Invitation To Die

by Billy Hin-Shing Tang
Also known as
Kuang Ye San Qian Xiang
Specifics
1996 / 84m - Hong Kong
Genre
Thriller, Crime
More info:
rating
2.5*/5.0*
Invitation To Die poster

Billy Tang is a pulpy director, but one who does lend his films a certain amount of flair. Invitation To Die (also known as Wild) is far from a Hong Kong classic, but for people who have already gone through all the big releases it's perfectly serviceable filler with some decent, memorable moments.

Wai is a young woman who knows how to use her assets to her personal advantage. When she meets Shing, she seduces him and gets him to kidnap a wealthy businessman. While the two grow closer as they spend more time together, their plan turns out to be a lot less foolproof as they'd hoped.

Some decent filters and a few proper action scenes form the main appeal of this film. The performances are rather weak, and the plot is nothing special, but the pacing is solid and the runtime short, so if you like a Hong Kong action flick you can't really go wrong with this one, as long as you keep your expectations in check.

Sing 2

by Garth Jennings
Specifics
2021 / 110m - USA
Genre
Comedy, Musical, Animation
More info:
rating
1.5*/5.0*
Sing 2 poster

When a film does well you can expect a sequel, which is pretty much the only reason this film was made. The same characters return in a more ambitious plot, but the formula hasn't changed a bit. Pop music is given a small make-over, while the plot is a simple vehicle to sell Hollywood's questionable ethics.

Buster is running a very successful musical in his local theater and his theater group loves what they do, but clearly that isn't enough. He wants to make it huge in the big city, and so he sneaks his way into an audition with a big wig producer. What follows is a lot of stress and despair, for a very slim shot of actually making it big.

The film is bright and colorful and the finale is pretty spectacular (musical-wise, I guess fancy stages are a bit easier when you're doing an animated film), the rest is pretty terrible. Poor voice acting, horrible soundtrack choices, a bland plot and dire comedy. Sadly, that's pretty much par for the course when watching US animation.

Dead or Alive

Also known as
Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha
Specifics
1999 / 105m - Japan
Genre
Comedy, Action, Crime
More info:
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Dead or Alive poster

Dead or Alive was the very first Miike film I watched, it was also the first real Yakuza film I watched. I was expecting something very different at the time, so I remember being quite disappointed. Apart from the beginning and ending, nothing really stood out for me. It's a good thing I revisited the film, so many years (and Miike films) later this was a lot easier to swallow.

The plot is pretty simple. There's a growing feud between a Chinese crime syndicate and a young Yakuza gang, who are fighting over drug territory. The police is having none of it, and they are trying to stop the killing. The result is a very brutal and uncompromising gang war that will spare none of its protagonists.

Dead or Alive really means Aikawa and Takeuchi. They're the stars of these films, and they handle the sudden bouts of weirdness and violence with surprising grace. The start and the finale remain the clear highlight of the film, but in between there's some vintage Miike moments and some pretty cool crime elements. Bold and in your face, Miike was clearly starting to start his voice here.

Army of Thieves

by Matthias Schweighöfer
Specifics
2021 / 127m - USA
Genre
Comedy, Crime
More info:
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Army of Thieves poster

An Army of the Dead spin-off that's a lot more fun than the original. It's a spin-off done right too. The story is set in the Army of the Dead universe, but the genre, style and characters are pretty different, so it's definitely not just more of the same. Not unlike how Cloverfield built its little universe.

Sebastian has a passion for cracking safes, but nobody pays him much attention. Until he gets a mysterious comment on one of his YouTube videos. He is approached by Gwendoline, a young thief who is planning to raid the Wagner safes. It's a job only Sebastian can handle, but he isn't much of a criminal.

Schweighöfer directs and leads. That always a bit of a gamble, but in this case it works wonderfully well, as the film is an extension of his character. The vibe is light, comical, a tad silly even, but the execution is slick and polished. Good action scenes, some nice heists and a reassuring lack of zombies. Good fun.

Disciples of Shaolin

Also known as
Hong Quan Xiao Zi
Specifics
1975 / 106m - Hong Kong
Genre
Action
More info:
rating
2.0*/5.0*
Disciples of Shaolin poster

A lesser Cheh Chang film. Maybe it's because he was getting a bit tired of making the same kind of film over and over again, or maybe it's just a small shift in balance that makes this a poorer film. A lot of these Shaw Bros films look alike and Disciples of Shaolin is no exception. The stronger focus on plot just makes it a bit harder to stomach.

