onderhond blog - onderhond.com http://www.onderhond.com/blog/onderhond The onderhond blog is a collection of gathered thoughts about my work and my personal life. Find out about what drives me as a person and how I get about in my professional life. en-us underdog@operamail.com (Niels Matthijs) <![CDATA[The Land of Cards/Qaushiq Mukherjee]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/land-of-cards-review-qaushiq-mukherjee

If you're like former me and you're not really interested in Indian cinema (thinking it's all just sing and dance Bollywood stuff), do give Qaushiq Mukherjee a try. His films are really something else. I just recently caught up with The Land of Cards [Tasher Desh], one of his older films and I was quite blown away by it. It's his most accomplished film so far, at the same time it's also his most challenging one. The Land of Cards is a film for adventurers, people looking for something new. If you think you can handle that, do read on.

screen capture of The Land of Cards [Tasher Desh]

Even though Bollywood is huge (even bigger than Hollywood if you're going by quantity), it's still very much a closed off niche in the West. Going beyond Bollywood to explore lesser known Indian cinema used to be near impossible, but thanks to the global efforts of Netflix people like me have options now. That's exactly how I found out about Qaushiq Mukherjee, whose films are actually quite well-represented on the streaming service. Gandu and Ludo are nice introductions to his oeuvre, The Land of Cards his undisputed masterpiece.

The Land of Cards is based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, a highly-respected Indian poet/writer. People familiar with Tagore's work might find it a little easier to get into the film, others will probably be scrambling to piece everything together. The first hour in particular is all over the place, not in the least because Mukherjee is way more interested in style and abstraction than he is in retelling Tagore's story by the letter. Persevere though and things will eventually clear up, even though the film remains well on the style over substance side from start to finish.

The story revolves around a young prince who yearns for freedom. The prince lives a good life and his every need is taken care of, but he isn't allowed to ventured outside of his home and he ends up feeling imprisoned by his own luxury. He decides to leave his old life behind and takes off to explore the world and experience other cultures. His little trip goes well, until he wanders into the land of the cards, a militaristic regime that lives by a strict set of rules and scoffs at the idea of freedom and personal expression. Should you still be wondering, there's a clear moral to this little fantasy story.

screen capture of The Land of Cards [Tasher Desh]

Make no mistake though, The Land of Cards is an audiovisual experience first and foremost. If Tagore is a poet/writer, Mukherjee pays his respects through visual poetry. Lush sets and superb use of strong colors and expressive lighting make for a visual feast, but it's the editing and camera work that really define the visual language of the film. The scenes in the land of cards in particular are completely manic and over the top, edited with the same rage and intensity the characters of the land exude. This is clearly my kind of cinema.

The soundtrack is a bit harder to critique. Not for lack of effort or passion mind, it's clear that a lot of thought went into the music and sound design. Even so, there's a lot of Indian pop music in there and while not quite the jolly Bollywood kind (supported by crazy dance routines), it's still somewhat of a cultural shock. That said, the soundtrack does bring something extra to the table and it's always nice to see a director with enough audacity to go all in on the music. Taste and cultural issues aside, it does work well within the confines of the film.

Not having seen that many Indian films yet, commenting on the level of acting is also going to be a bit tougher than usual. That said, none of the actors felt terribly out of place. Some of the performances are a bit overstated, but no doubt that's part of the somewhat theatrical and abstract nature of the film. Joyraj Bhattacharya and Sayani Gupta were the stand-outs for me, the rest of the cast wasn't far behind though and as a whole it felt like a very solid casting.

screen capture of The Land of Cards [Tasher Desh]

Regardless of country of origin, The Land of Cards is a pretty fresh and unique experience. Without the proper background it's not quite clear how much Mukherjee's cultural heritage influenced the film, but in the end that matters very little. Just give the film a little time to establish itself and you should be able to catch on relatively quickly. The beginning may feel a little daunting and disorienting, but once the price reaches the land of cards the broader lines should be pretty clear and transparent.

