapting that finale to something that can be shown to a broader audience without impacting the overpowering feel of the original. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of discussion about whether or not the whitewashing is warranted, but making the film succeed artistically will pretty much come down to doing justice to that sprawling finale. And that's going to be a pretty tough thing to accomplish in modern-day Hollywood.

Akira is nearing its 30th birthday, but it's still a marvel of a film. While the 80s feel is definitely there, it doesn't feel like it aged a lot. The animation is top notch, the soundtrack is memorable, its universe feels alive and it goes out with a bang. Literally. It's not up there with my absolute favorite anime features, but it's an undeniable landmark that worked hard to earn its place in film history. It's a must see for everyone with only the slightest interest in animation, though to fully appreciate its splendour you need to be able to deal with its strong genre influences.

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Thu, 25 May 2017 09:58:01 +0000
<![CDATA[Skins/Eduardo Casanova]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/skins-review-eduardo-casanova

Should you want to watch Eduardo Casanova's Pieles [Skins], come prepared. Don't watch it with your parents, unless you feel comfortable watching weird stuff with them. Don't watch it with your kids, unless you want to do some serious explaining afterwards. And don't watch it with your spouse, unless she's aware of your weird taste in films. Skins is racy, relentless and uncompromising. It's a one of a kind film that walks a very fine line between absurd comedy and drama, but it's going to be divisive no matter how open-minded the audience. As for me? I was totally blown away by it.

screen capture of Skins

The funny thing about Eduardo Casanova is that his film feels like an extension of his persona. Not so much because Skins is about deformities, but his general composure and look just make sense once you've traveled through his 80-minute long feature. In Spain he's better known for his acting career, though he's been making short films ever since he started working in film. Skins is his first full-length feature and draws from his short film Eat My Shit, a not-so-literal but still very direct reference to the most eye-popping character in Skins.

Skins is a film about beauty, but not in the most common sense of the world. The film is populated with people who are in some way broken or deformed. Casanova collects a wide variety of characters, each of them sporting a very specific deformity. Some of these are quite realistic, others are grotesque and absurd. And it's not just about physical appearances either, some of them are dealing with some serious mental problems. An interesting twist that adds a little extra depth to the film.

The film starts in a brothel infamous for only employing physically deformed people. A paedophile is soliciting the lady of the house (a 70 year old who walks around in the nude) about meeting with a young, eye-less girl. It sounds like a vile and ugly setup, but there's a certain calm and elegance to these first scenes that makes for a very confusing intro. And that's just the beginning, because Casanova keeps piling on similarly weird and uncomfortable setups, creating an intricate patchwork of interwoven stories.

screen capture of Skins

Pink and purple, that's what you'll remember after seeing Skins. Based on the plot and themes you might have expected a grim, gritty and sullen-looking film, but this ain't A Serbian Film. Skins is one of the most meticulously styled films I've seen in my life. Everything, just e-ve-ry-thing, is either pink or purple and absolutely nothing feels random or by accident. The camera work too is very deliberate, with well-planned shots and exquisitely constructed frames. It all adds up to create an extremely soft, pleasant and feminine look that provides a strong and telling contrast with the film's darker elements.

The soundtrack is probably the least subversive part of the film. It's not boring or uneventful, in fact it's quite eclectic, bringing together some very different styles of music, but none of the musical choices feel as surprising or as daring as the other elements of the film. At all times the music feels appropriate and fitting, effectively adding something to the scene but never steering it in an unexpected direction. It's a pretty good, fun score that does the film plenty of ffavors, but in contrast with the rest it's quite safe and timid.

As for the actors, Casanova didn't spare them in the least. He doesn't go easy on the ones who are actually deformed, often ogling their imperfections with great diligence and detail. The actors sporting prosthetics don't have it exactly easy either, keeping a straight face while still finding a way to move the audience, no matter how grotesque they may look. There are no real lead characters so one or two lacking performances wouldn't have hurt the film in any meaningful way, but everyone put in splendid performance and the acting is just all-round great.

screen capture of Skins

Skins is a film that could've gone wrong in so many ways. It could've easily turned out to be a simple, crude comedy or one of those films with an overbearing, nagging social conscience. Luckily Casanova went beyond that. None of the characters are saints, none are without faults, but at the same time they're all likeable. Underneath all its flashy exterior make-up and twisted interior pain lies a film that's humane, moving and sweet, while still housing some very edgy and in your face comedy. It's an insanely difficult balance to achieve, but Casanova made it work.

