Hell's Hinges

by Charles Swickard, William S. Hart, Clifford Smith
Specifics
USA [1916] - 64m
Genre
Romance, Western
More info on
rating
0.5*/5.0*
Hell's Hinges poster

It turns out silent westerns suffer from pretty much the same problems as silent dramas. Excessive overacting, intrusive intertitles and bland storylines make these films unnecessarily tough to get through. For a genre that isn't really high on my list of favorites to begin with, the limitations of classic cinema only seem to be making things worse.

Hell's Hinges is only an hour long, but it easily feels like two. The film houses a basic plot about a gang of bandits who aren't too happy when a reverend visits their town. They hire a gunslinger to get rid of him, but he falls for the charms of the reverend's sister and turns on the gang that hired him.

There's a lot of reading to be done, with lengthy intertitles that really slow things down. Performances are poor, the cinematography is bland and though the finale is quite action packed, it never gets very exciting. A pretty big waste of time and one of the worst westerns I've watched so far.

DreadOut

by Kimo Stamboel
Specifics
South Korea, Indonesia [2019] - 97m
Genre
Fantasy, Horror
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
DreadOut poster

Stamboel certainly didn't take the easy way out by combining horror and fantasy elements, but the risk paid off. DreadOut reminded me a little of The Pang's Re-Cycle, a film with a similar setup that also had a tougher time finding an appreciative audience. While Stamboel's film doesn't reach quite the same heights, fans of the more fantastical horror films should give this one a go.

The start is pretty basic, with a bunch of kids coming together to livestream from a haunted house. A popular setup nowadays, that usually results in the same type of haunts and scares. But this particular building houses a portal to another dimension, where a vengeful spirit reigns supreme.

There are some creepy designs, imaginative setups, interesting lore and some inspired horror moments. The cast can be a little iffy and the film's just a smidgen too long, but people looking for horror that doesn't necessarily serve familiar scares will find at least something with the potential to surprise. Another good effort by Stamboel.

TMNT

by Kevin Munroe
Specifics
Hong Kong, USA [2007] - 103m
Genre
Sci-fi, Action, Animation
More info on
rating
1.5*/5.0*
TMNT poster

When I was younger, I used to be a pretty big fan of the Turtles cartoons, but I never found the attempts to bring the series to the big screen very successful. I didn't even know this feature-length CG animation existed until recently, so needless to say I didn't expect all that much going in.

I'm not really sure how this ties in with the rest of the franchise, the timeline and the characters felt a bit off to me, but in the end that wasn't the film's biggest problem. The weak villains, crummy art style and lack of atmosphere are way more damning problems that made it exceedingly difficult to draw any enjoyment from the film.

Shredder is dearly missed, the overly shiny, almost metallic-looking CG is a true eyesore and the soundtrack is just regrettable. At least the action scenes are somewhat fun and the film isn't too long, so it never really drags, but what could have been a fun update is just a dreary reminder that the best Turtles year are well behind us.

Legend of Deification

by Teng Cheng, Li Wei
Also known as
Jiang Ziya
Specifics
China [2020] - 110m
Genre
Fantasy, Action, Animation
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Legend of Deification poster

It's a good thing I was somewhat prepared for what to expect. Legend of Deification is another Chinese attempt to cash in on the US CG animation style. And it does a pretty good job at that too, with some better than average designs and some intriguing lore that makes this film markedly better than the umpteenth animal comedy/adventure.

The thing is that the introduction of this film is quite something else. It almost plays like a short within the film, setting the stage for the adventure that is about to unfold while sporting a staggeringly lush art style that dropped my mouth to the floor. It's just really tough to let go of that after just 10 minutes, falling back to something way more pedestrian.

The sets are quite beautiful, the film benefits from a superb villain and the fantasy elements are very well realized, it's just that the art style is rather plain, which keeps the film from reaching its full potential. Certainly a lot better than many of its US peers, but please let them do a full-length feature in the style of the opening.

They Came to Rob Hong Kong

Also known as
Ba Bao Qi Bing
Specifics
Hong Kong [1989] - 98m
Genre
Comedy, Action
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
They Came to Rob Hong Kong poster

I don't turn to Clarence Fok's to be blown away, but when looking for fun, under the radar filler his oeuvre does host some interesting films. I'd never heard of They Came to Rob Hong Kong before, but the cast looked promising enough and the economic runtime made it a perfect option for easy filler.

This is one of those wacky genre blends that tries to cram everything into a single film, though underneath everything is played for laughs. There are strong action and crime elements present, but if you can't stand Hong Kong's peculiar sense of humor then you're not going to get very far with this film.