Though quite a bit of time is spent on the story, it isn't all that complex. A young martial artist starts a job at a textile factory. One of his colleagues is a Shaolin disciple and warns him about a rival Manchu clan, who operates a nearby mill. It should come as no surprise that tensions rise quickly between the rivals.

Whatever time is spent on the plot and characters isn't spent on action, and that's rarely a good thing in a Chang film. The somewhat more modern soundtrack isn't too helpful either, and even the action scenes feel a bit drab. There are some decent scenes, but they are few and far between. A film for hardcore Chang fans only.

M.F.A.

by Natalia Leite
Specifics
2017 / 92m - USA
Genre
Thriller
More info:
rating
3.0*/5.0*
M.F.A. poster

A decent rape/revenge thriller. It's not as bold or outrageous as its more illustrious predecessors, and it probably won't be as memorable either, but it's a solid thriller with a fine central performance and a couple of pleasant revenge scenes. Perfectly adequate filler in other words.

A young art student gets invited to a party. Once there, the boy who invited her rapes her in his room. She'll soon find that hardly anybody is interested in her story, but there are other ways to get heard. Not long after her paintings are becoming a lot more inspired, a change fueled by the trips she undertakes to acquitted rapists.

Eastwood handles the lead performance and the transformation of her character pretty well. The revenge scenes aren't very graphic, but the direction is tight enough. The soundtrack is also a plus, the only problem is that the plot comes off a little too flat and predictable though. Not bad at all.

Happiness

Specifics
2016 / 90m - Japan
Genre
Drama, Fantasy
More info:
rating
4.0*/5.0*
toplist position
Happiness poster

Don't be fooled by the title, this isn't one of Tanaka's lighter films. Though the premise sounds perfect for a fun genre flick and the first third of the film leaves you guessing, the middle part and the finale hit pretty hard. Nagase is outstanding, the cinematography is stylish, the soundtrack is exemplary, the drama is captivating. Tanaka proves time and time again he's one of the most gifted and unique contemporary Japanese directors, which makes his somewhat lackluster international status that more frustrating.

The Wind

by Victor Sjöström
Specifics
1928 / 95m - USA
Genre
Romance
More info:
rating
2.5*/5.0*
The Wind poster

The best Sjöström I've seen so far. The Wind is a typical late-20s film, one that isn't so much interested in telling an elaborate story, instead, it cares more about communicating a certain mood. I will say that I found a version with a pretty nice and fitting score, which makes these silent film a lot easier to watch.

The plot is pretty basic, then again that goes for most silent films. Letty is a young girl who moves from Virginia to go live with her cousin in Texas. Her cousin's wife isn't too happy with Letty and kicks her out not long after she arrived. Desperate, Letty decides to marry a young cowboy, but their marriage isn't meant to last either.

There are some comical bits that feel quite out of place, but the outside scenes with the wind are pretty impressive, especially the more dream-like moments. Lillian Gish is also pretty mesmerizing, combined with the fine (but randomly added) soundtrack it made for a decent watch.

The Wasteland

by David Casademunt
Specifics
2021 / 92m - Spain
Genre
Horror
More info:
rating
3.5*/5.0*
The Wasteland poster

A slow burn horror film that thrives on atmosphere. Don't expect any big thrills or easy scares, The Wasteland is a film that takes its time to build up tension (the first half is a pretty straight-forward drama) and only starts capitalizing on the built-up dread in its final third. Whether the pay-off is sufficient depends on how well the first half works for you.

A family lives distanced from society, as it is ravaged by war and greed. They live a sober but decent life, until a man arrives at their domain and kills himself. The father wants to return the corpse to the man's family and decides to search for them. When he doesn't return, solitude, despair and fear begin to take over.

The cinematography is well above par and the tiny cast does an excellent job. There are some minor pacing issues during the first half and the monster isn't quite as scary as it could've been, but I really loved the finale and people looking for a more stylish horror flick won't be disappointed. Quality genre film making.

