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.

yo ni mo kimo na monogatari

date
September 03, 2013
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Yo ni mo Kimyo na Monogatari poster

Yo Ni Mo Kimyo Na Monogatari (Tales of the Unusual) is one of the many Japanese anthology films out there, though it's not just your average horror anthology. Instead the stories focus more on mystery and weirdness, at times resembling a condensed version of The Outer Limits (if anyone still remembers that series). Masayuki Ochiai (Kansen) and Mamoru Hoshi ((Boku To Tsuma No 1778 No Monogatari) are the directors to keep an eye on, Masayuki Suzuki (GTO) and Hisao Ogura complete the quartet.

Ochiai kicks off this anthology with "One Snowy Night", a pretty straight-forward horror short about a small group of plain crash survivors stuck high up the mountains. With a fierce blizzard running wild and only a small cabin to protect them from the cold, it doesn't take too long before cabin fever takes over. Or at least, that's what seems to be happening. Ochiai is clearly in his element here and delivers a moody, somewhat twisted short that serves as a good introduction for the anthology.

The second short is Suzuki's "Samurai Cellular", a rather odd tale about a samurai who one day finds a cellular phone. The man on the other side is a desk clerk burdened with the task to verify the accuracy of certain historic events. As he walks the samurai through the events, history is being shaped. A bright and funny short, Samurai Cellular makes it clear that this isn't just a horror anthology, but directors were given enough room to take the concept wherever they pleased.

With Chess, Mamoru Hoshi delivers the best of the bunch. His short is high on concept, sharply executed and boasts an impressive finale. A lauded chess champion loses his championship match against a computer, in front of a large, dismissive audience. He can't cope with his defeat and falls in a dark void. Until one day a wealthy businessman kidnaps his wife and forces the champ to play against him. Hoshi flaunts his skills and demonstrates just why I like watching these kind of anthology films.

The final segment is Ogura's The Marriage Simulator, a more romantic take on the concept. The title pretty much gives it all away. A young couple who's about to get married is offered a unique chance. They can peak at their own future using a special machine, giving them a glimpse of their married life. Of course things turn out sour when the bluntness of everyday life hits the young couple, the question is whether they can survive the coming hardships. Ogura's attempt isn't half bad, but the romance never really catches fire and it's probably the weakest offering of the anthology.

Still, Yo Ni Mo Kimyo Na Monogatari is definitely worth a gander if you can handle these type of anthology films. Hoshi's Chess alone is worth the gamble, but the other ones aren't find behind and offer a nice variety of styles and genres.

insensibles

date
September 02, 2013
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Insensibles poster

Spain. There is no other country where drama and horror are so often linked together. It's not that Spanish directors can't produce straight-up horror films (rec 2), but often they seem to prefer a more stylish approach, blending horror with drama (and sometimes a dash of mystery). Insensibles (Painless) joins films like El Orfanato, Los Ojos de Julia and Intruders, though it can't quite compete with the best.

Juan Carlos Medina takes a flying start though. The first five minutes of Insensibles are extremely promising. The film tells of a group of young children who are unable to feel pain. Sounds like a fair deal, until people around them start to realize that the children can't even grasp the concept of pain, constantly hurting themselves and other kids in the neighborhood. To protect the village they lock up the group, keeping them hidden from the outside world.

A parallel story develops about a man who needs a bone marrow transplant to save his own life. When he confronts his parents it turns out the man is adopted. Cue a long and mysterious search that will eventually connect both stories together. While Medina keeps the tension high during the first half of the film, most of the intrigue is spoiled once Insensibles hits the halfway mark, eventually slowing down the second part of the film. It's a shame, because it takes away too much of the atmosphere that is needed to keep a mystery like this going.