With people like Eric Tsang, Sandra Kwan and Stanley Fung on board you should have a decent idea of what to expect. Fok's direction is rather basic, but there's enough silliness for a few giggles, the pacing is perfect and there are at least a handful of memorable moments. Surely not the cream of the crop, but solid entertainment nonetheless.

The Blue Angel

by Josef von Sternberg
Also known as
Der Blaue Engel
Specifics
Germany [1930] - 104m
Genre
Drama, Music
More info on
rating
1.5*/5.0*
The Blue Angel poster

One of Marlene Dietrich's most prestigious German films. I don't think I had seen a film with her before, can't say I'm terribly impressed with her performance here. She's certainly not the most alluring burlesque dancer ever caught on film, and that's about the entire point of her character.

The central romance is pretty iffy. A poorly aged professor tries to keep his students away from the Blue Angel, a local burlesque bar. But when he ventures in himself, he falls in love with the top girl there, who inexplicably falls for him too. It's one of the worst couples in film history, but clearly that didn't bother von Sternberg.

The musical acts aren't great and the drama/romance lacks subtlety, but the burlesque setting is rather fun and the mood is quite light, at least during the first hour or so. It doesn't redeem the film, but it makes it a bit easier to sit through. Far from great, but I don't think the film really aspired to be great either.

Red Dot

by Alain Darborg
Specifics
Sweden [2021] - 86m
Genre
Thriller
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Red Dot poster

A decent Swedish thriller. While it's not a film that offers much in the way of originality (some feeble attempts are a bit too transparent), it's a pretty fair genre film that delivers the goods for those looking for a bit of solid, old-fashioned "people hunted down in the wilderness" fun.

After some introductory relationship drama, our two protagonists leave on a trip to the mountains to mend their relationship woes. After a run-in with some local hillbillies they continue their journey, but their first night camping in the wilderness a red dot appears, holding them hostage and driving them further away from civilization.

Performances are decent and once the survival part of the film starts it gets pretty entertaining, but some less than stellar twists and a somewhat sluggish finale hold the film back. The balance between drama and thriller elements feels just a little off, apart from that it's a short, sweet and well-paced filler thriller.

Willy's Wonderland

by Kevin Lewis
Specifics
USA [2021] - 88m
Genre
Comedy, Horror
More info on
rating
4.0*/5.0*
Willy's Wonderland poster

What's there to say about this film? Half of it is Nicolas Cage cleaning a diner, the other half is pure madness, with a bunch of animatronic serial killers feasting on unsuspecting travelers. From afar this may look like an ode to 80s pulp, but somehow it's not and that may be a problem for a film that's already quite niche. But man does Lewis know how to create something wildly amusing. Prime entertainment.

Last Ghost Standing

by Siu-Hung Chung
Also known as
Gwai Ching Lei Tai Hei
Specifics
Hong Kong [1999] - 85m
Genre
Comedy, Horror
More info on
rating
2.5*/5.0*
Last Ghost Standing poster

Late 90s Hong Kong horror. Immensely popular at the time (at least, based on the number of films released back then), but not a genre that traveled well. People familiar with these films probably know why: when the whole world was feasting on the Japanese less is more scares, Hong Kong was happily putting out blends of comedy and horror overflowing with cheese.

By most standards, Last Ghost Standing isn't a very good film. It plays like a series of horror vignettes centered around a movie theater, with several demonic creatures hassling the few guests visiting the theater. The only thing holding everything together is a minute romantic plot, not exactly the cornerstone of good horror cinema.

The effects and monster designs are very cheap, but also somewhat amusing. The pacing is decent and the fact that it isn't a continuous story keeps things at least somewhat surprising. Performances are mediocre and the plot is nonsensical at best, though core horror fans will have little trouble looking past that. It's hard to recommend a film like this to people who aren't really familiar with the genre. It's certainly not Chung's finest hour, but if you're looking for some mushy horror filler, it's also not the worst choice.

Wrong Turn

by Mike P. Nelson
Specifics
USA, UK [2021] - 109m
Genre
Horror
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Wrong Turn poster

What's in a name? This film is supposed to be a Wrong Turn reboot, but I've seen countless films that were more closely related to the Wrong Turn franchise than this one, only released under a different title. It makes you wonder whether they folded this film into the franchise hoping to recoup some money, or whether director Nelson simply did his own thing regardless of people's expectations.

