The Rope Curse 2

by Shih-Han Liao
Also known as
Kui Jiang : Zong Xie 2
Specifics
Taiwan [2020] - 104m
Genre
Horror
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
The Rope Curse 2 poster

I never saw the first film, but that usually not a big problem with Asian horror cinema. Shih-Han Liao was allowed to make the follow-up to his first film for Netflix, which probably means the original one was quite popular in Taiwan. Must've been a local thing then, as I couldn't really see what's so special about this one.

A Thai Demon goes ballistic in Taiwan. He jumps from one person to the next in a desperate attempt to be reborn as a human. He's eying Jia-min, a young girl who has a feel for the supernatural. A Taoist monk chases the demon down, but he's crafty and always finds a way to escape the monk's spells.

The Rope Curse 2 is a pretty basic horror flick. The cinematography is a bit better than average, the Taoist rituals are a nice deviation from the norm and it's quite a surprise to see Kang-sheng Lee headlining a film like this. On the other hand Liao fails to really drive up the tension and the overreliance on CG doesn't really help the scares. Decent, but not great.

Pale Flower

by Masahiro Shinoda
Also known as
Kawaita Hana
Specifics
Japan [1964] - 96m
Genre
Crime
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Pale Flower poster

My first Shinoda was a moderate success. Shinoda may not the most famous of the classic Japanese directors, but Pale Flower is a film with standing. It's a Japanese noir with budding New Wave influences, a combination that elevates it above the usual genre fare. No doubt a good start for others wanting to explore Shinoda's work.

When Muraki returns from prison, he finds that his old gang has made a pact with their old rivals to stand strong against the rising gangs coming from Osaka. When he goes gambling he meets the enigmatic Saeko, who he falls madly in love with. But then new trouble arises and Muraki volunteers to take the fall once more.

The plot and characters aren't too interesting, it's a basic Yakuza story with minor romantic elements. The cinematography is what sets this one apart, together with a moody score. Sharp black and white contrasts and beautiful camera work make this a film worth watching, the rest is okay but not spectacular.

To Have and Have Not

by Howard Hawks
Specifics
USA [1944] - 100m
Genre
Romance, Crime
More info on
rating
1.0*/5.0*
To Have and Have Not poster

A film that felt like it tried very hard to replicate the success of Casablanca. That's not really a classic I appreciated, so it's no surprise that To Have and Have Not did not do much for me either. It's a sluggish noir with some romance and action elements that failed to get the blood pumping.

Morgan is a captain housed on Martinique, making a living by renting out his boat to tourists. When the war starts, he quickly lands himself into some trouble. The only way to survive is by helping the French resistance, helping him along is Slim, a nightclub singer whom Morgan has a passionate affair with.

I really can't stand Bogart and Bacall doesn't have a lot to work with either. The dialogs left me cold, the tension was completely absent and the cinematography wasn't that remarkable either. Not the kind of noir I like, but there's clearly a market for these films as they're still well respected.

Swing Girls

by Shinobu Yaguchi
Also known as
Suwingu Gâruzu
Specifics
Japan [2004] - 105m
Genre
Comedy, Drama, Music
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Swing Girls poster

Swing Girls is a very typical Japanese school club dramedy. They're a bit like Hollywood sport films (underdogs rising above themselves and succeeding at something others didn't think possible), but with some Japanese rural appeal added to the mix. Not my favorite niche, but this wasn't too bad.

The brass band of the school is detrimental to the success of their baseball team, but when they don't get their lunches on time all the girls quit the band. The group responsible for the fluke decides to have a go at it and though they have no experience playing musical instruments, dedication and a little help from their teachers go a long way.

The film is a pretty predictable and doesn't stray from the genre conventions. But the performances are solid, the tone is light enough and there are a few notable scenes. Swing Girls offers very mellow and charming entertainment and doesn't drag things out unnecessarily, but has aces up its sleeve to rise above its peers.