While still skilfully made, the second part of the film is more about explanations than it is about mystery. Medina shows a lot of promise though, as the film looks and sounds amazing, cooking up several scenes that will stick even after the end credits have faded. For a freshman effort Insensibles is an extremely well made drama/horror/thriller/mystery, way better than your average run of the mill horror flick and a far cry from the cheap shlock that so often swamps the horror genre. If only he'd spread the mystery a bit wider, it might've been a modern classic.

conspirators

date
August 16, 2013
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Conspirators poster

Even though Oxide and Danny Pang still operate as a duo, they are spending more and more time on their own individual projects. The Conspirators is the latest entry in Oxide Pang's Detective series (C+ Jing Taam, B+ Jing Taam). While storywise a straight sequel to the previous two films, The Conspirators feels more like a quick spin-off than the final conclusion of Tam's detective adventures.

I never quite understood the decline in critical reception of Oxide Pang's work. I still see him as one of the more consistent directors working in Hong Kong today. While his films are plagued by some recurring problems (like slightly overdone scores and less than perfect use of CG), there is enough quality in each of his film to warrant a modest recommendation. Still a lot of people seem to detest his films for whatever reason.

The Conspirators sees Tam moving to Malaysia in a renewed attempt to solve the murder case of his parents 30 years earlier. He teams up with a local detective (played by Nick Cheung), but finds himself the target of a lethal attack soon after. He is clearly closing in on the ones who made him an orphan, but the closer he gets the more dangerous his work becomes.

Even though this film brings an end to the overarching story of the Jing Taam series, The Conspirators does lack a sense of real urgency. Somehow Tam's exploits fail to truly engage, lessening the impact of Tam's quest. Visually it's still miles ahead of most of his peers (the coloring in particular is amazing), though Oxide Pang should really look out for unnecessary use of CG, as it does hinder the overall effect of some scenes. Aaron Kwok returns as Tam and does a splendid job, Nick Cheung plays Tam's surprisingly amusing sidekick.

While still a very solid film, The Conspirators can't meet the quality level of the previous Jing Taam films. It's still worth your time though, especially when you've enjoyed the previous two films.

evidence

date
July 11, 2013
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Evidence poster

Five years ago I prayed that the found footage style would stick. Films like Cloverfield and [rec] had proven that there was value in it and I was craving more of the same. Nowadays we're drowning in found footage films, making it difficult to find the ones that bring something new to the table. Still, many directors out there continue to have a go at it, sometimes even with success.

In 2010 Olatunde Osunsanmi came out with The Fourth Kind, one of the better found footage films of its time. Three years later he's having another crack at it with Evidence and demonstrates once again he is a capable director within this particular niche. Evidence is smarter than The Fourth Kind, though it does lack some tension and atmosphere in the middle part.

Technically Evidence is not a true found footage film, but explaining why would be spoiling much of the fun. I can say that the film houses one of the better ending twists I've seen in a long time though. In Evidence Osunsanmi pays more attention to the actual "found" part of the genre, landing the footage in the hands of police professionals who are trying to figure out what happened to a bunch of charred bodies in an abandoned truck repair shop in the middle of the desert.

The acting is decent enough, the quality loss of the footage a little overdone but the setting is cool, the mystery effective and the ending worth your time. Osunsanmi fails to keep the tension going around halfway but quickly recovers to deliver a more than satisfying finale. Evidence is a fun, entertaining and solid genre film. It lacks that little extra to be truly great, but it does come with a few minor innovations that is sure to please fans of the found footage genre.

trance

date
July 08, 2013
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Trance poster

What does a famed director do when he's asked to direct the opening ceremony of the Olympics, but feels a little bored in between? Why he just shoots another film of course, and that's exactly what Danny Boyle set out to do. The result? Trance. A modern, slick and fast-paced mind bender sprinkled with a moderate but pleasing touch of Boyle's magic.

Even though at its core Trance is a very British film, Boyle assembled quite an international cast. James McAvoy takes up the lead role (and seems to act as a direct replacement for Ewan McGregor), Vincent Cassel shines as one of the main bad guys and Rosario Dawson flutters in between these two without a clear sense of moral. They form a strong trio, giving a little extra shine to a rather tepid and tested background story. Boyle's Trance misses the urgency, tension and mystery of a truly engaging mind/clusterfuck, but makes up for that in other departments.