Even so, Skins is poised to be divisive. It's just too weird and out there to appeal to a really broad audience. Still, it's extremely rare to see a film where a director can go full out and deliver his distinct, unique vision with such flair and panache, without having to make any obvious compromises or commercial trade-offs. For that reason alone Skins is worth a try. If you're watching it together with someone else though, do make sure you feel comfortable enough watching weird stuff with that person, because the awkwardness just piles up and it just gets progressively weirder as time passes by.

Eduardo Casanova made a stunning first feature. It's hyper-stylized, it's extremely daring and surprisingly well-balanced. There's a peculiar mix of easiness and awkwardness that is quite unique, on top of that the film works on multiple levels. It's a superb dark comedy, a strong drama and it offers a great spin on the "beauty is on the inside" saying without becoming too pushy, one-dimensional or judgmental. While Casanova will need a second feature film to prove he's more than just a one-trick pony, Skins is a testament of his talent and regardless of his future career, it's one of the best films I've seen this year.

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Wed, 17 May 2017 10:12:41 +0000
<![CDATA[Electric Shadows/Jiang Xiao]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/electric-shadows-review-jiang-xiao

When I first watched Jiang Xiao's Meng Ying Tong Nian [Electric Shadows] I liked it a lot, but it faded from memory rather quickly and last week all that was left was a daunting, confusing blank. That doesn't necessarily mean the film is flawed, my memory can be a bit fidgety from time to time, but it did result in me approaching the film with some reservations. Luckily that turned out to be unnecessary as Electric Shadows has more than enough qualities to justify a high rating, though having seen a lot of other Chinese films in the meantime did lower the overall impact just a little.

screen capture of Electric Shadows

Well before Jiang Xiao made one of my all-time favorite Chinese films (pk.com.cn), he cooked up Electric Shadows. These two films have little in common though, unless you know exactly what to look for. Where pk.com.cn is very free-form and experimental, Electric Shadows has a more classical Chinese feel to it. It's a film that evolved from the work of Yimou Zhang, but does show some more modern touches in places. And it's these moments that make Electric Shadows stand out from the rest, even today.

You can think of Electric Shadows as a Chinese alternative to Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, a film that reminisces about the old days, combining drama, romance and a strong love for cinema. The structure and the themes of both films are eerily similar, even bordering on straight-up remake, but the era and setting of Electric Shadows makes for a very different experience. Still, people who liked Nuovo Cinema Paradiso will find a lot to love here.

The film starts with paperboy Mao Dabing running into a big pile of stacked bricks. From out of nowhere a girl (Ling Ling) assaults him, hitting him hard on the head with one of the scattered bricks. After treatment Mao is taken to the police station to deal with the girl, but to his surprise she asks him to take care of her fish while she spends her time in custody. When Mao visits her place, it dawns on him he might know the girl and a bunch of flashbacks reveal the history Mao and Ling Ling share together.

screen capture of Electric Shadows

Visually speaking, the film is divided in two somewhat separate parts. The modern-day scenes look solid but not too spectacular, while the flashbacks are draped in an alluring sepia glow. The sepia color scheme is a rather easy fix to upgrade the visual presentation of a film, but Xiao does make smart use of the palette. It's not just a quick filter on top of the regular footage, instead it feels like the footage was tailored to make the sepia look its finest. And with the film being mostly flashbacks, the visual presentation is just overall pleasant.

The soundtrack is pretty simply, mostly consisting of soft, inoffensive music in the background. It does elicit a nice atmosphere and it makes for pleasant background noise to the drama, but you'll be hard-pressed to remember much of it once the film has finished. Chinese films tend to play it safe with the music and it often feels like little more than an afterthought, Electric Shadows fits that description perfectly. It's still preferred over horribly over-sentimental drab of course, but injecting the score with a bit more character wouldn't have hurt.

The acting is fine, but probably a little over the top, especially if you're not too familiar with Chinese cinema. That said, the kids do a tremendous job and even though Zhengjia Wang lays it on quite thick, he's an adorable little rascal. On top of that, his scenes with Haogi Zhang are pretty damn heart-warming. The borderline overacting may deter some people and it may not be too suitable for the more dramatic scenese, but it does add a lot to the uplifting spirit of Electric Shadows.

screen capture of Electric Shadows

Most of the film is spend revelling in flashbacks, but towards the end the film switches back its original timeline. There are some twists and turns there that don't really add much to the film and at times Xiao tries a little too hard to be clever. While Electric Shadows could've done with a more concise, focused ending, I also have to admit there's nothing too offensive or destructive there either. It's just that it doesn't match the first part as well as it could've been.