Monster Hospital

by Cong Zhao
Also known as
Yao Yi Guan
Specifics
2021 / 78m - China
Genre
Fantasy, Action
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Monster Hospital poster

China's quest to create the most efficient genre-producing film industry continues. And apart from some flaky CG and an obvious lack of star power, they're getting frighteningly close to producing a genuine masterpiece. Monster Hospital is one of the best films yet in this peculiar niche, and a clear recommend for those who loved the Hong Kong action/fantasy/comedy blends of the 90s.

Together with two disciples, Hong Niang runs a hospital where demons can come to get better. Things get a little rough when she welcomes a pregnant man who has a demon pill inside of him. It's dangerous to let it get born, but Niang's attempts to get rid of the thing turn out to be futile. To make things worse, an evil force also has his eye on the demon child.

The presentation is polished, flashy and fun. It should be clear from the start that the film doesn't take itself too serious, but that doesn't mean the film feels in any way sloppy or rushed. The action is on point, the cinematography is nice and the comedy is appropriately odd. If you're interested in the current state of straight-to-streaming Chinese genre cinema, this is a perfect place to start.

Cold Mountain

by Anthony Minghella
Specifics
2003 / 154m - USA
Genre
Romance, Adventure
More info:
rating
1.0*/5.0*
Cold Mountain poster

I never quite knew what to expect from this film. Somehow I figured this was going to be a rather stylish arthouse-like drama, probably based on the poster plus Kidman's presence. Instead, I got a grossly overacted piece of kitsch and sentimentality, the epitome of bad Hollywood cinema.

Inman and Ada are two young people madly in love with each other. When the American Civil War starts, Inman has to join the fight and the two are separated. After he gets wounded in battle he deserts and starts a perilous journey back home, meanwhile Ada tries to survive with Ruby, a hard worker looking for a roof over her head.

The performances and casting are absolutely terrible (the accents in particular). The drama is sentimental and drawn out, the cinematography is boring, and the runtime is excessive. This was kitsch of the worst kind, taking itself so serious that it's hard not to laugh at the stupidity of it all.

False Positive

by John Lee
Specifics
2021 / 92m - USA
Genre
Horror
More info:
rating
3.0*/5.0*
False Positive poster

False Positive certainly isn't the first film to exploit pregnancy for a good bout of horror. There are quite a few films out there that use looming parental fears and hormonal changes as a premise for paranoia and general nastiness, John Lee doesn't really add much to them, I'm afraid.

Lucy and Adrian are trying to get pregnant, but their attempts are futile. Adrian contacts Dr. Hindle, an old friend and respected fertility doctor, who agrees to have them over. Not much later Lucy is pregnant, but what should be a happy pregnancy quickly turns into a nightmare, as Lucy starts to suspect something is off with Hindle.

The film has its moments, but the finale (with its inevitable twist) is a bit too basic. The performances are decent, and the cinematography is decent, Lucy's character on the other hand is more than a little drab, which doesn't make it easy to care for her predicament. Decent horror filler, but not quite as nifty as it tries to be.

Adam's Rib

by George Cukor
Specifics
1949 / 101m - USA
Genre
Comedy, Romance
More info:
rating
1.5*/5.0*
Adam's Rib poster

An old-fashioned romcom that loves to riff on the classic woman-man contradictions. Adam's Rib isn't particularly subtle about it (as if the title wasn't obvious enough) and it shouldn't be a big surprise that the situational comedy is pretty predictable. Then again, the film doesn't pretend to be anything more than basic genre work.

Adam and Amanda are two lawyers who are married to each other. They have a small scuffle about a case where a woman shot her man, the day after they discover that they're each assigned to opposing clients. Neither of them is willing to back down from the case, which is going to put a strain on their marriage.

Cukor leans heavily on the performances of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, but they fail to carry their characters beyond the stereotypical. Neither does Judy Holliday, but at least she's actually funny. The plot is pretty bland, and I'm not a big fan of situational comedy to begin with, but it's not the worst of its kind, thanks to do decent pacing and relatively short runtime.

Life: Untitled

by Kana Yamada
Also known as
Taitoru, Kyozetsu
Specifics
2019 / 97m - Japan
Genre
Drama
More info:
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Life: Untitled poster

A nice, pleasant, though somewhat simplistic little drama. Life: Untitled would've made more of an impact if we hadn't seen a slew of similar films in recent years (Hiroki's Kabukichô Love Hotel being one of the more prominent), especially since Yamada struggles to find anything original to say.