This reboot is relatively low on gore and there are no mutated cannibals. Just a couple of lost teens in the woods that bump into a society of outcasts. Under any other name nobody would've even made the link with the Wrong Turn franchise, but that's where we are. Best prepare yourself before watching this film, especially if you can't make that switch halfway through.

If you manage to put the whole branding issues aside, Nelson's film has a lot of merit. The Foundation is mysterious, the styling is on point, the film has some pretty crude kills and some proper twists, and the cinematography is well above par. It's a fine, moody and mysterious horror film, a bit long maybe, but more than satisfying. It's just no Wrong Turn. I personally didn't care, but you'd better be warned.

Nanook of the North

by Robert J. Flaherty
Specifics
USA, France [1922] - 78m
Genre
Documentary
More info on
rating
2.0*/5.0*
Nanook of the North poster

A landmark in the documentary genre. It's handy that the film comes with its own little Wikipedia page before the actual documentary footage starts, explaining the circumstances of how this film was made. With that Flaherty counters at least some of the critique about parts of Nanook being staged. Whether you'll fully trust his arguments is up to you of course.

Nanook of the North follows the lives of a small community of Eskimos, with Nanook himself a symbol for his people. Flaherty is clearly more than fly on the wall here, but considering the footage he came back with that's rather easy to forgive. The hunts, the barren living conditions and the crafting of an igloo all feel like genuine moments.

Though relatively short, the film does get a little repetitive after a while. And even though it's a well-made documentary, the technical limitations of that time stand in the way of truly capturing the spirit of the North. Still, for people like me who haven't seen too many films/documentaries about Eskimo tribes, there's definitely some worth here.

The Front Runner

by Jason Reitman
Specifics
Canada, USA [2018] - 113m
Genre
Drama
More info on
rating
2.0*/5.0*
The Front Runner poster

Disappointing political drama by Reitman. Unless you're interested in the history of US politics and its minor anecdotes, there just isn't a lot here. While the film appears to be framed around the mediatization of politics, Reitman prefers to stick to Hart's story, which pushes all the interesting bits to the background.

Hart was well on his way to become the Democratic presidential candidate that would run against Bush, but his extramarital missteps would sink this opportunity once the press started reporting on it. Apparently this was somewhat of a turning point in American politics, before that time the press was known to grant politicians a bit more privacy.

Reitman used to be quite sharp and witty, sadly The Front Runner is little more than a decent and safe political drama. Performances are decent and Reitman does a solid job recreating the 80s, but the plot is dull, the cinematography and score are uninspired and the themes are underdeveloped. Very forgettable.

The Rescue

Also known as
Jin Ji Jiu Yuan
Specifics
China [2020] - 139m
Genre
Action
More info on
rating
2.5*/5.0*
The Rescue poster

A mediocre disaster flick by Dante Lam. The kind that makes you question the quality of his older work. Is it that Lam is getting a bit too old to make dashing blockbusters? Or is it the move to China that's getting in his way? Or maybe it was never Lam in the first place, but the well-oiled machine that used to be Hong Kong cinema. I can't say for certain, but the fact is that Lam has made much better films than what he delivers here.

The Rescue serves four major rescue operations, with a bunch of crappy melodrama in between. The operations are unrelated to each other, so there's really not much of a build-up, except that each one is more dangerous (and claims more victims) than the next. Still, it's almost like watching a 4-part mini-series with a bit of unnecessary drama to glue everything together.

Eddie Peng is decent and Zhilei Xin is a good find, the rest of the cast is not up to par. The overreliance on CG is distracting, the quality of the visuals not what you'd expect from a major blockbuster, resulting in rescue operations that are so obviously green screen that they come off way less spectacular than they should've been. It's loud and flashy enough to be mildly entertaining, but that doesn't save it from being one of Lam's worst films to date.

Sleep Dealer

by Alex Rivera
Specifics
Mexico [2008] - 90m
Genre
Sci-fi
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Sleep Dealer poster

Likeable Mexican sci-fi. Director Alex Rivera didn't have an excessive budget to splurge, so he applied it wisely to create a world that feels clearly futuristic, but is still grounded in our current reality. Sleep Dealer serves a logical evolution of the here and now, different enough to be visionary, yet lived in and lively enough to move beyond mere conceptual sci-fi.

The film deals with topics like water deficits, virtual work forces, class inequality, memories as sellable goods, corporate greed etc. It's a solid mix of social issues and cultural innovations, which is something I tend to appreciate in sci-fi (in that sense it's not unlike Code 46). Because of that the film lacks a little focus, at the same time it helps to sculpt a more vibrant and inviting world to explore.

