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.

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.

contracted

date
January 30, 2014
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Contracted poster

There are so many young directors trying to break into the film business that it's sometimes hard to filter out the worthy ones. Especially the horror genre is swamped by eager, self-appointed talents who all think they are the next best thing as they try to leverage the power of posters and trailers to convince you to watch their life's work. While Contracted had me a little worried at first, I'm glad that I went ahead and watched it anyway.

I knew England from Madison County, a pretty decent attempt at a slasher flick, but one that was bogged down by genre clichés and simply didn't add enough to them. He made some serious strides forward though, as Contracted shows a lot more promise. Not that England managed to get past all of the usual low-budget problems, but he made the film work regardless.

Apart from the lead, the acting is horrendous. Some of the actors are pretty awkward (the mom and the girl playing Alice), luckily Townsend does a decent enough job as Samantha, the main character. The visuals too are a little plain at times, though the camera work and editing are actually pretty satisfactory. The settings can be a bit dire and boring though, but that is to be expected.

On the upside, the soundtrack is actually really neat. A good selection of atmospheric tracks that complement the film really well. The gore is limited but effective. It's nothing you haven't seen before (unless you're new to the horror genre of course), but the effect is definitely there. The film grossed me out a couple of times, which doesn't happen all that often.

Last but not least, England delivers a strong build-up to a fun ending. It's not quite clear from the start what exactly is going on with Samantha, only around halfway through did a real suspicion start to form about the true nature of this film (it ended up being correct too, still, I thought it was a neat little twist). It's hard to be more specific without spoiling things, don't go in expecting a big twist at the end, but England sure did put a nice spin on an old concept.

Contracted is a solid horror film as long as you can look past some of its low-budget unpleasantries. In a way the film reminded me of Deadgirl, though it never quite reaches those heights. Still, if you're looking for a good diversion, this one is sure to please a broad range of horror fans.

the secret life of walter mitty

date
January 20, 2014
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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty poster

For a while now, Ben Stiller has been growing on me. He's not a superb actor or first-class director, but there's obviously more to him that the quick and simple comedies he's usually known for. His previous directorial effort (Tropic Thunder) was one of the better American comedies of the past few years, which was all I needed to know when I went out to watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

If you see people comparing this film to Forest Gump, it's because there aren't too many other feel-good films featuring a simpleton going out into the world and meeting up with a cast of strange people. That's where the comparison ends though, as Stiller manages to make a film with a character of its own. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film that lives in a unique universe, not really bound to genres or conventions, though not too out there or alienating as to turn away the big crowds.

During the first part of the film Stiller's outlandish daydreams take center stage. They provide a fair few laughs, making it pretty easy to get into the flow of the film. Once Stiller starts his journey the daydreams lose importance and are replaced by some pleasant oddballs he meets along the way. The switch is a little sudden and while the comedy remains, the absurdity of the first hour never really returns. The film takes a small hit right there, but recovers quickly.

Stiller puts in a great performance, as does Adam Scott (the perfect bad guy you'll love to hate). Even though the film doesn't make any serious missteps, I did feel Stiller doesn't cash in on the film's full potential. His solutions and choices may work well enough within the context of the film, I still felt that at some points he should've taken a few more risks (the last scene for example, did we really need to see the photograph?). Nothing serious though, there's plenty to like here, there are no false notes and a few very neat touches that make this one of the most original films I've seen coming out of Hollywood for quite some time.

princess and seven kungfu masters

date
January 17, 2014
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Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters poster

Saturation is a word that doesn't appear in Jing Wong's dictionary. The man simply doesn't seem able to stop making films. Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters is his latest feature, although I suspect Wong acted more as a mentor for Venus Keung Kwok-Man, who received co-direction credits. It wouldn't be the first time Wong launched someone's career like this.

The film is a throwback to the kung fu comedies of the early 90s. It's a mix of martial arts and outrageous comedy bits (not quite unlike Stephen Chow's Kung Fu), sporting typical Hong Kong (over)acting, simple but functional CG and some genuinely original gags. Add to that the more than competent action sequences (though they can't really compete with the best the martial arts genre has to offer) and you have a fun-filled yet rather basic film.