There comes a point in a film fan's life when few films still manage to surprise, let alone bewilder. At that exact moment, films like The Land of Cards become something you thoroughly treasure. Mukherjee delivered a film that balances between arthouse, genre and author and he managed to create a film that's so unique, it's pretty much impossible to draw comparisons to other films. It's definitely not the easiest film to get into, but if you're looking for something different, The Land of Cards is one hell of an experience.

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Mon, 20 Nov 2017 11:54:08 +0100
<![CDATA[Shaolin Soccer/Stephen Chow]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/shaolin-soccer-review-stephen-chow

Many (many) moons ago, Hong Kong cinema felt like something that wasn't really for me. I was mostly into Japanese films back then and the few Hong Kong movies I had tried had done very little to change my mind. But then came Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau], a silly and over the top football comedy that would pave the way for a whole new arsenal of personal favorites. It's been years since I watched Chow's international breakout hit though and I was wondering if it would still hold up after all those years.

screen capture of Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau]

Looking back, it feels almost unreal that a film like Shaolin Soccer managed to land international distribution. Sure enough Chow was riding the Asian wave and the film turned out a tad more accessible compared to his earlier work, but overall it's still a pretty hardcore Hong Kong comedy that caters to Chinese audiences first. Regardless, the film made it into our local theater and even though I'd already seen it on import, I went back for seconds. Sadly, that turned out to be the butchered US version - about 30 minutes shorter, with an altered soundtrack and sporting added CG to cover up a bare butt. Just make sure to avoid that one.

China is quite into European football nowadays, with many of the once-best players transfering to Chinese teams to work up a comfortable pension. Back in 2001 though popularity was much lower, but with Japan and South-Korea organizing the World Cup in 2002, there must've been some buzz warranting the production of a Chinese football flick. Don't think for a minute you'll see any kind of serious sports action though, Chow does it all for laughs with little regards to the actual rules of the game.

Shaolin Soccer revolves around a deadbeat coach (Fung) who one day runs into Sing, a young martial artist. Sing is looking for ways to reinstate the former glory of martial arts and football seems like a good option to do so. He rounds up his former brothers to form a team and together they start training for a local championship. It takes a little effort, but once they find out how to channel their martial arts skills into the game, their team seems unstoppable. The only one standing between them and eternal glory is Hung, Fung's nemesis and coach of the aptly named Evil Team.

screen capture of Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau]

On a visual level Shaolin Soccer has aged considerably. The CG is looking pretty horrible, especially compared to modern standards. But at least it's functional (not to mention extremely funny), so it's easy enough to ignore. Aesthetically though there's very little here. Camerawork, lighting and editing are all pretty plain and beyond the fun use of CG, the film looks a lot cheaper than I remembered. Maybe not all that surprising considering the state of the Hong Kong movie industry in 2001, but it's clear that back then the CG covered up a lot of the film's aethetic shortcomings.

The soundtrack is mostly negligable, unless when used for comedic effect. There's a superbly silly dance routine tucked away in there and a duet between Chow and Yat-Fei Wong that's perfect for a few giggles, but clearly none of that is worth listening to outside the context of the film. Then again, what else did you expect from a Hong Kong comedy? For reference: the US version features Carl Douglas' Kung Fu Fighting as one of the alternative tracks, just to give you an idea of how badly Miramax messed with Chow's film.

Acting-wise though, Stephen Chow is at the top of his game here. The man is just naturally funny, even when he's not doing his crazy faces or relying on the extensive use of CG. He surrounded himself with a bunch of familiar faces (long-time collaborator Man-Tat Ng stands out) and included a few fun cameos, but the funniest casting is no doubt that of Zhao Wei, one of China's most adored actresses. Chow goes through great lengths to make her as ugly and unattractive as possible and Wei clearly had a lot of fun playing along.

screen capture of Shaolin Soccer [Siu Lam Juk Kau]

Shaolin Soccer starts off a little slow. There's some back story to wade through first, after that Chow takes his time to properly introduce his team members. The film follows a clear upwards trajectory though and once the guys start kicking balls the real fun begins. Chow keeps on adding to the weirdness and by the time he and his team mates reach the finals Shaolin Soccer is well in overdrive, servering a bonkers mix of martial arts and football. That final 30 minutes is Stephen Chow at his very best.