When Kano wants to give her life a new direction, she tries out being an escort girl. She can't really handle the work and is hired as an office manager instead. Together with Yamashita, her boss, she handles the appointments and makes sure the other women feel as comfortable as can be.

The film presents itself as a slice of life, but the concentration of drama feels a bit too high for that. The performances are fine, and the outside cinematography is solid. The scenes inside look a bit more drab, while the drama never really goes anywhere too special. It's decent filler, nothing more.

Butt Attack Punisher Girl Gautaman

by Iku Suzuki
Also known as
Dengeki Oshioki Musume Gôtaman: Gôtaman Tanjôhen
Specifics
1994 / 45m - Japan
Genre
Comedy, Animation
More info:
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Butt Attack Punisher Girl Gautaman poster

Only in Japan. Gautaman feels like a close sibling to Hentai Kamen, the underwear-wearing superhero who fights crime with his almost-bare body. You'll find the same kind of absurdities in Gautaman, the biggest difference being that this series throws some random religious elements in the mix.

A devout Christian girl is approached by Buddha, who reveals to her that she is chosen to become Gautaman, a savior who draws her divine powers from a sumo belt. She accepts her mission, but she isn't quite ready for the costume she is supposed to wear, which clashes with her religious upbringing.

Gautaman is utterly daft and nonsensical, but that's exactly what makes this so much fun. The animation is pretty basic and the plot is negligible, but who cares. The bad guys are hilarious, the comedy is bonkers and pacing fast. I didn't expect a lot from this one, but this was a more than pleasant diversion.

Minuscule - Mandibles from Far Away

by Hélène Giraud, Thomas Szabo
Also known as
Minuscule 2: Les Mandibules du Bout du Monde
Specifics
2018 / 92m - France
Genre
Comedy, Adventure, Animation
More info:
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Minuscule - Mandibles from Far Away poster

The first film was absolutely adorable. The sequel doesn't change too much, except that it tumbles into some all too obvious pitfalls. The setup is bigger, the adventure is bolder and the fantasy elements more pronounced. The problem with all of that is that simplicity was one of the primary strengths of the franchise.

After helping one of the black ants escape a red ant attack, the youngest of two ladybugs lands in a box and is shipped off to Guadeloupe. His dad travels after him, hoping to be there for his son when the box is opened. Guadeloupe turns out to be a strange and dangerous place for two ladybugs who only know mountains.

The best part of Minuscule are the adorable character designs and the almost seamless integration of CG and real-life footage. There's a bit too much human interaction and the adventuring takes up too much of the runtime, whereas the animal interactions are the real treat of the film. A solid sequel, but no match for the first one.

Once Upon a Time in China IV

by Bun Yuen
Also known as
Wong Fei-hung Zhi Sei: Wang Zhe Zhi Feng
Specifics
1993 / 102m - Hong Kong
Genre
Comedy, Action
More info:
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Once Upon a Time in China IV poster

The fourth part in the infamous Once Upon a Time in China series is the first one to introduce major changes in cast and crew. Hark Tsui was still around to help out with the story (hardly the most important part), Jet Li was replaced by Wenzhuo Zhao. Neither is a change for the better.

The story of this fourth entry is split right in the middle, with Fei-Hung fighting against the Red Lantern Society on the one hand, while also trying to best the international teams in the lion dance competition. It's two stories rolled into one, with hardly a connection between the two, but it does allow for plenty of martial arts action.

Zhao certainly isn't bad, but he does lack the swiftness of execution Li has. The "pimped up" lions are also a bit crummy-looking, which doesn't help the second half of the film. The action is still impressive, so is the dynamic cinematography and overall pacing of the film. Once Upon a Time in China IV is superb genre filler and quite a bit better than you could expect from the fourth part in a franchise, but it lacks the polish to be anything more.

Sun, Moon and Star: Part 2

by Wen Yi
Also known as
Xing Xing Yue Liang Tai Yang: Xia
Specifics
1961 / 113m - Hong Kong
Genre
Romance, War
More info:
rating
1.0*/5.0*
Sun, Moon and Star: Part 2 poster

A couple of weeks ago I watched the first part of the Sun, Moon and Star duology. I didn't care much for it and didn't really feel like slotting in the second film soon after, but since this is a straightforward continuation of the story it wouldn't make sense to wait too long either. So I powered through.