The Twelve Tasks of Asterix

by René Goscinny, Henri Gruel, Albert Uderzo, Pierre Watrin
Also known as
Les Douze Travaux d'Astérix
Specifics
France, UK [1976] - 82m
Genre
Comedy, Adventure, Animation
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
The Twelve Tasks of Asterix poster

A lot better than Asterix' adventure with Cleopatra. I watched this one as a kid and the gag with the "administrative formality" is something that has stuck with me ever since. It's not a timeless masterpiece, not even close in fact, but there's quite a bit of fun to be had with this one.

Caesar is fed up with the Gauls and makes them an offer. If they can complete 12 godly tasks Caesar will give them Rome and retire, if they lose they become the slaves of the Romans. Of course the village sends out Asterix and Obelix, who start their travels by trying to beat the Olympic running champ.

The comedy is pretty decent, the art style is nice and the administration gag really is legendary. The film is a bit repetitive though and it's a bummer that there's hardly a real challenge for the two Gauls, but it's a pretty short film and the pacing is solid. I had fun watching this again, as simple as it may be.

The Ballad of Narayama

by Shôhei Imamura
Also known as
Narayama Bushikô
Specifics
Japan [1983] - 130m
Genre
Drama
More info on
rating
2.5*/5.0*
The Ballad of Narayama poster

Certainly not the worst Imamura, though I don't think I'll ever become a fan of his work. Like most of his films, the acting is quite crude and unsubtle, with symbolism layered on thick. What saved this film from anonymity for me is the interesting finale, which is easily the best part of the film.

The film follows a fictitious (folklore-based) community living on a mountain in northern Japan. When their members turn 70, they have to climb the neighboring mountain, where death awaits them. This sacrifice is supposed to bring good fortune to their children. Orin spends her entire 69th year preparing for the big trip, making sure her kids are ready for a life without her.

The first 90 minutes is spent exploring the community and its people. There's a lot of intercourse (between people, between animals and even some interspecies fidgeting) and a lot of poverty as people try their best to survive in the town. The trip up the mountain really calms things down and finally there's some true beauty shining true. It's a film that has its moments, but there's not enough of them to turn this into a worthwhile classic.

Distant Voices, Still Lives

by Terence Davies
Specifics
UK, West Germany [1988] - 84m
Genre
Drama, Music
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Distant Voices, Still Lives poster

I didn't quite know what to expect, but this film turned out to be pretty interesting. At its core Distant Voices, Still Lives is a hardened social drama, but its unique presentation sets it apart from its peers. It's still quite dark and sullen, but it's a lot less dependent on its narrative and its suffering characters.

The film follows the lives of a working-class family in Liverpool during the 40s and 50s. There isn't really a straight narrative, though there are two separate parts of which the first deals with the father of the family, the second with his kids. We see small vignettes that, after a while, start to paint a more complete picture.

I don't really care for the setting, nor do I have a lot of affinity with the time period, but the presentation pulled me in and kept me engaged. Stark framing and a strong focus on music make for harrowing scenes, though Davies leaves plenty of room for lighter moments, so it's not all doom and gloom. I did get a little tired of the many songs and once I got a firm handle on the presentation things got a little less interesting, but overall a worthy arthouse classic.

Centigrade

by Brendan Walsh
Specifics
USA [2020] - 98m
Genre
Thriller
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Centigrade poster

A single-location thriller, and that location doesn't get any more boring than in Centigrade. Almost the entire film is spent inside a snowed-in car. That's it. Two people in a car, trying to get out, trying to survive and hoping someone will find them in the meantime. If that sounds boring, it's better to just ignore this one altogether.

Naomi and Matt are traveling through Norway. When they stop during a blizzard to get a little rest, their car gets snowed under and when they wake they are unable to get out. Naomi wants to dig her way out, Matt thinks it's better to stay put and wait for help. Hence, the long wait starts.

Since you're stuck with the same two actors in a single location for 90 minutes, they can't be too annoying. Rodriguez and Piazza do a decent job, though nothing exceptional. The score is nice, the setting is haunting and the tension rises with the minute. I'm quite partial to these kinds of films and Centigrade is solid genre material, but this clearly isn't for everyone.