Electric Shadows is a feel-good film that hits all the important marks. There is a little cruft near the end and some parts could've been streamlined a little better, but overall it's a sweet and endearing film that shows a deep love for cinema. It's a great first feature for Xiao, it's just a little disheartening to see he's only directed two feature films so far. He's clearly one of China's most promising directors, but he needs more films to showcase his talent. Electric Shadows is a film that's pretty ease to recommend (and availability isn't bad either), even to people not too familiar with Chinese cinema.

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Mon, 15 May 2017 10:04:11 +0000
<![CDATA[The Monster/Bryan Bertino]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/the-monster-review-bryan-bertino

Director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) returns with a new horror film, not so cryptically titled The Monster. I was pretty excited to catch up with what I considered to be a very promising horror director, but I will admit that I didn't quite expect to like The Monster the way I did. It's been a while since I last watched a truly convincing horror film (as in a pure, unfiltered genre effort) and there have been no real signs of a horror renaissance. Your mileage may vary of course, but to me Bertino hit a home run with The Monster.

screen capture of The Monster

When you sit down to watch a film directed by Bryan Bertino, there are going to be certain expectations. That said, I was extremely relieved that I didn't see any of the promo material until after the film, because even though the presence of a monster in a film called The Monster is not exactly shocking, putting it on full display on posters and DVD covers is borderline stupid. Not in the least because Bertino goes for a slow-burning intro and a meticulously planned reveal of the titular monster. With posters like that, you kill half of the suspense and the mystery even before the intro credits start rolling. It's just all-out baffling.

With The Monster Bertino aims to blend drama and horror. This is somewhat of a proven concept, but where the drama tends to bog down the horror aspect of these films, The Monster manages to keep its full-blown horror aesthetic intact. The drama is infused through several short but extremely poignant flashbacks, grounding the characters without spending any excess time on drama, while at the same time adding some additional unease. The build-up of the horror is sly and gradual, matching the pacing of the drama, with tension slowly building up to a terrific climax. This setup allows Bertino to avoid most contemporary horror clichés, including overdone 80s references and an over-reliance on jump scares.

The story is kept pretty simple, with a mother and daughter stranded on a deserted road during a raging thunderstorm. Their car is in shambles and while they wait for help, something in the woods is trying to find out the best way to turn them into dinner. The drama comes from the mother-daughter relationship, which is pretty bruised and broken. Flashbacks show an alcohol-addicted mom and a young girl who takes better care of her mother than vice versa. They are in fact on their way to drop the girl off at her father's, but their chances of ever reaching their destination look pretty slim.

screen capture of The Monster

Bertino has a firm grip on the visual side of things. The cinematography matches the deliberate pacing, but not without adding its own layer of dread. Most shots are relatively static, but there's always movement in the frame. Sometimes the camera shifts every so slightly, slowly revealing more of the environment, at other times the shadows or blurred surroundings in the background create motion to keep the audience sharp. The lighting too is top notch. It's never too dark, but there's always that feeling that things are lurking in the shadows. All in all the film has a very polished, functional look with just the right amount of finish to have it rise above the rest.

The soundtrack is very much on par with the visuals. Not overly surprising or anything too demanding, just really well done. Bertino went for a pretty coherent sound that worked both for the drama and the horror parts, giving off a dark, rather heavy and tense vibe throughout the entire film. It helps to build the atmosphere and pushes you just a little bit closer to the edge of your seat. As a stand-alone score it's probably not worth a lot as it's really tailored to the film, but in the end that's not what matters.

The cast is so small there are only 8 listings on IMDb and that's including the monster and the injured wolf they find along the road (props to Meeko). But really it's just mother (Zoe Kazan) and daughter (Ella Ballentine) eating up all the screentime, the rest is just there for some short, functional interactions. Kazan and Ballentine really hit the mark though. It's rare to find interesting characters in a horror film, but with very little the two manage to build up an extremely intricate and broken mother-daughter relationship. Coming from Kazan that's not too surprising, but Ballentine is definitely someone to keep an eye on in the future.

screen capture of The Monster

There may be plenty of symbolic monsters in The Monster, but the reason why the film works so well is because of the way it deals with its actual monster. It's not just some afterthought or excuse to try and sell it to the horror crowd, instead it's the meat of the film. At the same time, the drama adds a touch of weight and dread to the horror that is often missing from simpler genre efforts. It's a very strong combination and Bertino handles it remarkably well, turning The Monster into a benchmark for similar productions.