The plot follows the four main characters during the remainder of the war, so there's really no way to see this without having seen the first film. The mix of drama and romance is pretty much the same too, and the romantic woes take up most of the screen time. Just more of the same in other words.

The performances are rather weak, the direction is bland and the drama between the different characters feels cheesy and sentimental. I admit that not liking the first part didn't really help, but there's just not enough here to keep me engaged. I'm glad Yuen Chor moved on from writing to become a director.

Midnight

by Oh-Seung Kwon
Also known as
Mideunaiteu
Specifics
2021 / 103m - South Korea
Genre
Thriller
More info:
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Midnight poster

A fine South-Korean thriller. I've seen it compared to Flanagan's Hush, which is not a bad point of reference. Except we're dealing with two mute characters here, who aren't confined to their home, but are running around town instead. It's a clever spin that makes the film a touch darker still.

After walking home from a work party, Kyung Mi (a deaf/mute) bumps into a dangerous psychopath. A young guy who stalks women and kills them just for the fun of it. Kyung Mi is crafty and manages to escape, but when she tries to warn others, she fails to communicate the dire situation she finds herself in.

The film has some pretty tense scenes, even though writer/director Kwon does need some forceful interventions to keep the cat and mouse game going. The film could've been a bit shorter, especially the extension at the end felt a bit unnecessary, but a powerful performance of Wi Ha-Joon and an intriguing premise make for a nifty little thriller.

Birdsong

by Hendrik Willemyns
Specifics
2019 / 90m - Belgium
Genre
Drama
More info:
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Birdsong poster

A peculiar Belgian-Japanese co-production. Written and directed by Willemyns (50% of Arsenal - a local pop band), it's a film that challenges the abusive nature of the music industry, a topic no doubt close to his heart. I'm not entirely sure why Willemyns felt the need to move his story all the way to Japan, but the result is pretty interesting regardless.

Asako is part of the night cleaning crew, but music is her true passion. When she is approached by a talent scout, she feels this is her one shot to make her dream come true. Making it to the top relies on more than just talent, and she'll soon find that the people in the industry care more about exploiting her than nurturing her talent.

The presentation is nice, some light fantastical (but somewhat generic/exotic) elements add a little extra flair, and the performances are solid. Though Willemyns visibly makes an effort to create something unique, the result is a bit too uneven to have a big impact. It's never quite moody or stylish enough, nor is it thematically strong enough to be a true masterpiece. The potential is there, so definitely worth a watch.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker

by Ermanno Olmi
Also known as
La Leggenda del Santo Bevitore
Specifics
1988 / 128m - Italy
Genre
Drama
More info:
rating
1.0*/5.0*
The Legend of the Holy Drinker poster

I'm quite surprised by the critical acclaim this film received. While watching, it felt like a local production, made for a local audience. I wouldn't have been surprised if this had been a TV production. Winning a Golden Lion is no simple feat though, so some people clearly saw something more than I did.

A drunk and homeless man bumps into a stranger. He sees potential in the bum, and gives him 200 francs, certain that he'll spend the money well. The drunk is grateful, and the money changes his life, but whenever he tries to make good on his promise to pay the money back, something gets in the way.

Hauer's performance is pretty poor (playing an onscreen drunk rarely goes well), but it's the cheesy, somewhat listless direction that really hampers the film. The cinematography is dull, the soundtrack is horrible, and the drama comes off as overly sentimental. A pretty horrible film.

Don't Look Up

by Adam McKay
Specifics
2021 / 138m - USA
Genre
Comedy
More info:
rating
2.0*/5.0*
Don't Look Up poster

McKay is slipping. The Big Short was an interesting film, but the more he tries to relive that success, the cringier his films seem to become. Don't Look Up is a satire that loves to make fun of the excesses and polarization of our society, but it never gives the impression that it understand the core reasons for these problems.

Two scientists discover a meteoroid racing towards our planet. It's a planet-killer that will destroy all life on Earth, with only 6 months to find a solution there is no time to waste. When the scientists try to warn the general population, they get swept up by political greed, hungry media and a society that has lost its trust in science.

Don't Look Up is a film embellished with famous actors, populism and easy satire, but it's never very funny or edgy, nor does it address any of the issues it wants to tackle. It's just having a quick laugh at the expense of societal issues, within the confines of safe Hollywood film making. A missed opportunity.