As always, Wong gathered a legion of familiar faces to fill out his cast. There are the older work horses, including Sammo Hung, Sandra Ng, Eric Tsang and Yuen Wah. Then there are some younger talents, like Jiang Lu-Xia, Dennis To and Philip Ng. On top of that, Wong is also apt at introducing new talent, as is the case with Kimmy Tong Fei, clearly one of Wong's rising stars.

Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters is entertainment in its purest form. It's a welcome update of the old classics, missing that little extra to turn it into a real gem (for that I'd recommend Tracing Shadows) but making up with sheer vigour, enthusiasm and pacing. Unless you're allergic to Hong Kong comedy or martial arts, it's a warm recommendation that's certain to put a smile on your face.

antisocial

date
January 03, 2014
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Antisocial poster

I've got to hand it to Calahan. Even though I'm completely done with virus/outbreak/zombie flicks, Antisocial worked for me. I've seen so many similar films these past few years (ever since the Dawn of the Dead remake rekindled people's interest) that calling it a genre of its own is almost an understatement.

So many directors have tried to come up with new angles and different spins that that in itself has become a cliché. Yet Calahan's approach still felt like a fresh take on the subject. Antisocial is definitely not a perfect film and while it's easy to critique the film for some of its weaker aspects, in the end the outbreak atmosphere simply hit all the right notes.

The acting is quite subpar at times and some of the plot points can be pretty far-fetched, but get over that (I'm sure some of you won't be able to, but that's okay) and underneath you'll find a film that plays around with conventions in a rather unique way. So much that I actually started to doubt some of the clichés that have been part of the genre for decades.

The social network spin on the outbreak theme feels a bit flimsy at first (like a doom scenario cocked up by an older generation that simply isn't capable of dealing with modern times), but in the end it proves to be a valid excuse for a much needed breath of fresh air, which is then explored quite aptly. Add to that a pretty gruesome finale and a spot on finish and what you have is an interesting little genre film, not too far out there to venture in author land, but nifty enough to circumvent many of the worn down clichés that are putting the genre in a slump.

lai li bu ming

date
November 19, 2013
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Unidentified poster

If you're looking for cinematic novelty, China is the place to keep an eye on these days. Even though some patterns are slowly emerging, almost every new film coming out of China is a new adventure. Some good, some bad, but never stale or uninspired.

Lai Li Bu Ming (Unidentified) is part of a movement of Chinese films that combines a typical Chinese, rural setting with modern (urban) fantasy, romance and comedy elements. The first time I encountered this was when I watched Hu Guan's Cow, now it seems like more and more films are trying to follow in its footsteps.

The story of Unidentified is about a recluse living in the middle of nowhere. He has no money or worldly possession, apart from the home-made tools he uses to watch the skies. One day his peaceful live is turned upside down when a mute ends up on his doorstep. It's the start of a series of strange events, involving the mute, an archaeologist, a group of tree planters and a local triad gang.

Unidentified is weird mix of styles and genres, held together by impressive visuals, solid acting and the feeling you're watching a film that doesn't lets itself be easily compared to every other film you've seen. When put next to Cow Guan's film does a better job of balancing everything together, but Unidentified stands well on its own and leaves me hopeful for the immediate future of Chinese cinema. It may be a little hard to come by, but it's definitely worth checking out if you happen upon it.

figyua na anata

date
November 08, 2013
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Figyua na Anata poster

Takashi Ishii is a unique force in Japanese cinema. Often focusing on the bizarre and the perverse, Ishii makes films that exist far outside the comfort zone of the normal. By all means his films should come off as cheap shlock, possibly interesting in concept only, but for some obscure reason Ishii has managed to produce a consistent track of high quality output throughout the years.