It's a good thing Shoalin Soccer is this much fun, because beyond its successful comedy aspect it's clear the film is somewhat lacking. The film's aestehtic is rather plain, the soundtrack quite lame and the plot is hardly worth a second glance. But Chow's infinite charm and wit, a well-seasoned cast and a tight build-up towards an explosive finale make sure that Shaolin Soccer is still a winner, even despite it's obvious flaws. That is, if you can appreciate Chow's peculiar sense of humor. I still enjoyed it plenty, but I'm quite used to Hong Kong comedy so your mileage may vary.

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Wed, 15 Nov 2017 11:43:28 +0100
<![CDATA[Replace/Norbert Keil]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/movie-filler/replace-review-norbert-keil Replace poster

Even though sci-fi (especially the not so distant kind) has a natural ally in het horror genre, the two are rarely balanced with great effect. Director Norbert Keil set out to change that and produced a film that delivers on both accounts. Replace is an intriguing sci-fi/horror film with a healthy dash of mystery, a film that aims to dazzle but falls just a little short of its aspirations.

Keil is credited as writer/director of Replace, but co-writer Richard Stanley is probably the one who will pique people's interest. Stanley is a cult favorite, best known for Dust Devil and Hardware, both highly regarded early 90s genre films. Stanley worked with Keil on the script and his influence is clearly felt. That said, some of the sci-fi bits (the clinic in particular) do feel a little out-dated (and not in an acceptable retro sci-fi way).

I'm not going to spoil too much, as the film is set up in such a way that the audience joins the main character in her quest to uncover the mystery. I can say the film revolves around Kira Mabon, a young girl in her prime, who suddenly finds herself burdened with a strange skin disease. The condition spreads like crazy and things start spiraling out of control when Kira discovers she can treat it by assimilating skin from other people. This sets her on a murdering rampage in a desperate attempt to control her condition.

It's on a stylistic level that Replace really manages to shine. Use of color and lighting are exquisite and the sets look absolutely lush. The film doesn't sport an overly obvious sci-fi vibe (in fact, it takes a while before you even realize Replace is set in a not so distant future), but everything looks extremely cool, crisp and atmospheric. Sadly the camera work and editing aren't entirely up to par, which leaves a little untapped potential there, something Keil should try to figure out in his next film.

The music is notable in the sense that it's hard to ignore its presence. There are scenes where the score positively adds to the film, but there are also moments when it doesn't really work well with the visuals. The club scene in particular is a weird cut and paste job, where the music messes up the flow of the scene. Generally speaking, some scenes could've benefitted from a slower, more subtle approach, while others could've been a bit tighter and edgier.

While the film suffers from other minor problems (like the somewhat inconsistent acting), I felt that overall Keil succeeded in what he set out to do. Both horror and sci-fi elements are on point, the film sets up an intruiging mystery and unwraps itself at a steady and satisfying pace. It's an atmospheric trip from start to finish, showing lots of stylistic promise and hopefully it will pave the way for a second film, because there's no doubt that Keil deserves a second chance at greatness. And with a little tweaking left and right, that's definitely within reach.

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Mon, 13 Nov 2017 11:43:07 +0100
<![CDATA[Anomalisa/Johnson and Kaufman]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/anomalisa-review-johnson-kaufman

I finally caught up with Anomalisa. I'm a pretty big fan of stop-motion animation and I tend to keep an eye out for Charlie Kaufman's projects. It wasn't that I was unaware of Anomalisa's existence, but for some inexplicable reason our paths never crossed. Until Netflix decided to pick it up that is, once they added it to their library there were no more excuses to ignore the film. I'm not really bummed that I skipped this one in theaters though, even though it's an amazing film, it's the kind that works best when enjoyed in the warm comfort and precious tranquility on one's own home.

screen capture of Anomalisa

Most films marked as "adult animation" are little more than adolescent indulgences soothing our inner child. Hardcore scifi like Ghost in the Shell or action-crazed films like Dead Leaves are clearly not aimed at kids, but they aren't really all that mature either. That's not a judgement mind, just an observation. There's certainly no lack of adult animation for those willing to do a little digging, but finding truly mature animation films is a lot trickier. Hence the value and importance of a film like Anomalisa.

