Since I started this site I've been keeping myself to a bottom line of 4 out of 5 stars in order to review a film. It's a great way to determine whether a film is actually great (reviewing is time-consuming) or just plain old good. Still, there are always edge cases that are worth a look if you've nothing better planned. I'm going to list these films right here, providing a capsule review for each one of them.

Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong

date
October 06, 2014
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The Midnight After poster

Normally I like to use the original title in my reviews (or at least the transliteration of the original title), but in the case of Fruit Chan's (Hollywood Hong Kong) latest feature Na Yeh Ling San, Ngo Joa Seung Liu Wong Gok Hoi Wong Dai Bou Dik Hung Van it would become just a little too ridiculous, so instead I'll just be sticking with The Midnight After.

I've seen my share of Fruit Chan films through the years and even though I certainly didn't like all of them, his films are always worth a gamble. Even when one of them fails to engage there's always something to like or admire. The Midnight After is a kind of culmination of everything he has done before, yet at the same time it feels like a completely new direction for Chan.

Based on an online novel, The Midnight After is part sci-fi, part mystery. Not a very popular or common combination for a Hong Kong film. The film starts like many of its American counterparts, with a random group of people meeting on a bus, only to be transported to some mysterious, alternate version of Hong Kong a little while later. In their universe, all people have disappeared, apart from a cloaked figure wearing a gas mask who follows them around. It's a typical setup for a horror flick (think Reeker), but that's when things start to get a bit weird.

Chan's characters aren't your usual horror fodder though. They are more aware, quickly citing possible scenarios that could've been used as the film's twist ending (like "we had an accident and we're in a limbo between life and death"). He doesn't stick to one particular genre either, adding post-apocalyptic elements, some lighter comedy bits and some genuine weirdness (the Major Tom scene). And if you think it'll all make sense in the end, you're in for a neat little surprise (or disappointment if you really need closure).

The Midnight After is a film that breaks with many genre traditions, instead focusing on its group of characters and building a boundless film around them. Actors like Simon Yam, Kara Hui and Lam Suet put in a decent effort, while You-Nam Wong fares well as the film's lead. The film isn't 100% serious (even though some scenes are quite nasty to watch) so you'll have to deal with the typical Hong Kong overacting from time to time, but that's only to be expected.

Fruit Chan's latest is a peculiar film. It doesn't stick to one single genre, it doesn't really compare to other films (even though it draws inspiration from many different genres), it doesn't even strife for a homogeneous atmosphere. Instead it's a flamboyant trip that reflects the many aspects of current-day Hong Kong and makes sure to trip up the viewer wherever possible. There are some moments of genius here, at other times the film fails to truly engage. But whatever you'll be thinking when you walk out of it, it's definitely worth a shot as it is one of the more unique films I've seen all year.

The Lookout

date
October 01, 2014
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The Lookout poster

Script writers re-schooling themselves to becomes directors, it's not always an ideal career switch. But some of them manage to beat the odds and come up with a film worth watching. Back in 2007, Scott Frank (screenplay credits for Out of Sight and Minority Report) jumped at the opportunity and directed his first feature film: The Lookout.

Back then I wasn't so much interested in Frank as I was curious to see the new Joseph Gordon-Levitt film. With movies like Brick and Mysterious Skin Gordon-Levitt was making a name for himself and it was refreshing to see a young kid take up these challenging roles. But for some reason or another, I never got around to watching The Lookout and as time passed by (and Gordon-Levitt went on to star in film like 500 Days of Summer and G.I. Joe) I forgot all about this film.

Until last week that is, when it suddenly popped up again. A little hesitant (7 years is quite a long time) I sat down to see if I missed out on something back then. And sure enough, Frank's first is a more than adequate film that hooked me from start to finish. It may be a bit slow and a little too understated to conform to mainstream tastes, but it provides 100 minutes of solid drama and intrigue.

Gordon-Levitt (Chris) stars as a once successful kid, brought down by a car accident he caused back in high school. Suffering from frontal lobe syndrome (Dirty Mind is a good recommendation if you want a lighter take on the subject), he tries to pick up the pieces of his life , but moving on is proving a lot harder than expected. Until he meets up with Gary, a peculiar guy who offers Chris an easy way out.

The Lookout is one of those films that does everything well. There's really not a single point of critique I can give, apart from the fact that it doesn't truly excel either. The acting is solid, the pacing deliberate, the atmosphere moody. There's enough intrigue and it's far from predictable, but in the end it never truly moved or amazed me. In other words, perfect filler for those moments when you don't have anything special to watch.

Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku

date
July 07, 2014
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Yume to Kyoki no Ohkoku poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jiu Huo Ying Xiong

date
June 16, 2014
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As the Light Goes Out poster

Chi-kin Kwok strikes back after a horrendous collaboration with Stephen Chow. While Jiu Huo Ying Xiong (As the Light Goes Out) can't match Kowk's best (Ching Toi), it's definitely on par with Da Lui Toi (Gallants). His latest also erases all fears that he may have lost his touch in his attempts to please the masses.

There aren't that many fire fighter flicks coming out of Hong Kong, which is probably why it's remarkable to see two high profile ones in just as many years. After seeing the release of the Pang brothers' Out of Inferno last year, Jiu Huo Ying Xiong takes things to the next level. While Kwok doesn't shun the typical genre clichés, there's a lot more going on than a mere genre rehash.

With guys like Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue and Simon Yam filling in the lead and main secondary roles, you know you're settling for a film that is aimed to please the crowds. Still, Kwok doesn't just dish out some slick, hollow blockbuster. Sure enough there is some unnecessary drama to fill in the gaps, but for the larger part it's a dark, tense and well-executed affair.

The visuals are grim yet stunning. There are some amazing sequences that give the film that little extra artistic merit, making sure it never becomes too shallow. The soundtrack is fitting and never too bombastic. Stylistically, this is definitely one of the better commercially oriented Hong Kong films I've seen. The dramatic side can be a little overdone though, adding some unnecessary fat to the film. It's a typical genre thing I guess, but one this film could have done without.

Kwok's Jiu Huo Ying Xiong is a step up from the Pangs' attempt at a good fire fighter flick. It falls just a little short of being truly great, but if you're looking for a sleek and tense thriller you're at the right address. Hopefully Kwok will continue on this path with this next film.

the sacrament

date
May 09, 2014
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Sacrament poster

Even though Ti West has quite the cult following in the horror scene, I can't say I'm a pretty big fan. He's part of a tight-nit group of actors/directors, including Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen en Adam Wingard (You're Next, VHS 2, A Horrible Way To Die, Pop Skull), but their output is fickle and when they come together there's a certain in-crowd vibe that tends to set back their films.

The Sacrament could've been like that. With West in the director's chair and Swanberg/Bowen taking up the leads, I didn't expect a whole lot from this film. But things turned out differently. While it doesn't live up to its full potential, The Sacrament is definitely a solid horror flick and by far the best thing West has ever directed.

At heart a faux documentary, Swanberg and Bowen set out to Africa to recover the sister of Alex. Alex' sister ended up in Eden Parish, a community/sect for people who've vowed to live their lives in peace. When they arrive the place looks like hippy paradise, but soon the first cracks start to appear. When they meet up with the leader of the parish, things take a turn for the worse.

The Sacrament isn't all that different from other cult/sect horror films, but West takes his time to provide a solid build-up, which pays off double later on. Swanberg isn't the best of actors but he does a decent job here, Bowen is better as the lead of the group. But it's Gene Jones who deserves most of the credit for his role as leader of the parish. His character is hard to read, enigmatic and creepy, adding some much-needed realism to the story. While it's clear from the start where West is taking his audience, Jones succeeds in spreading some doubt halfway through the film.

The documentary-style falls flat near the end (and it doesn't seem all too consistent either), but apart from that The Sacrament is a disturbing, creepy little film that, at least in part, restored my faith in West's skills. It seems that after some goofing around these guys are finally getting their act together again. Still nothing that could match a film like Wingard's Pop Skull, but The Sacrament is a solid horror flick with a strong build-up and a nasty ending which fans of sects and occult communities will be sure to appreciate.

i am ichihashi: taiho sareru made

date
May 08, 2014
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I Am Ichihashi: Taiho Sareru Made poster

I Am Ichihashi is not your stereotypical killer flick. Even though it tells the story of a real murder (Lindsay Hawker), the film isn't all that interested in getting across factual information. It's not a true to life retelling of what happened on that fateful day, instead director Fujioka tries to dive into the mind of the killer as he explores the 2+ years he was one the run from the police. In that sense, it would make a very good companion piece with The Killing of John Lennon

I definitely don't intend to downplay murder as a real life crime, but in film murder is not that uncommon, to the point where one single (basic) murder isn't going to make for a compelling plot, especially not when that murder is based on actual events. Instead it's more interesting to figure out what brought someone to actually commit a murder, or, in this particular case, how one deals with his crime afterwards. Fujioka, a first-time director, doesn't shy away from this harsh task, even going one step further and fully committing himself by playing the actual killer.