Summer Time Machine Blues

by Katsuyuki Motohiro
Also known as
Samâ Taimu Mashin Burûsu
Specifics
Japan [2005] - 107m
Genre
Comedy, Sci-fi
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Summer Time Machine Blues poster

A cute variation on the usual time travel mumbo jumbo. It's not often you see these narratives executed as straight comedies, but Motohiro finds plenty to make fun of in the back and forth between timelines. It actually beats some of the more serious films handling the same sort of material.

A sci-fi club in a small, rural town is struggling with the summer heat. When the remote of their AC dies and a time machine materializes out of nowhere, they plan to go back a day and steal the remote from their former selves. Things get more complicated when a professor explains to them that they have upset the spacetime continuum, jeopardizing everyone's future.

Motohiro's direction is light and breezy, there are some good gags and the film has that rural summery vibe, which is always a plus. The performances are a bit loud/over-the-top though, which isn't my favorite type of comedy. A deadpan version of this film would've no doubt been a lot better, but Summer Time Machine Blues was better than expected and delivers some solid entertainment.

Mister Max

by Mario Camerini
Also known as
Il Signor Max
Specifics
Italy [1937] - 86m
Genre
Comedy, Romance
More info on
rating
2.0*/5.0*
Mister Max poster

Another early Mario Camerini with Vittorio De Sica in the lead role. They were quite a team back then, their films must've been pretty successful too, looking at how many they made in such a relatively short span of time. They're easy entertainment for sure, but I liked this one a little less than the other two I've seen.

Gianni is the owner of a newsstand and saved up enough money to go on a little vacation. A stroke of good luck lands him on a cruise, where he is mistaken for a wealthy man. Girls flock to him, but it's Lauretta, a simple maid, who falls for Gianni's personality, not the promise of his non-existent wealth.

Performances are solid, the tone of the film is light and the pacing is decent. It's also not a terribly long film, but earlier Camerini's I've seen were shorter and since the story is very simple, that worked out a bit better. Mister Max is still a decent watch, but it started to drag just a little near the end.

Himeanole

by Keisuke Yoshida
Also known as
Himeanôru
Specifics
Japan [2016] - 99m
Genre
Thriller, Crime
More info on
rating
4.0*/5.0*
Himeanole poster

Talk about a film with mood swings. The first half offer a solid combo of dry and dark comedy. Nothing too overt, but there are some good laughs. The second half is dark, brutal and delivers a serious kick in the gut. One of the most crass and surprising turnarounds I've seen, but it sure was impressive to witness.

Bread, Bus and the Second First Love

by Rikiya Imaizumi
Also known as
Pan to Bus to Nidome no Hatsukoi
Specifics
Japan [2017] - 110m
Genre
Romance
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Bread, Bus and the Second First Love poster

An agreeable little romance. At first, it looked as if this was going to be a rather cheesy pop vehicle, but it quickly transpires that there's more to the characters and that the film has more to offer than just another tale of unrequited love. Bread, Bus and the Second First Love has some depth to it, but you have to be a little patient to get to it.

Fumi works in a bakery and is single. She doesn't have any real prospects and has declined marriage proposals before, not really feeling that certainty of being able to spend an entire life with someone. When she reconnects with Tamotsu, an old high school flame, that seems to change, but Tamotsu is still in love with his ex-wife.

Performances are solid, the soft-voiced nature of the film is typical for the genre and the cinematography looks clean and polished. The characters are a little edgier (even though they don't really look it) than usually the case in these types of films, but that's what makes Bread, Bus stand out from the pack. It won't convert people to Japanese romance/drama cinema, but it's nice that it offers fans a little twist.