Anomalisa isn't completely void of genre influences, but for the most part it's a pretty down to earth, dialogue-driven drama. Thematically it feels like one of the best representations of the (male) mid-life crisis I've ever seen, though I'm at least 10 years too young to be able to confirm that first-hand. While checking some other reviews though, it seems I'm not the only one who picked up on that vibe. As a result, Anomalisa isn't the world's pleasant and most upbeat film, but it sure is one heck of a well-mannered sucker punch.

The central character of the film is Michael Stone, a successful author and public speaker who promotes his book by giving talks to people about the exciting world of customer service. We follow him on a trip to Cincinnati, where he is supposed to attend a congress and give a presentation. While Stone goes through the motions, it's clear that he has gone through this entire charade at least one time too often. In a world where everyone looks and sound the same, he stumbles upon Lisa, a young woman who lights up his world.

screen capture of Anomalisa

If you're wondering how Kaufman came to direct a stop-motion animation film, it's in fact Duke Johnson who approached Kaufman to adapt his play into a feature film. Johnson has a background in stop-motion and was looking at scripts that would highlight the potential for human emotion and drama done as animation. Kaufman was charmed by the idea and one Kickstarter later they were both on board to direct the film.

I've seen my share of stop-motion films and have in fact a soft spot for the technique, but I've never seen one executed quite like this. There is just so much attention to detail that went into the animation that it's baffling. All these tiny little gestures and behaviors make it so that the puppets are actually believable as human beings. The animation isn't necessarily superfluid, but Johnson doesn't need any grand gestures to convey emotion, which makes it all the more realistic. It's a bit like the old Disney vs Ghibli animation debate, with Anomalisa clearly representing Ghibli's subtler side of animation. Add to that some incredible settings and creative camera work and you have one of the most impressive-looking stop-motion films to date.

The soundtrack is probably one of the weaker elements of the film, though mostly because it doesn't demand too much attention. It's a decent enough mix of jazz, classical and elevator music, but little more than that. Luckily the dub is on point, which is essential considering the amount of dialogue present. David Thewlis is perfect as Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh does a wonderful job as Lisa and Noonan takes care of all the other characters. While the three of them have rather recognizable voices, their real-life personas never really eclipsed their characters, a strong plus for an animation film.

screen capture of Anomalisa

Anomalisa isn't a very happy film, nor is it a very eventful one. Looking back there are a few moments of standout weirdness (the conversation in the basement is one, the most realistic puppet lovemaking you'll ever come across another), but strangely enough these aren't the scenes that define the film. Instead it's Stone's lifeless demeanor and the meaningless, shapeless and unrewarding life he leads that makes the biggest impression. In that sense the film reminded me a little of Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, a film that also confronted a grumpy lead character with the emptiness of his life, while drawing just enough comedy from that situation to keep it interesting.

Anomalisa is an interesting film. On the one hand there's the superb work that went into animating the entire film. Even though you're looking at puppets for 90 minutes, they feel incredibly human and lifelike. On the other hand there's a surprising amount of emotional and thematic depth here, so much that I'm hoping my midlife crisis will pass me by completely, or at least announce itself more elegantly than the case here. Johnson and Kaufman did good. Anomalisa turned out a worthy, mature and clever animated film. It's probably not everyone's cup of tea, but it's definitely worth a try.

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Tue, 07 Nov 2017 12:05:44 +0100
<![CDATA[M. Night Shyamalan/x10]]>http://www.onderhond.com/features/focus-on-directors/m-night-shyamalan-x10 M. Night Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan is a peculiar director. A man whose career has been through several ups and downs, though more often than not people can't seem to agree which are the hits and which ones the misses. Nevertheless, Shyamalan has always managed to straighten his back after one of his films got shot down by the critics or bombed at the box office. He also evolved from being a one-trick pony to becoming a more fleshed out director, so going through his oeuvre is definitely a rewarding experience and is sure to unearth some worthy films.