I Am Ichihashi is not a film that pretends to hold all the answers, instead it relies on impressions and feeling. That's probably why Fujioka doesn't seem too interested in plot and/or detailed realism. Instead he aims for atmosphere and intrigue, which isn't too hard when dealing with a killer on the loose for more than 2 years. There is no solid confession or a structured answer to why Ichihashi killed Hawker here, what you get is a portrait of a bewildered man who tried to run away from everyone, including himself.

When our titular character is around other people the film lacks a little punch, but when he is doing the interview or wandering around all by himself, I Am Ichihashi is a strong and powerful piece of film making that manages to evoke a bare minimum of sympathy for the killer's situation, even though Fujioka makes sure the film never becomes apologetic.

I Am Ichihashi is pretty much a testament of Fujioka's talent, which may feel a little out of place for a film based on a real-life murder. But the film is never pretentious, nor is Fujioka flaunting or trying to attract all the attention to himself. I'm not quite sure why Fujioka decided to base his film on a real event, but he does an amazing job avoiding all the pitfalls and delivers a unique and intriguing look into the mind of a sick man who can't come to terms with what he's done.

enemy

date
April 25, 2014
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Enemy poster

So far Denis Villeneuve has left me completely cold. I watched both Incendies and Prisoners and was far from charmed by their overly complex and far-fetched plot foolery. But Enemy looked different enough to give the man a third chance and I'm rather glad I did. While I don't think the film reaches its full potential, it's a definite step up from his two previous films.

Enemy is an adaptation of José Saramago's O Homem Duplicado, a book I haven't read yet (and probably never will), but which has its fair share of fans. Based on the synopsis I can say it has the perfect premise for a 90 minute mindfuck and Villeneuve exploits that rather well. The basic story is about a history teacher stumbling upon his perfect double. At least, all their external features match, emotionally they are two different people. The both of them are weirded out knowing there's another someone just like them running around in the same city and before long they're making each other's lives into a living hell.

The first hour Villeneuve does his best to keep the mystery alive. Through a strong, ambient-filled soundtrack, moody visuals, slow pacing and detached acting he creates a weird, otherworldly atmosphere that fuels the intrigue. Sadly he doesn't manage to keep the mystery alive and after the first hour the film becomes more down-to-earth and plot-driven. The final shot is a slap in the face and has the potential to turn everything upside down again, but it can't erase the 30 minutes that came before.

On the visual side of things, Villeneuve does his best but he can't hide the extensive sponsor support (including Canadian Telefilm money) that yields some less than perfect results compared to comfort of studio money. After a while the continuous use of the same old filter feels a little stale and the mediocre camera work starts to shine through. The cast is good, Gyllenhaal and Gadon clearly feel at ease with their characters, though I felt Gyllenhaal could've done more with his parts. Mélanie Laurent is the only one that feels out of place, luckily she has the smallest part of the three.

There's obviously a lot of symbolism and hidden layers to discover, the problem is that I like the film better as a mystery. Sure enough there are quite a few things left unexplained and the ending is a complete blank, but unearthing the real story feels like taking away from the core experience (I fear it will be like the underlying symbolism in Gravity making things worse instead of better). So while there's enough detective work to be done for people who are into that sort of thing, I feel fine not knowing all the explanations for the more obscure symbolism here.

Enemy feels like a short intermission between Villeneuve's more ambitious and prestigious projects, but at the same time I liked the film a lot more than his regular work. The first hour in particular is amazing, the final 30 minutes are a small let down but the closing scene is one that I'll fondly remember for years to come. An intriguing little film that deserved a little better in the direction department, but has everything for a nice evening of puzzling looks and unworldly atmosphere.

saitai

date
April 23, 2014
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Saitai poster

After producing some of the more interesting and unique films coming out of Japan these past 10 years (Tony Takitani, In Za Puru, Kame Wa Igai to Hayaku Oyogu), Naoki Hashimoto takes the director seat to bring his vision to the big screen. While Saitai (Birthright) is actually his third film already, it's the first to hold some international appeal. And even then, it's a film that will only cater to people with a very specific taste in films.