Return of the One-Armed Swordsman

Also known as
Du Bei Dao Wang
Specifics
Hong Kong [1969] - 105m
Genre
Action
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Return of the One-Armed Swordsman poster

More one-armed swordsman fun. I'm not the biggest fan of the series, there's a bit too much overt melodrama in them, but this is probably the best of the bunch thanks to some nice variety in styles and enemies. It's still far from Cheh Chang's best work, but at least I didn't get bored.

The one-armed swordsman has left the world of martial arts to live a quiet life with this wife, but of course he can't escape his past. It doesn't take long before he is invited to a tournament organized by a shady clan boss. All the other clans in the vicinity are invited too, so it's obvious the man is up to something.

There's quite a lot of action in this one, there's also quite a few different weapons that make the fights more interesting. The drama in between is rather cheesy and the plot is pretty basic, 15 minutes shorter would've been much better, but there are enough memorable moments in here to make it worth your time. Not bad.

Ainu Mosir

by Takeshi Fukunaga
Also known as
Ainu Moshiri
Specifics
Japan, USA [2020] - 84m
Genre
Drama
More info on
rating
2.5*/5.0*
Ainu Mosir poster

Part coming of age drama, part introduction to the indigenous Ainu culture. While that sounded like an intriguing premise, the film fails to find a clear focus and can't quite decide what it wants to be. I think it would've worked better as either a pure narrative or a full-on documentary.

Kanto is a young boy growing up in an Ainu village. He is taught about their customs and myths, but he's also drawn to the world outside their little commune. When the elders decide to revive an old Ainu ritual (which involves killing a young bear cub Kanto helped raise), he struggles with his origins.

Performances are decent, the setting is beautiful and the Ainu culture is intriguing, but the coming of age elements feel a bit fleeting and they're never properly explored. The pacing is quite slow, coupled with rather short runtime the film came off underdeveloped, even somewhat unfinished. It's a shame, as this topic deserved better.

The Sacrifice

by Hu Guan, Frant Gwo, Yang Lu
Also known as
Jingang Chuan
Specifics
China [2020] - 122m
Genre
War
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
The Sacrifice poster

It seems China has discovered the perks of war cinema. It's a match made in heaven really, as it allows them to be over-the-top nationalistic without straying too far from accepted genre expectations. Let that be one of the main reasons why I'm not such a big fan of the genre, even when some well-respected directors take a shot at it.

The Sacrifice focuses on one minor event in the Korean War and makes it the centerpiece of the entire war. The Chinese are trying to cross a bridge which the Americans keeps bombing to smithereens. Cue some very heroic actions and yes, sacrifices. And guess who comes out the winner in the end ...

It's all way too blasé for my liking, but at least Frant Gwo, Hu Guan and Yang Lu know how to produce a big spectacle. There's a little timeline wizardry going on and the battles are pretty intense, which makes it at least entertaining enough to watch. But looking at the talent involved, this is still somewhat of a disappointment.

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki

by Kaku Arakawa
Also known as
Owaranai Hito: Miyazaki Hayao
Specifics
Japan [2016] - 70m
Genre
Documentary
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki poster

Hayao Miyazaki is a remarkable man. While I love many of his films, I've also been quite critical of others. I didn't always appreciate the weight he put on Ghibli's direction, nor do I always agree with his vision on animation. But there's something about seeing him go about his business that is ultimately fascinating. Never-Ending Man follows Miyazaki in the years after his latest retirement and tracks his way back to becoming a feature film director.

Miyazaki may come off headstrong, even stubborn, he remains a very humble and down-to-earth man. I was actually quite surprised he allowed the camera to be present when he was learning about CG animation from people who could be his grandkids. It's not really a pretty sight to see one of the most lauded animators living today struggle with a computer, but it feels very genuine and it shows Miyazaki as an inquisitive professional who is still eager to learn, even from people much younger than himself. I did feel for the guy at the end who showed Miyazaki his zombie demo and got trashed, then again he should've seen that one coming.