Even though Shyamalan is a well-known director, many people (including myself) never got around to watching his first two films. He released his very first film in '92, but Praying with Anger never made much of a dent, not in the least because the film lacks mainstream distribution. Six years later Shyamalan would direct Wide Awake, a cheesy looking sports comedy with religious undertones. Not quite the crowdpleaser either, but at least it's more readily available for those who want to take the plunge.

Shyamalan's career really took off in '99, when he released The Sixth Sense and switched to the horror/mystery genre. The film went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, endlessly referenced by songs, films and series and ultimately defined by its twist ending. While Shyamalan definitely deserves praise for these accomplishments, the film itself really isn't all that great and its rewatch value is quite disappointing. The same can be said about his followup, Unbreakable, though again Shyamalan deserves credits for the novel way he incorporated the superhero theme into that film.

Signs was Shyamalan's first film I found successful beyond the twisty character of its narrative (and in fact, wasn't all that twisty to begin with). It's a moody, fun and sneaky alien invasion flick that leaves little to the imagination, but at least doesn't pretend to be anything more. It's a shame Shyamalan's next film (The Village) turned out to be the worst thing he ever directed. Still, many people are in love with it and its love it or hate it status became infamous, so your mileage may vary.

When Shyamalan thrives on narrative I tend to get bored real fast, luckily he also made a couple of films that explore more original concepts. Lady in the Water is a modern (somewhat darker) fairytale that oozes atmosphere. It's my favorite Shyamalan, which isn't too surprising knowing that Christopher Doyle handled the cinematography. He followed up with The Happening, a pretty delightful and freaky eco-horror that delivers a novel and atmospheric payback on humanity by none other than Mother Earth.

With that out of his system Shyamalan went on a little commercial Hollywood adventure, starting with the adaptation of The Last Airbender. I never watched the original animation, which probably made the film a bit more bearable for me, but for a blockbuster it sure turned out lackluster. Needless to say critics completely annihilated the film. Shyamalan slipped away even further when he took on After Earth, the infamous Will/Jaden Smith scifi collaboration. The movie screams "gun for hire" on every level, a shame for a director who clearly has more up his sleeve.

Luckily Shyamalan knows how to bounce back and with his latest films he really regained his footing. The Visit is a sneaky little mystery thriller and Split another interesting take on the superhero genre. It's a little worrisome that Shyamalan is planning on connecting the Split and Unbreakable universes (which sounds a lot like he's indulging in narrative overhead again), but I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. When he's at his best, Shyamalan is an interesting director who adds something unique that you won't find anywhere else. Not every film's a hit, but most of them are definitely worth checking out. I'd say it's best to avoid After Earth and The Last Airbender if you're willing to break into his oeuvre, apart from that there's plenty of quaity in his films, you'll just have to find out which ones speak to you the most.

Best film: Lady in the Water (3.5*)
Worst film: The Village (1.0*)
Average rating: 2.55 (out of 5)

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Fri, 03 Nov 2017 12:14:40 +0100
<![CDATA[A Silent Voice/Naoko Yamada]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/a-silent-voice-review-naoko-yamada

With Ghibli (almost) out of the picture, the anime feature film seems to be recovering, albeit slowly. There's a noticable rise in interesting projects that don't necessarily seem to adhere to the rural/fantasy hybrid underlying Ghibli's success, Naoko Yamada's A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi] is one of them. From the outside the film may appear to be a rather daft highschool romance, in reality there's a surprisingly deep and honest drama hiding underneath.

screen capture of A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi]

If you hadn't heard about this film before, it might be because the anime conversation in 2016 was almost entirely dominated by Makoto Shinkai's Your Name. It pretty much drowned out all the other buzz, which is a shame because films like A Silent Voice do deserve to be in the spotlight. Both films share some similarities, but where Shinkai still chases fantasy and scifi elements, Yamada's film is purely aimed at setting up a realistic drama.

