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.

The Scribbler

date
March 05, 2015
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The Scribbler poster

Superhero films are hot property these days. Marvel elevated its niche to become one of the industry's most impressive strongholds, DC Comics is desperately trying to take a piece of the pie. On the indie side there's been a rise in superhero films featuring geeky main characters faking their superhero-dom (Super, Defendor, Griff the Invisible). The problem is that both scenes are doing little in the way of innovation. It's basically the same film told over and over again.

The Scribbler offers a rather novel take on the whole superhero concept. There are no capes or costumes, no evil supervillains, no lame love interests ... or maybe there are, but completely twisted and mangled as to make it virtually unrecognizable. If you look at the bare facts then The Scribbler is indeed a superhero film, but while watching the film it never feels like one.

The vibe coming from The Scribbler reminded me of films like One Point O and Ink. Low-budget movies with an intriguing concept that bet heavily on an expressive audiovisual image in order to stand out from the crowd. Even though the technical and financial limitations are impossible to miss, the styling more than makes up for it. But judging from the critiques, The Scribbler (and like-minded films like Kite) has a hard time selling itself. It seems this kind of cinema is slowly going out of fashion.

The plot follows Suki, a young women suffering from multiple personalities. An experimental new treatment is killing off her personalities one by one, slowly getting her back to normal. When she finally starts to feel better she is sent to a closed off apartment building, a place that functions as gateway between the world of the mentally insane and the regular folk. It's there that things start to take a turn for the worse. When people around Suki start dying in droves, The Scribbler, Suki's final excess personality, takes over.

There's a noirish atmosphere running underneath that's not quite unlike Sin City, but with touches of neo-goth and more outspoken scifi elements. The soundtrack is a little underwhelming for a film like this, but visually there's plenty to like. At the end of the film it does start to fall a part just a little, with an over reliance on mediocre CG and a rather poorly choreographed duel, but by then I was already quite pleased with what I'd seen.

Suit's film is not without faults, it's not even the best in its league, but it offers a welcome refresh of the superhero genre. The film looks great, has plenty of innovative touches and doesn't outstay its welcome. The finale is a little lacking and the score could and should have been a bit better, but it's definitely a fun diversion when you've gone through all the usual suspects.

Zhi Qu Weihu Shan

date
February 26, 2015
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The Taking of Tiger Mountain poster

Old man Hark Tsui (Ching Se) seems to have finally settled down. Gone are the days of lively martial arts films, snappy comedies and risky (at least for Hong Kong standards) projects. Nowadays Tsui invests his time in epic blockbusters. Not too surprisingly, he's actually quite skilled at making them.

Like his two previous films, Zhi Qu Weihu Shan (The Taking of Tiger Mountain) was shot in sprawling 3D. Reportedly Tsui is quite capable of handling 3D imagery in his films, it's just that I'm not a very big fan of the whole 3D/live action thing. Instead I settled for the boring yet pleasantly comfortable 2D version, which I believe was the right decision. Even while watching the 2D version it was pretty easy to spot the 3D effects, something that would've bothered me no end if I'd seen the film in 3D. To each his own though, I'm just glad the choice was there.

Zhi Qu Weihu Shan feels like Tsui's answer to Wen Jiang's Rang Zi Dan Fei. Both films are extremely light-hearted action flicks with an unmistakeable tongue in cheek approach. Tsui's film may not be as balanced and accomplished compared to Jiang's and it's clearly geared at a more forgiving audience, but the link between the two is definitely there.

The plot is pretty convoluted, but the film's premise is actually quite simple. A gang of criminals has its stronghold on top of a snowy mountain, a small but dedicated police force is tasked with breaching the stronghold and capturing the leader. Start with some espionage and people double-crossing each other, add a couple of long-running, high octane action scenes, finish of with a touch of drama and there you go: two hours of shameless entertainment.