Visually there's a lot to enjoy here. The ultramodern setting is captured beautifully, with lots of attention to color, lighting and reflections. The soundtrack is pretty interesting too, typical Boyle material blending rock and dance music, timed to perfection. Add some unexpected gory bits and a lack of general prudeness and you have a pretty slick thriller that waltzes through its 90 minutes.

It's a shame Boyle loses it a little in between the highlights, as he never truly succeeds in gelling everything together. The climax too is a little underwhelming, but the actual ending is strong and there are more than enough memorable scenes to make this worth your time. It's not Boyle at his best, but for a film that was conceived as filler it's a lot better than I expected it to be.

nerawareta gakuen

date
July 03, 2013
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Nerawareta Gakuen poster

Considering the success a director like Makoto Shinkai is enjoying these days, it surprises me how few people are trying to follow in his footsteps. Shinkai has a pretty recognizable style that's proven to be popular, so you would at least expect more animators to try something in that direction. Well, the wait is over. Ryosuke Nakamura's Nerawareta Gakuen isn't a carbon copy Shinkai, but Nakamura's source of inspiration is unmistakable.

Detailed backgrounds, thin characters, an overdose of colors, strong focus on lighting and a myriad of lens flares effects. Nakamura takes it a couple steps further though, effectively delivering a film that's even less subtle than Shinkai's work. It may not look incredibly stylish or classy, but it is strangely appealing and at times downright overwhelming. The animation quality is pretty high too, with nice character animation and some pretty decent special effects throughout.

The film itself does have a few typical anime defects. Nerawareta Gakuen is at its best when it embraces the lazy summer atmosphere that lingers in every corner, sadly the film has a pretty ambitious storyline that never really manages to inspire. Instead of keeping it simple and leaving it at a simple teen romance, the film drags in a story about time travel and psychic powers, dredging up a battle that I wasn't particularly interested in. It's a bit too complex for its own good and because of that the film takes on 20 extra minute it didn't really need.

Still, the visual appeal remains strong and managed to get me past all the needlessly convoluted parts as the ending draws near. Nerawareta Gakuen isn't a future anime classic, but it's damn pretty to look at and it manages to get by on that trait alone.

no one lives

date
June 17, 2013
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No One Lives poster

Ever since Ryuhei Kitamura (LoveDeath) launched himself internationally with Versus he's been quite vocal of wanting to direct films in Hollywood. He got his first break when he was asked to adapt Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train (which turned out pretty well), now he returns to the USA once more to direct his second American feature: No One Lives.

No One Lives is a pretty basic horror film. There may be a slight twist to the story, but the twist is revealed early on (after only 20 minutes or so). Even then enough hints introduced the twist for it to be considered truly surprising. Still, it does set the mood for a classic game of cat and mouse, allowing Kitamura to work on some pretty nasty setups and equally impressive kills.

Kitamura is given some second-line Hollywood talent for the film's main roles. Luke Evans shines as the ruthless psychopath, Adelaide Clemens (the Michelle Williams stand-in) plays a pretty cool side-kick. The rest of the cast is considerably less gifted, then again they are little more than walking meat, ready to be gutted, mangled and shot to pieces. And it must be said, Kitamura delivers the goods where it counts.

No One Lives is very solid genre material, reminiscent of Vacancy and like-minded horror films. It's not a very original film, the plot is rather weak and the acting (apart from the main characters) secondary, but the gore, the tension and the atmosphere are quality material. Kitamura fares pretty well in the USA, so I don't really mind an occasional trip if it results in more films like this one.

v/h/s 2

date
June 12, 2013
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VHS 2 poster

After the cult success of the first V/H/S film and the positive feedback on The ABC's of Death, the news that a follow-up anthology would be made was hardly a surprise. To be honest though, I didn't like the first V/H/S anthology all that much. Few of the short managed to entertain and the "group of friends making a horror flick" atmosphere that drove the first film was rather unpleasant. I'm glad to say they turned things around in their second attempt.

Wingard kicks off and sadly he delivers the least interesting of the four shorts. Wingard is great when he focuses on audiovisual storytelling, but I just don't like him in front of the camera. He's a pretty awful actor, which gives the shorts he stars in a rather amateurish finish. It's a real shame because this hi-tech variation on Gin Gwai could've been fun, now it's just a nice idea that never becomes scary or horrific.