At its core, A Silent Voice is a film about bullying, but it comes with an important twist. While I've seen my fair share of bully dramas, they rarely seem to move me. I feel that too often these films are set up in such a way that the simplistic victim/offender narrative becomes forced and manipulative, a meager attempt to draw pity and compassion. Not so in Yamada's adaptation of the same-titled manga. Both victim and offender are equally fleshed out characters who struggle their way through life.

The story starts when Nishimiya, a deaf girl, transfers to a new school. The people in her class have a hard time accepting her disability, even the ones that do want to help her out are quickly discouraged by the extra weight it puts on their shoulders. Nishimiya reachers out to Ishida, a young boy sitting right behind her in class, but he too is unable to deal with her disability and becomes one of her primary bullies. Things get out of hand and Nishimiya transfers away again to another school, leaving Ishida behind as the class' outcast.

screen capture of A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi]

It's nice to see proper attention was given to the visuals here. Too often anime feature films end up looking like extended TV episodes. While A Silent Voice does sport a rather typical and cutesy anime style, plenty was done to elevate the film above the mediocrity of TV anime. The character designs for one are more detailed and the animation is quite lush. There's lots of detail hidden in the way everything moves, the focus on legs and feet in particular stands out. It's an interesting (and rather unique) focus to convey emotion, but it works wonderfully well. The backgrounds are beautiful too, adding to the idyllic and summery feel, though they don't always meld that well with the characters. Overall though, the film looks pretty amazing.

The soundtrack is less adventurous and pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this. Piano tunes and string music make for a soft, mellow and comforting blanket of background music. While I'm usually quite critical of easy music choices, A Silent Voice is a good reminder that "safe" does have its advantages. The only time Yamada breaks the mold is when she drops The Who's My Generation underneath the film's intro. It's by far the worst part of the film, luckily it's only used during the intro and the song doesn't return later on. As for the dubbing, a film like this benefits greatly from a soft-voiced Japanse cast, I'm not sure if an English dub is available but I would strongly advise against it.

screen capture of A Silent Voice [Koe no Katachi]

It's rare to see this much emotional nuance in an anime (or a live action feature for that matter). The decision to follow the story from the bully's point of view is a rather novel one, the fact that his character isn't demonized makes it that much smarter, but also a lot tougher. It creates a unique tension between victim and bully when they finally meet up again, which is really the crux of A Silent Voice. It all leads to a pretty fulfilling finale, though the rundown afterwards is a little long-winding.

130 minutes is quite long for an anime feature, but Yamada need every minute of that to tell this story. There's very little overhead and even though there are some narrative diversions, they always reflect back on the core themes of A Silent Voice. Add to that some impressive animation, a proper soundtrack and a warm, feel-good atmosphere that doesn't belittle the drama and you have an impressive anime feature that is sure to impress a lot of people.

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Mon, 30 Oct 2017 12:02:49 +0100
<![CDATA[The Neighbor No. 13/Yasuo Inoue]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/neighbor-13-review-yasuo-inoue

There are few things worse than discovering a talented director whose first film is a gem in the rough, only to see him fade back into obscurity. Yasou Inoue burst onto the scene with The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go] some 10 years ago, raking up international accolades and even landing his film broad international distribution. I remember loving it back then, but had forgotten most of the details since, so of course I was looking forward to revisiting Inoue's single blip on the cinematic radar.

screen capture of The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go]

The Neighbor No. 13 is one of those film that happily rode the Asian horror wave, but didn't quite belong. While the world was scrambling to see the umpteenth copy of The Ring and Ju-On, distributors locked down whatever film they could tie to both Japan and the horror genre and dumped it onto the masses. The response was rarely positive, but fans of weirder genre cinema were living a dream back then. Looking at it from that angle, it's maybe not all that surprising that Inoue never made his second feature.

Inoue's film is more of mystery/thriller, with very minor yet unmistakeable nods to the horror genre. While the film wouldn't feel out of place in the warming-up section of a Halloween marathon, approaching it like a full-on horror movie is just going to end in disappointment. Instead you can expect a somewhat harrowing, bizarre and twisted revenge flick built around a suppressed childhood trauma. That and one of the meanest, bad-ass characters of the past 20 years.