Two things stand out. First of all there's Tony Leung Ka-Fai as the lead criminal. His character may be a silly caricature, but Ka-Fai has so much fun playing him that he quickly became one of the funniest villains I've come across the past few years. Then there are the crazy, over the top action sequences that take up a pretty big part of the film. Tsui clearly didn't aim for realism here, leaning heavily on CG (just check the crazy antics of that plane during the finale) to support some outrageous action scenes. If that's not your kind of thing, it's probably best to stay away from this film.

Sadly the parts in between are a little less entertaining. The drama and the espionage bits are decent enough, but they still needlessly slow the film down. Tsui also misses the raw talent to rise above the commercial foundation of the film, failing to bring that little extra which is needed to give a film like this a more lasting impression. Still the action is fun and exciting and while it lasts, it's a wildly entertaining experience. If you're okay with that it's hard to go wrong with this one.

Xi Feng Lie

date
February 02, 2015
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Wind Blast poster

China's Gobi desert is probably one of the most beautiful shooting locations I know of. The barren, dusty and moon-like landscapes and near-deserted concrete towns make for the perfect place to shoot some high-octane action flicks (remember Wu Ren Qu). Director Qunshu Gao (Feng Sheng) is well equipped to bring an ordeal like this to a good end and you don't need to look any further than Xi Feng Lie (Wind Blast) for proof.

There are some meager plot lines hidden away in Xi Feng Lie, but Gao is too busy introducing characters and changing the dynamic between the different groups and coalitions to spend too much time explaining what the hell is happening. Because of that, the first 20 minutes are a little hard to follow and get in to, but once the film gets up to steam only the most hardened plot whore are likely to take offence.

The film is basically one big action sequence, travelling from one location to the next while setting everything up for an explosive 30-minute climax. All the while Gao makes excellent use of the film's setting, so expect rugged, hardened characters, dusty surroundings and a muted color palette. The Gobi desert is not a very hospitable place, that much is certain.

The cast does a good job, even though there aren't too many familiar faces. Jacky Wu is present but in a rather minor role, Francis Ng on the other hand shines as a ruthless assassin. There's also a small role for director Yibai Zhang (Jiang Ai, Mi Guo, Kaiwang Chuntain De Ditie) and a notable performance of Zhang Li. Not that there's much depth to the characters, but as tough action stars they're definitely above average.

Compared to a film like Wu Ren Qu, Xi Feng Lie falls just a little short. The intro is a little too tough to get through and it takes too long before the film really gets up to speed, but once it gets going there's a lot to enjoy here. It's a pretty neat action flick, sporting a phenomenal setting, some solid performances and a memorable finale.

The Book of Life

date
January 05, 2015
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The Book of Life poster

It surprises me to say, but 2014 was actually a pretty decent year for US animation. Sure enough there was still plenty of crap floating around, films like How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie continue to stifle the potential of the genre (and with films like Penguins of Madagascar and Minions coming in 2015 that isn't going to change any time soon), but at least there was some solid counterweight available. I already mentioned The Boxtrolls, The Book of Life should be added to that list.

The Book of Life is produced by Guillermo del Toro and helmed by first-timer feature film director Jorge R Gutierrez (who does have a rather lengthy history in the animation industry). While the influences of roughly 20 years of US CG productions are clearly visible, del Toro and Gutierrez bring a festive Mexican vibe to the table that helps to differentiate this jolly animation from the rest.

Give the film five minutes to settle down. The intro is a little lame, but once the "book of life" story actually starts the beauty of this production quickly transpires. The art style is cute, colorful and unique, sporting smart character designs and amazing environments. Once the characters are transported to the Land of the Remembered it gets even better, evoking memories of the parade sequence in Kokaku Kidotai 2: Inosensu.

But this is a US production, so sadly the film never spends enough time making the most of its beautiful surroundings. It's a bit like constructing an awesome instrumental piece of music and then drowning it out by adding vocals. While there's plenty to admire in The Book of Life, characters keep yapping away and everything is focused on plot progression instead of taking the pacing down a few notches so people can enjoy the scenery. I understand The Book of Life is primarily aimed at kids, but a film like Chasseurs de Dragons did a much better job balancing the two.