The Monster is one of the best straight-up horror films I've seen in the past couple of years. It's creepy, it's dark and tense from start to finish. The acting is top notch, the characters are interesting and the film looks and sounds great. It's a shame that the poster/DVD front contains stupendous spoilers, but I can't really blame the film for that. If you can come up with a way to watch the film without eyeing its promo artwork, do yourself a favor and make the effort. Hopefully The Monster helps Bertino to keep his career alive, because the horror scene is in dire need of directors like him.

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Wed, 10 May 2017 10:17:50 +0000
<![CDATA[Pink and Gray/Isao Yukisada]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/pink-and-gray-review-isao-yukisada

Isao Yukisada is a longtime favorite amongst Japanese drama enthusiasts, but his films tend to take their time before reaching Western shores. Pinku to Gure [Pink and Gray] was released in 2015 and only recently found its way over here. It's a film that should feel quite familiar to Yukisada enthusiasts, while at the same time offering something that's surprisingly novel and daring. It's a welcome change of direction for a director who isn't known to bewilder his audience very often.

screen capture of Pink and Gray

Before continuing the review, let me warn you that it's going to be somewhat spoiler-heavy. If you're already convinced you want to see Pink and Gray and you prefer to go in fresh, it's best to just stop reading right away. I tend to avoid spoilers where possible and I will do so in this review too, but in Yukisada's case the fact that there are spoilers is pretty much a spoiler in itself, certain to affect the way you go into this film. On top of that, Pink and Gray leans so explicitly on the element of surprise that it's simply impossible to ignore here, unless I'd scrap the review as a whole.

Yukisada is probably one of the most consistent directors I know of. He learned the trade under Shunji Iwai and hasn't deviated a lot from the style he cultivated for himself. That makes that his films are indisputably well-made, but they are also a little safe and predictable. It's always easy to watch a new Yukisada as he never disappoints, but it's a slightly tougher bet if you're looking for something to cherish, as his work often falls just a little short of genius. To see Yukisada abuse that very fact in Pink and Gray is pretty entertaining though.

The film starts with pop idol Rengo Shiraki taking his own life. Daiki Kawata, his life-long friend, discovers the body and becomes the center of attention when the media finds out about their friendship. The film jumps back in time and recounts the moments and events that moulded their relationship, up to the very point where Rengo decided to hang himself. But when the film comes full circle, there's still 60 minutes of playtime left and that's when things become truly interesting.

screen capture of Pink and Gray

The first hour of Pink and Gray is very much in line with Yukisada's trademark visual style. Overexposure is used to good effect, not as overdone as in some of his other films but it's clearly still there. Halfway through the style makes a complete 180 and Yukisada switches to black and white. It's not something I've seen from him before, but he manages exceptionally well. The black and white shots are expressive, well constructed and look very powerful. The first hour looks a little tame in comparison, but I'm pretty certain that was part of the actual setup.

The soundtrack follows a very similar pattern. The first half is pretty predictable, with a decent but also very safe score. Once the films shifts gears the soundtrack follows suit, although not quite as explicitly as the visuals. Still, the second part is a lot quieter and the music that does surface is noticeably edgier and darker. There's some untapped potential there for sure and it's not as in your face as the visual turnaround, but it's well in line with the overall style.

The acting too is up to par. Yuto Nakajima (himself a teen idol and member of a popular Japanese boy band) fits the part of Rengo Shiraki perfectly. Masaki Suda provides a solid performance as Daiki and the two have ample on-screen chemistry. Yuya Yagira (Destruction Babies) has an interesting outsider part and Yukino Kishii acts as the glue between all the different characters. There's quite a lot of pressure on the actors here and they do have to show a broad range, but they all do a splendid job while keeping everything together.

screen capture of Pink and Gray

To reboot a film around the halfway mark is always a big risk. You have to find a way to re-engage your audience while not falling into the trap of just repeating the same build-up as before. Yukisada handles it quite ingeniously, with contrasting stylistic choices and a certain familiarity that twists things around while still playing with the very same elements of the first part. The shift is unmistakably there, but the film itself continues quite gracefully rather than starting over from scratch. The cherry on the cake is Yukisada casting himself into the film. His profile as a director actually ads to the twist and it's nice to see he's conscious enough of his own image and output to pull it off.

Pink and Gray starts off a little plain and safe. Yukisada's usual level of finish is clearly there, but there isn't much to set it apart from his other films and it's certainly not his best work to date. Don't let the film trick you though, it will actively try to lull you, only to pull the rug from under your feet halfway through. The second half is a great upset, a worthy twist that shows a different side of Yukisada without throwing everything overboard. Pink and Gray is a pretty great film, but some familiarity with the director will definitely help you to appreciate it to its fullest.

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Wed, 03 May 2017 09:48:09 +0000