The more documentaries I see about Ghibli/Miyazaki, the more I admire the role Toshio Suzuki plays in the success of the studio. He truly is the man that makes sure Miyazaki can focus on animation and animation alone, while he takes care of all the tricky bits. Never-Ending Man is a lovely documentary if you're interested in the man behind some of the biggest animation wonders of the past 50 years, even when you've seen other Ghibli docs before. It's not a very loud and showy documentary though, but that's probably why I like it so much.

Beijing Watermelon

Also known as
Pekin no Suika
Specifics
Japan [1989] - 135m
Genre
Drama
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Beijing Watermelon poster

Another decent Ôbayashi. It seems that during the 80s and 90s he made a series of films that were somewhat easier to digest, though in the final half hour of Beijing Watermelon Ôbayashi's quirky side resurfaces. Don't expect anything too crazy, but the fourth wall is breached more than once.

Haruzo and Michi have a small vegetable job. Their lives change drastically when they meet Li, a Chinese student who doesn't have the money to buy himself a proper meal. At first Haruzo isn't very willing to help Li, but when he sees the harsh life he leads Haruzo decides to give him a hand after all.

The first 90 minutes reminded me a little of films like Tampopo. Beijing Watermelon shows a lively working class community comprised of grumpy characters that end up having a heart of gold and serves it with somewhat moderate stylistic choices. Then Ôbayashi takes a sudden turn and film and reality start to interweave (as the story is based on real life events). It's a bit long maybe, but the interesting finale makes it worth the while.

Licence to Kill

by John Glen
Specifics
USA, UK [1989] - 133m
Genre
Action, Adventure
More info on
rating
1.5*/5.0*
Licence to Kill poster

Both Dalton and Glen's final James Bond. This was also the last one in a long series of bi-yearly releases, so clearly they must've released the formula could do with a little rework, as it really feels quite stale at this point. It's really just the same old stunts over and over again.

Bond's at a wedding (not his own) when he's called in for an important assignment. Sanchez, a famed criminal, has just come out of hiding, and he's in the neighborhood. Bond apprehends him, but Sanchez manages to escape and plans a bitter revenge. Bond is pulled off the case, but as it's personal he can't let go.

Dalton really is a poor Bond, but it's the lack of creativity that really brings License to Kill down. Another shark bit, more air stunts, some diving bits. It's another attempted update of the greatest stunts of earlier films, but it doesn't feel spectacular at all. I'm looking forward to 90s Bond, hopefully he can turn things around.

My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn

by Liv Corfixen
Specifics
USA [2014] - 58m
Genre
Documentary
More info on
rating
2.5*/5.0*
My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn poster

A documentary on Nicolas Winding Refn and the period he spent working on Only God Forgives. The doc was filmed by his wife, which means it's a pretty intimate film, at the same time you can't help but wonder how much was cut and how premeditated it all was. It sure feels that way.

There isn't much here besides Refn doing his thing. He doubts his own integrity, he's not sure if he's doing the right thing, he even meets up with Jodorowsky to ask him for advice. It's really nice if you're a big Refn fan and want to know more about the man behind the director, but that's where the appeal ends.

The problem is that Refn is a pretty typical artist. Shooting film isn't a very glamorous job and his artistic uncertainties aren't really out of the ordinary either. Some bits were entertaining, mostly when Gosling was goofing around with Refn's kids, but that's not enough to fill an hour-long documentary. For fans only.

Hotel Artemis

by Drew Pearce
Specifics
USA, UK [2018] - 94m
Genre
Sci-fi, Crime
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Hotel Artemis poster

A fun little surprise. I expected a cheap John Wick rip-off, what I got was a small but clever and well executed genre flick, combining crime with action and sci-fi elements to create something rather unique and distinctive. It's not a film that's going to make it big, so make sure you catch it as quickly as you can.

Hotel Artemis is a place where criminals go when they are wounded. The nurse there takes care of them, but only when they're members and they keep to the rules of the hotel. The city is rioting that night and the rooms are filling up fast. When the guests are starting to misbehave, chaos ensues.