Still, The Book of Life is a big step up from other popular US CG animation features. It's a fun film, aimed at younger viewers but with plenty to enjoy for older animation fans. The story is a bit basic, not everything is as funny as it should be (Ice Cube's character didn't really do it for me) and you can pretty much guess how it's going to end, but the flashy Mexican vibe and the amazing art direction more than make up for that. Hopefully other studios will see this as a clear sign that there is a world beyond cheap comedy and plastic animation aesthetics.

It's Such a Beautiful Day

date
December 18, 2014
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It's Such a Beautiful Day poster

Don Hertzfeldt may not be well known to the general public, his short animation Rejected did the rounds and became an instant cult favorite. With simple animation techniques and a wacky, often absurd sense of humor he courted his audience, setting them up for an immense pay-off in the second part of the short. It seems Hertzfeldt set out to recreate that same feeling with It's Such a Beautiful Day, only on a much bigger scale.

Even thought It's Such a Beautiful Day is listed as a 60-minute film, it's actually an aggregate of three different short films (Everything Will Be OK, I Am So Proud of You, and It's Such a Beautiful Day) stitched together back to back, all involving the same main character. The separate shorts were already extremely detached and fragmented, so pasting them together to create a big one hour feature didn't pose that much of a problem.

Hertzfeldt's sense of humor is a little hard to describe. It's a combination of mind-bending logic, plain absurdity, utter mundanity and astute, recognizable observations. A bit like the beginning of Amélie, only a lot more cynical and absurd. Still, there's warmth in there, hidden among all the other weirdness that's flying towards you. There's also a more philosophical layer that starts to shine through around halfway each short, making it an even stranger experience.

The only problem I had with It's Such a Beautiful Day being a feature film is the lacking technical side of things. The simple art style works for Hertzfeldt in his shorter work, but over a timespan of 60 minutes it becomes boring real fast. The animation itself is surprisingly livid and emotive, but looking at black and white almost-stick figures left me a little wanting. The DIY special effects and poor quality stop-motion real-life backgrounds didn't make things any better. And it's not that I think Hertzfeldt lacks the technical skills, the details in the animation betray a much higher skill level, it's just that I don't really agree with the choices he made here.

The soundtrack on the other hand is a clear asset, together with the inventive editing it makes for a fun, challenging yet rather inaccessible experience. Add to that Hertzfeldt monotonous and dry voice-over delivery and you'll quickly see why his films are not intended to be enjoyed by a large audience. Still, It's Such a Beautiful Day is a million times better than the average CG animation drivel that usually comes out of the US.

If you're looking for something different, It's Such a Beautiful Day is a solid introduction into the warped brain of Don Hertzfeldt. And if you think the 60-minute format is a bit too demanding, you can always watch the three shorts separately without missing out on anything except the full-length experience.

Lucy

date
November 27, 2014
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Lucy poster

It's been a while since Luc Besson made a truly great film (that would be Angel-A in 2005) and Lucy isn't the film to end Besson's brave quest for renewed excellence. But it is the best film he has made in a long time and it's not unlike Besson's own The Fifth Element: a colorful sci-fi flick that may look like a crowd-pleaser from afar, but delivers exactly the opposite.

Lucy isn't an easy film to explain as it constantly hides between ideas and pretences it doesn't really care about. In essence, it's just a crazy roller coaster that aims to amuse and to incite wonder. To accomplish that, Besson digs up an old (and popular) scientific misinterpretation and goes from there. He dresses up the original theory with layer upon layer of scientific half-truths and uses that increasingly silly premise to have a little sci-fi fun.

The premise that humans only use 10 to 15% of their brain has been dismantled years ago, but that's not important. The point is that it's the kind of premise that makes people gaze up into the sky, maybe take a sip of their whiskey and has them pondering out loud about what humanity could be capable of if we unlocked our brain's full potential. It's the kind of premise that, when brought up in a film, asks for a "meaningful philosophical exploration" of the subject, possibly assisted by some equally thoughtful quotes and existential meanderings.