The film revolves around Juzo, a young boy living by himself and trying to make ends meet by taking on a construction site job. Akai is Juzo's supervisor and lives in the same building as him, but he's a bullying jerk who loves to pray on the weak. Juzo appears harmless and Akai sees him as an easy target, but whenever things get too dire Juzo calls in the help from a mysterious friend. No 13 is an impressive and mean-looking guy who takes care of Juzo's problems whenever Juzo can't handle the situation.

screen capture of The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go]

Visually the film shows two faces. The more dramatic parts are a little lifeless and drab, sporting an overly digital look and lacking color. The camera work is still pretty good, but can't offset the rather murky impression it leaves. But when the genre elements surface the visuals become considerably more playfull and whenever Inoue goes into overdrive (the scenes in the abandoned cottage) The Neighbor No. 13 looks pretty damn cool. The contrast feels deliberate, even so it's a shame the overall effect isn't a bit more consistent.

The soundtrack is equally confusing. At times it fades into the background, not drawing too much attention to itself, but once Ihoue shifts gears it suddenly becomes an asset, proud to make a statement while adding tons of atmosphere in the process. Again it feels like this was done deliberately and again I'm not sure if the contrast needed to be this obvious and in your face. It's not a bad score in the sense that it never irritates or detracts from the film, but I was left with the feeling that it Inoue could've done more.

Shun Oguri (Juzo) and Hirofumi Arai (Akai) are doing a fine job capturing their respective characters. The Neighbor No. 13 is based on a manga so the slightly exaggerated portrayal of their personalities comes with the territory and is easily forgiven. But if you're going to remember one actor here it's Shido Nakamura. His rendition of No 13 is beyond legendary, both physically as emotionally, transforming his character into one of the biggest psychos to have ever graced a feature film. His part became absolutely essential to the success of the film.

screen capture of The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go]

The Neighbor No. 13 doesn't really put too much effort into hiding its twist. There might be some slight confusion at the start of the film, but attentive watchers are sure to catch on pretty quickly. There is no big reveal, nor is there a surprise finale. Instead the film draws its strength from the strong performances, the gruesome and harsh paybacks and the duality of its main character. It's a rather tough film to categorize as it largely exists in a plain of its own, but that only adds appeal to an already strong film.

Yasuo Inoue showed immense potential when he directed The Neighbor No. 13. There are so many things right with this film that it's easy to forgive its few shortcomings. There are moments of sheer genius here, hidden away in a film that comes off just a little to modest for its own good. But if you're in the mood for a superb mix of revenge and psychological terror, Inoue has you covered. The Neighbor No. 13 has lost little of its shine over the years and still comes warmly recommended.

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Thu, 26 Oct 2017 11:36:59 +0200
<![CDATA[Veronica/Algara and Martinez-Beltran]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/veronica-review-algara-martinez-beltran

Sometimes, picking up a great film is just pure, unfiltered luck. Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez-Beltran's Veronica [Véronica] ended up being the wrong Veronica. I was in fact hoping to see Paco Plaza's film (of [rec] fame), instead this Veronica turned out to be a Mexican movie also released this year. It also turned out to be a very moody, stylish and crafty mindbender that slowly crawled its way under my skin. I didn't quite see that one coming.

screen capture of Veronica

The South-American genre film has been gaining momentum for a while now, with Mexico in particular being one of the front runners. Directors like Isaac Ezban (The Incident, The Similars) and films like Come Out and Play and Honeymoon have been paving the way for a promising generation of Mexican genre talents. Algara and Martinez-Beltran represent a slightly more arthouse-like side of that movement, but the core of Veronica is very much traditional genre fare.

Veronica is a rather short film with a narrow focus. It was (more or less) shot at a single location and features just two actresses. It's clear from the very beginning of the film that something is not quite right, but the directors still managed to mask it pretty well. It's the kind of film that starts off a slow burner and tries to lull its audience in a trance, just to shake them awake during the final act. What sets it apart from similar-minded genre films though is its hyperstylish black and white photography.