The CG is a little basic, but the sci-fi designs are pretty cool. Rivera doesn't quite succeed in hiding his budgetary woes, but overall the film has a nice look and sound that scratched my sci-fi itch. The drama is also pretty successful, performances are solid and the ending is fitting. It lacks the conviction and boldness of a true masterpiece, but can't really fault the film beyond that. A pleasant discovery.

Next Door

by Pål Sletaune, Tony Spataro
Also known as
Naboer
Specifics
Denmark, Sweden [2005] - 75m
Genre
Mystery, Thriller
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Next Door poster

One of those films I've been meaning to watch ever since it was released, but somehow never got around to. Next Door spearheaded the Norwegian leg of the European horror wave, though it's more of a psychological thriller with strong mystery elements and a dark undertone, which made people lump it together with the more prominent horror films.

There's a bit of Lynch in here, also a bit of Reconstruction and maybe even some Bound. Sletaune's film feels more than a little derivate, but that's probably because he fails to uphold the mystery for the entire length of the film. Halfway through the clues become a bit too obvious, which kills part of the atmopshere.

The first half is cool though. Performances are strong and unsettling, the styling is on point and the mid-film climax is pretty tense. The length is also perfect, it's just a shame that the mindfuck never reaches its true potential and that the second half is a bit too quick to reveal the film's secrets. Still, worth a shot if you're looking for something disturbing and twisty.

At First Light

by Jason Stone
Specifics
Canada [2018] - 90m
Genre
Sci-fi
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
At First Light poster

Sci-fi with a serious dash of teen romance/drama. It's a thing of the 10s to dilute (or strengthen, depending on your point of view) core genre films with dramatic elements to create a more complex mesh of genres. While in itself not a bad evolution, the results rarely align with the intentions of the filmmakers.

At First Light is part social drama, part coming of age romance, part Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After a little party in the desert, some drugs and a late night swim in a pond nearby, Alex finds herself a new girl. Some strange lights came from the sky and gifted her special powers. I guess it's also a bit like Chronicle in that sense.

The two leads deliver strong performances, the rest of the cast isn't quite up to par. The sci-fi elements are nicely realized, the drama is a bit basic but solid and there's enough intrigue to keep things interesting. But all of that mixed together makes for a somewhat uneven film. Despite its broad range of influences, At First Light never feels quite as fresh or differentiating as it attempts to be.

To the Backstreet: The Films Kenji Nakagami Left Out

Also known as
Roji E: Nakagami Kenji no Nokoshita Firumu
Specifics
Japan [2001] - 64m
Genre
Documentary
More info on
rating
1.5*/5.0*
To the Backstreet: The Films Kenji Nakagami Left Out poster

Director Shinji Aoyama isn't really known for making documentaries, To the Backstreet gives us a little insight as to why that may be. Though he tried his hand at a few around the turn of the century, he just as soon abandoned the format. My guess is that they were deemed a bit too hermetic to do its subjects justice, at least that's my take after watching this film.

Not knowing anything about Kenji Nakagami (a famous writer) is a real hindrance, as Aoyama isn't interested in the least to give any kind of context. The film starts with a 10-minute car ride through a mountainous region in Japan, mostly spent in silence with the driver. It takes a while before you realize Aoyama is stitching together footage from Nakagami's personal archive with his own, discovering the region where he grew up.

In between there are segments of Nakagami's literature being read aloud. And that's about it really. Fans of Nakagami may get something out of it, at the very least it's a decent look at the Japanese countryside, but I was glad this documentary was just 60 minutes long. Only for true Nakagami insiders, others may be better served reading the man's Wikipedia page.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

by Josh Greenbaum
Specifics
USA [2021] - 107m
Genre
Comedy
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar poster

100% comedies are a rarity nowadays, so that was all the reason I needed to seek out this film, even though the promo material made it look a little dim and scruffy. No doubt a deliberate ploy by director Greenbaum, who manages to hide the true crazy of Barb and Star for another 20 minutes when the film starts, but then goes all out.

The premise (two burnt out ladies whose lives have ground to a halt go on a trip to reignite their shimmer) sounds like a recipe for some solid but safe comedy, but underneath that cover hides a film that isn't afraid to surprise, take risks and go all in. There's a bit of a Lonely Island vibe here.

Wiig and Mumolo's performances are perfect, the styling is hilarious, the musical bits supremely camp and the comedy is full of surprises. It's a shame the film's 15 minutes too long, Dornan also isn't as funny as he should've been, but other than that there's a lot to love here. Hopefully Greenbaum is allowed to go forward in this direction, because the world sure could use more films like this one.