But no, Besson runs with the premise, states that the extra brain power will allow us to control our own body, other people's bodies, all matter and finally time itself, feeds his main character a drug that miraculously unleashes her brain's true potential and spirals everything into a gleeful mix of high-octane action and outrageous sci-fi, including big and bold percentage statistics in between the various stages of evolution. That's a big bummer for people who were already stroking their chin in anticipation, but it's all the more fun for people like me who enjoy the grotesque and shameless direction this film takes.

The premise of the film has another interesting side effect. Since Lucy becomes super powerful mere minutes after she has taken the drugs, there really isn't anyone on this planet who can stop her. So even though there are a few nifty action sequences, there's never any real threat from the bad guys or any sense of urgency besides the fact that Lucy has a limited time to live. Again Besson crushes the expectations of the audience, working his way to an almost Akira-like finale.

The final blow is probably Johansson's performance. As the film progresses she quickly loses her (presumed - I'm not a fan) charm and becomes this blank-eyed, transcendent, super-rational entity. Instead of this charming, sexy, ultra-cool killer you're looking at an omniscient, omnipotent god-like creature who doesn't give a damn about who's after her, only interested in sharing the knowledge she's gaining before she burns up.

Sadly Besson misses the mark when things get truly frantic. The CG isn't really up to par and the aesthetic qualities of the sci-fi bits are a bit meagre. While the idea and direction of the film is amazing, the execution isn't on the same level. That's my only real complaint. Besides that Lucy is a hell of a ride, though you have to be prepared to follow Besson's path rather than get stuck in your own preconceptions of where Besson should've taken this material.

Eliza Graves

date
November 11, 2014
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Eliza Graves poster

Brad Anderson does Edgar Allan Poe. A pretty interesting collaboration if you ask me. This is my seventh Brad Anderson film and he hasn't disappointed me so far. Poe material is always worth a gamble too, even though most adaptations of his work are hampered by mediocre directors who lack the funds (and skills) to make something good out of it.

Not so in the case of Eliza Graves (also known as Stonehearst Asylum). It's a project that harbours enough money and talent to bring the warped world of Poe to life. Whatever you do though, skip the trailer. I was unlucky enough to see part of it in theaters and it shamelessly spoiled the basic premise of the film, which is just completely unnecessary. Eliza Graves is a film that is best discovered without prior knowledge of the plot (unless of course you're already familiar with Poe's short story).

The film follows Doctor Newgate as he arrives at Stonehearst Asylum. Fresh out of Oxford, Newgate has a soft spot for the insane and enlisted himself to Stonehearst to help out treating and curing the madmen. He is taken on board as Dr Lamb's assistant, who has a rather peculiar way of dealing with his patients. On his first round, Newgate is smitten by Eliza Graves, one of Lamb's dearest subjects. She seems ill at ease in Newgate's presence and it doesn't take long before Newgate starts to suspect that something is seriously off at Stonehearst.

The film has no lack of star power. They are not the biggest names in Hollywood, but with names like Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, David Thewlis and Jim Sturgess, filling a poster shouldn't be too hard. They all put in a good performance too, clearly enjoying their various evil and disturbing roles.

The main attraction of the film is its late 19th century setting though. The asylum looks lush and haunting, the interiors rich and almost romantic. But it's all a façade for a darker, more morbid reality that thrives underneath the superficial calm. The soundtrack adds plenty of atmosphere too, but that's only to be expected when Anderson is helming the film.

The final part drags just a little, but apart from that Eliza Graves is a moody, fun and pleasantly twisted film with no obvious weaknesses. Anderson delivers another good film worthy of your time, which was somewhat of a certainty anyway. Sadly his films tend to suffer from poor distribution, so catch it while you can.

I Come with the Rain

date
November 03, 2014
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I Come with the Rain poster

I feel for Tran Ahn Hung (Norwegian Wood). I Come with the Rain was meant to be his international break-through. An ambitious Pan-Asian production (featuring Hollywood star Josh Hartnett in one of the lead roles) that should've landed him a sizeable audience. But the film disappeared off the radar completely. Production problems, with Tran eventually distancing himself from the final cut damned the film to a lackluster DVD release, only picked up by Tran's most hardcore fans. To make things worse, the film is quite the departure of Tran's earlier work, so even they didn't like what they saw.

