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.

nerawareta gakuen

July 03, 2013
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

June 17, 2013
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

June 12, 2013
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

June 06, 2013
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

June 05, 2013
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.

xi men ding

June 03, 2013
Westgate Tango poster

Even though 2011 was a stellar year for Taiwanese cinema (Xiao Shi Da Kan, Hetun, Xing Kong, Make Up), 2012 didn't really deliver. While the potential is still there, a lot of the recent Taiwanese films seem to have traded some of their artistic value for more commercial appeal. Taiwanese cinema changed a lot the past couple of years (from the slow, pondering works of Hsiao-hsien Hou and Ming-liang Tsai to the more modern-Chinese inspired films of today) but not all that change is for the better.

Not to say that Xi Men Ding is a bad film. Wang Wei's first has quite a few stand-out scenes, moments of wonder that betray a deeper love for the medium. But whenever things get serious and I started to fall in love with the film, there's always a cheesy pop song to break the mood or an impatient cut to the next scene. Wei just doesn't allow the film to breath, which just doesn't bode well for the lingering romance that runs at the core of the film.

Visually there is plenty to admire. Superb use of lighting and a magnificent sense of color. The soundtrack is a downer though, so are the actors, who seem like they'd be more at home in a local soap opera. Especially when seeing them perform next to Anthony Wong (who has a couple of scenes) the difference in quality is painfully notable. The romance is fresh and playful and Wei does his best to keep the charm going, but his cast and the pacing just aren't up to the job. Underneath some superficial touches, Xi Men Ding hides a very good film, sadly it never manages to break itself free from its commercial reigns.

I guess this review houses more negativity than the film actually deserves, but it's disappointing to see a perfectly solid gem given a treatment like this. Xi Men Ding is still worth seeing for a nice selection of stand-out moments though.

suicchi o osu toki

May 22, 2013
When I Kill Myself poster

Ryo Nakajima's first film (This World Of Ours) blew me away but failed to make a big international splash. Maybe not too surprising as it wasn't the easiest film to sell, but if anything the film made clear that the boy had talent. His second film (Rise Up) passed me by, but I was lucky enough to catch Nakajima's latest. While not as pure as This World Of Ours, there is still plenty to enjoy here.

The first minutes of Suicchi o Osu Toki are reminiscent of Battle Royale, only a lot darker in tone. Forty kids are taken from their parents and are locked up in a medical facility by decree of the Japanese government. The plan is to try and figure out why suicide rates are on the rise among youngster, so they give each kid a suicide button and monitor them to find out what triggers their suicides. Most kids die within the first year, but a group of 6 manages to survive for 7 years in a row. Until a new warden is assigned to keep an eye on them.

The first half of the film has a strong, dark and brooding atmosphere. The film looks good, support a strong soundtrack and manages to intrigue. Halfway through Nakajima switches gears though, as he lets the plot take the upper hand. Even though a lot is happening, I would've preferred a slower, more pensive approach to the themes Nakajima unearths here. He does fight back with a strong finale, but by then I had somewhat lost interest in what happened to the group. It's a shame, because there is still a lot to like in Suicchio Osu Toki and overall Nakajima delivers a very interesting film. It's an easy recommendation, but sometimes a plot just gets in the way of a potential masterpiece.

zombie ass

May 08, 2013
Zombie Ass poster

Noboru Iguchi (Mutant Girls Squad) unleashed a very special kind of cinema onto the world when he made The Machine Girl. He has been struggling to repeat that success and has since been bested by his Sushi Typhoon buddies. With his latest film Iguchi seems to have finally settled into an even smaller niche though. Zombie Ass must be one of the most outrageously embarrassing films currently out there, and for that reason alone it should be worth a small gamble.

Even though Zombie Ass isn't part of the official Sushi Typhoon catalogue, it's very much in line with other Sushi Typhoon releases. Bad CG, horrible actors and a pretty amateurish finish are all part of the deal, but in return you get some of the weirdest, sickest and funniest moments ever caught on film. If there ever was a "so bad it is good" flick, this one is definitely it.

Iguchi expands on the short he entered in the ABCs of Death anthology (F is for Fart). Never before has a director explored the CG fart in such devastating depths and with such great conviction. Ironically the longer running time actually plays in Iguchi's favor here, as the ever-increasing sense of embarrassment really adds to the fun. Not that the entire film is about farts, there are also a bunch on toilet zombies and a group of anal tentacles to balance out the narrative. Great art this is not, but if you're looking for 90 minutes of mind-blowing weirdness, Zombie Ass is a must see.

ai zuozhan

May 01, 2013
Love Battlefield poster

Pou-Soi Cheang is one of the better genre film directors currently residing in Hong Kong. With highlights like Shamo, Yi Ngoi (Accident) and Gau Ngao Gau (Dog Bite Dog) the man has been establishing himself as a driving force behind the international recognition of Hong Kong cinema. Ai Zuozhan (Love Battlefield) is a slightly older Cheang that bears all the potential, but ever so slightly fails in its execution.

Ai Zuozhan would've made a pretty good Milkyway (Johnnie To's production house) film I think. The desaturated visuals are classy, the story is a bit grittier than usual and holds a few solid surprises and there's enough police work going on to make it a thematic peer to a slew of other Milkyway productions. It's not really an action flick, rather a tense and dark thriller mixed with a dash of romance.

The problem is that Pou-Soi Cheang has a thing for melodrama. In more recent film he's learned to balance it out a bit more, but here he crosses the line of the acceptable a few times too often. The finale for example is an exhilarating 20 minute climax, only to be followed by a mushy and unnecessary scene that takes the bite out of the ending. Cheang always compensates with style and tension, but in the end it makes the film just a tad too uneven. It's definitely worth a watch though, just brace yourself for a few overly emotional scenes that really don't belong.


April 27, 2013
Asura poster

Director Kei'ichi Sato (of Karas fame) returns with Asura. The film is an adaptation of a 70s manga that sparked quite a controversy when it was first released, due to some rather graphic cannibalistic content. Don't expect an average tentacles and gore horror anime though, as the story of Asura is surprisingly timid and humane.

Asura is young kid, part man, part beast. Left behind in the Kyoto wastelands at a very young age, he has learned to survive under barren conditions. He is an outcast of society and doesn't hesitate for a moment when all there is to eat is a passing fellow human being. Until one day he runs into Wakasa, a young girl who is the first to treat him like a real human. Asura has trouble leaving the beast in him behind though.

To be honest, the story is of the yada-yada variation. The film lacks emotional strength and even though it doesn't outstay its welcome with only 72 minutes on the clock, it does drag a little in places. You'll be wanting to see this film because of the awesome art style and the stunning blend of CG and traditional animation though. Sato created another technical marvel, there are a few moments where the CG is just a tad too apparent but otherwise the blend is pretty much perfect and makes for a very moody and grim atmosphere.

It's a shame the film itself isn't as slick as its visuals, but Asura is definitely worth a look if you like your animation a little different.