How dry and lifeless can a film really be? How slow can it be and how little information can you give your audience before they zone out? Hashimoto plays with these elements without abandoning the realm of commercial cinema (after all, Saitai isn't some experimental video installation). Saitai is by nature a revenge flick, but fans of the genre should do well to read up before sitting down. There is little to no violence, hardly any blood, no noticeable action to speak off. Instead Hashimoto focuses on tension and atmosphere.

The entire first hour is practically void of music and dialogue. We witness a kidnapping but aren't given any information beyond what we see on screen. A young girl starts off by stalking a family, soon after she kidnaps their daughter. She locks her up and together they wait. Through static camera work and subdued ambient noises, Hashimoto creates a dreamy, dark, distant and entrancing atmosphere.

The second hour reveals the mystery and brings everything to a grim yet satisfying conclusion. Saitai is a diamond in the rough, because even though the pacing, the editing and the overall atmosphere are enticing, the film lacks visual punch to make it truly outstanding. Hashimoto definitely deserves another chance though, because what he delivers is truly unique and pretty much impossible to compare to other films out there.

A film suited for people who love minimalism, slow (glacial) pacing and apathetic characters. That's a very limited group, but those who think they can handle it would do well to seek this one out.

in fear

date
March 10, 2014
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In Fear poster

In Fear is the kind of genre film making that you don't see too often. It's one thing to want and make a pure genre film, it's something entirely different to make a good one. Genre films have a bad name because of the many terrible, lazy and amateurish attempts of untalented directors hoping for a break, yet Lovering demonstrates that there is still a lot that can be done even when working exclusively with genre clichés.

The premise is the same one as hundreds of like-minded films. It starts with a car, two young kids and a journey to a festival. And of course they're taking a detour, of course they end up lost and of course someone is after them. That's what a true genre film is, a collection of clich&eactue;s that is known to work. In the end, the execution is what really matters with these kind of films.

From the start it's clear that Lovering's direction is a little out of the ordinary. The combination of the dark cinematography, quick and sharp editing and brooding soundtrack make for an eerie atmosphere that transcends the clichés and puts them back in working order. The first 45 minutes of the film are gripping, even when there isn't anything new or original to be seen.

Once Lovering starts to reveal parts of the mystery the film inevitably loses some of its charm, as is often the case with these kind of films, but there are some neat twists that keep the atmosphere tense and chilling. Lovering doesn't try to explain too much, leaving a lot to the imagination of the audience, but it's safe to say that most of the mystery is resolved during the second part of the film.

If you're in a "well, that's a silly thing to do" know-it-all mood it's probably best to avoid this film altogether, but if you're looking for a genre film that cherishes the genre clichés yet moulds them in a gripping and effective way then In Fear is a pretty safe bet. Looking forward to Lovering's next film.

fune wo amu

date
February 03, 2014
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The Great Passage poster

Yuya Ishii is one of Japan's more interesting drama directors of the moment. While I haven't seen a truly great film from his hands, the four films I have seen so far are all worth investing in. Fune Wo Amu (The Great Passage) is his latest feature and while quality-wise up to par with his previous efforts, I was quite surprised to find out Ishii was the director behind this film.

Ishii never really conformed to the boundaries of traditional Japanese dramas. He likes to combine dry comedy with bitter drama to form an awkward but positively challenging blend of atmospheres. The characters in his films are usually not the nicest and/or most likeable people, but they do try to earn our respect throughout the course of his films. Well, there's none of that in Fune Wo Amu, which strictly adheres to the rules of the traditional Japanese feel-good drama.

The films tells of Majime, a young social outcast who is transferred to the dictionary department of the print company he works for. There he finds his true calling and as the people around him start to leave the project one by one, Majime overcomes his fears and limitations to shoulder the project himself: create a dictionary for the people of today (which ends up being a mix between the Webster Dictionary and the Urban Dictionary).

The film is helped by a stellar cast. Matsuda shines as Majime (and resembles a young Tadanobu Asano), Jo Odagiri assists him where necessary and Aoi Miyazaki is cast as his supporting love interest. A strong trio that brings the needed depth and subtlety to the core characters. Still, they cannot prevent that the film itself is a tad plain. Visually modest and traditionally scored, Fune Wo Amu never becomes much more than an endearing and warm drama with its heart in the right place. It's a nice film that leaves you with a smile, but lacks that extra something that would've made it truly special. Still, if you have two hours to spare you could do much worse.