Though production-wise I Come with the Rain was a complete disaster, the film itself is actually quite good. It's perfect material for a cult revival, though its relative obscurity and the apparent lack of incentive to pick it up (Tran's popularity has waned the past couple of years) will probably prevent that from happening. If you're not a zany Tran adept though and you're looking for something peculiar to watch, I Come with the Rain is actually a pretty safe bet. It's not without faults, but its perks more than make up for them.

The cast alone should merit some extra interest. There's Hartnett and Koteas drawing in the Hollywood crowd, but Tran also went actor-shopping in several high-profile Asian countries. Takuya Kimura, Byung-Hun Lee, Shawn Yue and Tran Nu Yen-Khe make for a nice international ensemble. You have to put up with some stilted English dialogues because of that, but the language barrier makes sense, seeing that most of the actors are from different countries anyway.

The story revolves around a private detective (Hartnett) trying to find Shitao (Kimura), the son of a wealthy businessman. The film is split in two, one part focusing on Hartnett's past and the other focusing on Shitao's adventures. For a Tran film, things get pretty weird and intense, with Kimura portraying some kind of Jesus figure who can take away the pain of others and Hartnett having to deal with a human body parts sculptor.

Visually Tran put his mark on the film, with dreamy visuals and nice camera work. The soundtrack is less pleasing, but that's probably because I'm not much of a post-rock fan. Featuring bands like Radiohead and Silver Mt. Zion is not a plus in my book, even then the soundtrack could've benefit from a more subtle approach.

I Come with the Rain may be a tough sell if you want to market it to a broader audience, but there's a very unique and mysterious vibe that should appeal to people looking for something different. From the crazy sculptures (not unlike the artwork of Rubber Johnny artwork) to the interesting cast and challenging story structure, there's enough here to warrant 2 hours of your time.

Kaien Hoteru - Buru

date
October 27, 2014
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Petrel Hotel Blue poster

2012 was going to be a great year for Koji Wakamatsu. With three films released and already a fourth one on the way, he was on a roll. At the age of 76, that's quite a feat. Sadly it wasn't meant to be. On a walk home from a budget meeting Wakamatsu was hit by a cab and he would pass away soon after. A surprisingly tepid ending for an explosive director.

Kaien Hoteru - Buru (Petrel Hotel Blue) is one of the three films Wakamatsu managed to finish in 2012. It's a peculiar film, experimental but featuring an elaborate narrative and remarkably free from political propaganda. It would make a good companion piece to Landscapes the Boy Saw, though both films are still quite different from each other.

Kaien Hoteru - Buru starts off with a robbery gone wrong. When Yukio's friend Yoji doesn't show up to provide backup, Yukio is caught and is sentenced to a 7 year stay in prison. Upon his release, Yukio vows to take revenge on Yoji. He finds out his location and ends up on a small, barren island where Yoji is running a bar/hotel.

That's when things get strange. Even though there's a whole crime story slowly unravelling, the film is more interested in Rika's character, Yoji's wife. She doesn't really speak, she disappears into thin air from time to time and she transfixes every man she meets. She's the catalyst of just about everything that happens, but her exact role is never truly explained.

The film is obviously a low-budget affair, but the location is terrific and the camera does a great job capturing its alien atmosphere. The soundtrack too adds a very mysterious feel, making everything that much weirder. The only real downer is the cast. Go Jibiki (a late-Wakamatsu regular) is solid, but the rest of the actors fail to find the right vibe.

Still, Kaien Hoteru - Buru is worth a gamble, especially if you're already familiar with Wakamatsu's oeuvre. It's a moody, atmospheric and mysterious film, not the kind of thing you'd expect a 76 year old to make. It might have been easier to accept Wakamatsu's passing if he'd been making crap movies, on the other hand, at least he got productive again right before passing away.

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.