The actors do a pretty good job. Foster in particular delivers a remarkable performance, but Boutella and Bautista are also noteworthy. The cinematography is stylish, the sets look great and the story is pretty intriguing. It's lacks that little extra something to really set it apart, but other than that director Pearce left quite the calling card.

Only Cloud Knows

Also known as
Zhi You Yun Zhi Dao
Specifics
China [2019] - 132m
Genre
Drama, Romance
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Only Cloud Knows poster

Xiaogang Feng's latest appears to be a manipulative dramatic romance (and it truly is), but the fact that the story is based on people Feng knew in real life at least gives him somewhat of an excuse. Not that it suddenly adds a ton of extra layers and dramatic weight, it's just the knowledge that the plot isn't completely tailored to be the biggest tearjerker possible.

After Simon's wife dies, he takes her ashes to visit all the places she held dearest. During his trip we see flashbacks of the couple. The way they met each other, where they built up their lives together (rural New Zealand is a beautiful place) and how tragedy cut down their time together short.

Feng goes a little overboard with the music and the cinematography is a little too cheesy, but the performances are nice, the direction is effective and even though the runtime's just a little excessive, it never gets dull. People who dislike romance shouldn't even attempt to come near this one, but otherwise it's not a bad film.

Along Came a Spider

by Lee Tamahori
Specifics
Canada, USA [2001] - 104m
Genre
Thriller
More info on
rating
2.0*/5.0*
Along Came a Spider poster

A very basic cop thriller. No doubt this film was made in the wake of the success of some profiler TV series, Lee Tamahori probably didn't have to try very hard to get this film made. He also didn't very hard while making this film I guess, since it's probably one of the most standard films in the genre I've seen.

When Alex loses his partner, he has a lot of trouble getting back on his job. Until Megan Rose, the daughter of a local senator, is kidnapped and the kidnapper drags Alex into the case. He partners up with Jezzie and together they start to chase their prey, but not everything is as it seems.

The story is pretty plain, so are the performances and the direction. It's really a bog-standard genre flick that lays out its puzzle piece by piece. You can expect some twists in the final act, but nothing too baffling or worth getting excited about. Watch this if you're starved for some basic genre filler, otherwise it's difficult to recommend.

True Mothers

Also known as
Asa ga Kuru
Specifics
Japan [2020] - 140m
Genre
Drama
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
True Mothers poster

There are quite a few parallels to be drawn between the careers of Kawase and Koreeda. True Mothers would form a perfect double bill with Koreeda's Like Father, like Son. Generally speaking I prefer the work of Koreeda, though lately Kawase has been making some very worthy films too.

Satoko and Kiyokazu can't get children together. After several failed attempts, they decide to adopt. They get the child of Hikari, a young girl who got pregnant at 14 and can't take care of the baby. The transaction goes smooth, but 6 years later Hikari returns as she can't forget about her little boy.

Performances are good, the drama is decent, cinematography is fine and the score is capable. There's nothing to complain about really, except that there's nothing truly exceptional about this film either. In the end the drama left me a little cold, which isn't what you want from a great drama.

Shogun's Joy of Torture

Also known as
Tokugawa Onna Keibatsu-shi
Specifics
Japan [1968] - 85m
Genre
Horror
More info on
rating
2.0*/5.0*
Shogun's Joy of Torture poster

A lesser Teruo Ishii flick. Joy of Torture is an anthology film featuring three separate stories that each dig into classic torture tactics, but the stories are a little meager and the torture isn't that impressive either. While essentially not that different from similar Ishii exploitation films, the scattered nature of this film doesn't do it any favors.

The first story tells of a woman in an incestuous affair with her brother, the second story follows a nun who tries to seduce a monk, while the final story shows a tattoo artist who tries to create his ultimate masterpiece. All three stories end up in pretty much the same way, which makes you wonder why they even bothered with this setup.

There's a lot of screaming and whining, but the film isn't all that graphic. Performances aren't great and the stories are pretty dull. While Ishii's hand is clearly visible and there are a couple of memorable moments, as a whole it felt a bit too random and unfocused. Ishii can do better than this.