Luckily Eduardo Sánchez (Blair Witch Project) and Gregg Hale follow up with a remarkably fun first-person zombie short. Far from serious and pleasantly gory, a lone cyclist (sporting a headcam) is overtaken by zombies and joins the herd to barge in on a birthday party in the middle of the woods. Sánchze and Hale keep the fun factor high, never taking their short too serious but providing a good balance between blood and laughs.

Highlight of the anthology is Gareth Evans' (The Raid) and Timo Tjahjanto's (Macabre) entry. An eerie trip into the world of a perverted cult goes horribly wrong. What starts as an unsettling documentary following an Indonesian cult leader ends up in bloody and fucked up mayhem. The short is eerie, nasty, gory and in your face. A very nice surprise indeed.

Eisener ends the anthology in style. He draws the audience in quickly with a few pranks and laughs, then hits fast and hard with some prime quality chaos. His short is loud and direct, but works exactly because of that. Pretty freaky and intense stuff.

The wrap-around story was of pretty poor quality and Wingard's short should've been a lot better, but this sequel is a serious step forward for the V/H/S crew. The internationalization of the directors benefited the project a lot, resulting in one amusing, one freaky and one outlandish short. Not bad at all.

urban explorer

date
June 06, 2013
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Urban Explorer poster

Urban Explorer (or Urban Explorers, or Urbex, or The Depraved) is what you call a genuine genre film. The premise isn't exactly mind-blowing (a group of youngsters coming together to explore some underground tunnels), but the setting (nazi strongholds underneath modern-day Berlin) is cool and Fetscher turns out to be a pretty skilled director for this type of thing. And once inside the tunnels the film does hold a few neat twists as it tries to sidestep many of the genre's pitfalls.

While a Creep-like story develops beneath Berlin, Fetscher sets out to turn around some of the more popular clichés. Case in point a classic scene where the adversary is down while still grasping a crucial item for the main character's escape. Fetscher builds up the tension, but the release never follows. Not even when the camera cuts to a fleeing hero. He uses these moments to good effect, especially when a few scenes later, when the audience's guard is finally down, he does manage a successful scare.

It's moments like these that turn Urban Explorer into a pretty fun horror flick. Genre fans will find nothing new here, but Stiglmeier shines as the film's bad guy and Fetscher is smart enough to play with the expectations of his audience while keeping faithful to popular genre elements. People who aren't taken with the horror genre will find Fetscher's handiwork a bit too subtle to notice, but for dedicated horror fans Urban Explorer is a remarkably fun and amusing little genre film.

aku no kyoten

date
June 05, 2013
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Lesson of the Evil poster

Takashi Miike returns ... once again. There really is no stopping the man, and though not every film is a masterpiece, even his relatively flawed ones can be more than entertaining. Aku No Kyoten is one of Miike's more mainstream efforts, a film that bears the unmistakable stamp of Miike, only in a slightly watered-down and more acceptable fashion.

Aku No Kyoten bares some resemblance to Nakashima's Kokuhaku, especially when comparing the setup of both films. Seiji is a teacher with an impeccable moral, always ready to help his students with their more intimate problems. He vows to rid the school of all nasty business, but secretly the man has an agenda of his own. One that is revealed during a sprawling 45 minute finale.

The first hour is a bit tame though. There are some quirky characters, but compared to other Miike films they aren't all that interesting. The biggest flaw is no doubt the casting of Hideaki Ito (who plays Seiji), an actor who lacks the charisma and flair to play the character he is supposed to be. With him present some of the better moments of the film miss their target. A real shame, because Miike goes pretty wild during the final 45 minutes. Nothing he hasn't done before, but some of the principal characters go down with surprising ease, something I'm sure not everyone will appreciate. Miike fans will rejoice when the film makes its way to a solid climax though.

After a slow start, Aku No Kyoten delivers the goods, even when its main actor lacks the skills to impress the audience. By then it's just a case of too little, too late. It's still a pretty great flick though, but when watching a Miike film I expect a little extra and that's clearly missing here.