Figyua na Anata is his latest and pretty much fits the profile. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Video Girl Ai and Koreeda's Air Doll, the film's about a lone loser finding a doll that comes to life. It's actually a pretty popular setup in Japanese manga and anime, only Ishii's vision is a tad more perverse than usually the case. Instead of jolly encounters and fluffy awkwardness, expect dark allies, murdering yakuza and pinku influences.

But it doesn't really stop there. Ishii goes on to create a rather sad tale of loneliness and despair, hidden in a blur of fighting dolls. The film follows a young editor (Kentaro) who loses his job and goes out on a drinking spree. He ends up messing with the wrong people and while fleeing into an abandoned building, happens upon a strange, life-like doll. When his assailants finally catch up with him, the doll comes to life and saves his life. The next morning Kentaro wakes up and takes the doll home, acting as if she's become his girlfriend.

The final 20 minutes border on the absurd, giving Figyua na Anata that extra little boost to make it stand out from similar films. Takashi Ishii is a strange man, his films never really appealed to me that much but upon closer inspection there's a lot of quality hidden under their raunchy exteriors. Well worth a try if you're looking for something different.

the killing of john lennon

date
November 04, 2013
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The Killing Of John Lennon poster

Not a fan of biopics, not a fan of The Beatles, didn't even know who killed Lennon before I sat down to watch this film. So yeah, I didn't expect much of Piddington's The Killing of John Lennon, but that never stopped me before. Once in a blue moon you run into a film that completely flips around your expectations, which is exactly what happened with this one.

Fans of The Beatles or John Lennon beware. This film is about Mark Chapman and Mark Chapman only. Lennon is featured for about a minute or so, the rest of The Beatles are completely absent. People hoping to find a best-of compilation of Lennon's music here will also be disappointed, Piddington opts for a more atmospheric soundtrack.

Chapman isn't a very likeable character, but Piddington and Jonas Bal do an amazing job shedding some light on his view of the world. There's very little to sympathize with, yet the film manages to really get under the skin and into the brain of Chapman. Instead of just running through the facts, Piddington focuses more on the way Chapman experiences life, the events and the people around him. This is more of a character piece than it is a mere recounting of Chapman's actions leading up to the fatal event.

The visuals combined with the soundtrack bring Chapman's confused visions to life. The film has a little dip right after Lennon's murder (where the plot takes over for a short while) but the film quickly recovers and dishes out a pretty strong ending.

Piddington really deserves credit for his approach here, instead of making a boring biopic he brings the world of a madman to life. It's probably a tough sell for people hoping to see a good guy/bad guy type of film, but if you're interested to find out what drives certain people to commit such foolish acts, this films places you right in the middle of the insanity.

haunter

date
October 31, 2013
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Haunter poster

Vincenzo Natali is the guy behind the first Cube film, a somewhat troubled but fun movie that got by on a strong and enigmatic concept. I lost track of him ever since (though I did see his entry in Paris, Je t'Aime), but when I came across Haunter I was more than eager to give him a second chance. While still not a film that lives up to its true potential, Haunter is a pretty atmospheric trip down Natali's eerie visions and more than confirms Natali's talent.

Haunter is a pretty tough sell though. While it has many characteristics of a horror film (and thanks to its marketing it will undoubtedly draw large horror crowds), it's actually a dark, moody mystery that isn't really out to scare. Instead Natali unravels a tight and morbid secret that involves hauntings and serial killers embedded in a Groundhog Day-like loop. Little by little he drops hints and unveils smaller mysteries that all lead up to the big revelation.

Natali's Haunter is a visually pleasing film. While clearly not a big budget affair, he makes the most of his money with moody lighting, smart play of shadows and strong use of color. The soundtrack too is aptly used to further enhance the atmosphere. It sets the perfect mood for the story to unravel. Sadly the lead actress takes away from that. Abigail Breslin never really seems to get the hang of her character and comes off as a weak lead. McHattie shines as the film's villain, but he simply lacks screen time to make up for the lead's poor performance.

It's a shame because Natali does a great job setting everything up. The atmosphere is there, the plot is tight enough and opens itself up at the right times. Look past the lead actress and you have a neat little mystery.