The film tells the story of Veronica, a troubled young girl. After several failed sessions with various doctors, she is sent to a female psychiatrist who operates from a cabin in the mountains. While the psychiatrist waits for Veronica's medical files to arrive, she jumps the gun and starts the treatement, hoping to find out what trauma is haunting this young girl. But Veronica turns out to be a smart girl and before long she starts messing with the head of her psychiatrist. As both women struggle for dominance, reality starts to fade.

screen capture of Veronica

The visuals are by far the most eye-catching aspect of the film. Shot in clean, ultra sharp black and white and with a largely unshakable camera, Veronica makes a stylish first impression. The camera work is impressive, especially when the camera is on the move. I did feel the static shots weren't always as slick as they could've been. It's a small hiccup, but with a look this crisp and delicate, perfection is expected. Overall the effect is stunning though and the visuals add a level of finish that is rarely seen in modern day genre films. It's somewhat of a risky choice as not everyone is going to appreciate the stark black and white photography, but I thought it was extremely successful.

The soundtrack is also on point. It's not so much a collection of tracks as it is a constant and dense amalgam of sounds, rhythms and music that helps to create a subtle yet ultimately suffocating atmosphere. The build-up is precise and accurate and works over the entire span of the film, not just within single scenes. The soundtrack itself isn't even that original, featuring moody music and darker, slightly industrial sound effect, but the way it works itself through the film sets a great example for other film makers.

And the acting too is top notch. Quite necessary for a film like this, which is pretty subdued and spends all its time with just the two main characters. There are one or two flashbacks that feature a couple of extras, but it's really just Olga Segura and Arcelia Ramírez doing all the heavy lifting. Both are splendid in their parts and constantly feed off each other. Sofía Garza has a small part and copes well with the little material she has, but her contribution is hardly substantial.

screen capture of Veronica

The first hour of the film is rather slow, but meticulous. Little by little the balance between patient and doctor shifts and the film deliberately builds up to its final reveal. But the moment you feel you're getting a grip on the film's reality, Algara and Martinez-Beltran flip a switch and start their rush to uncover the truth. While the twist itself isn't anything too novel or original, the contrast between the pacing and the change in tone is another element that helps to set Veronica apart from similar films.

At its very core, Veronica is a rather simple and mousy little headfuck. But the execution is smart, stylish and honed to perfection. It's a film that casually sinks its hooks into your skin, crawls underneath and paralyzes you throughout its finale. After a series of short films, Algara and Martinez-Beltran deliver a confident, stream-lined and meticulous first feature, one that begs for a confirmation in the form of a second film. For now though, don't let this one slip by.

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Tue, 24 Oct 2017 12:00:58 +0200
<![CDATA[Lazy Hazy Crazy/Yee-sum Luk]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/lazy-hazy-crazy-review-yee-sum-luk

It's quite rare to see Hong Kong do a coming of age drama, it's even rarer to see a Cat III film in this genre. Lazy Hazy Crazy [Tung Baan Tung Hok] finds itself somewhere in between the work of Heiward Mak and Ho-Cheung Pang, which isn't that surprising knowing that Yee-sum Luk is one of the few female directors working in Hong Kong while also serving as the screenwriter for a couple of Pang's latest films. Pang returned the favor and acts as a producer for Luk's first feature film. The result is quite interesting, to say the least.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

While rare, Lazy Hazy Crazy is not quite unique. One year earlier Philip Yung directed May We Chat, a film that would make an awesome double bill with Luk's first. It explores very similar themes, although a little less graphically and from a different genre perspective. But putting them back to back, the differences quickly disappear and the similarities, especially taking into account both are Hong Kong films, will start to shine through. Hopefully Netflix will notice, because they already picked up May We Chat.

What makes Lazy Hazy Crazy stand out is the way it resembles a typical coming of age drama (think Heiward Mak's High Noon or Chi Y Lee's Beautiful Crazy). Going by the intro, this looks like a very innocent, sweet and sugar-coated view into the lives of Hong Kong teens, but the reality is pretty different. Luk's film is quite frank and open, not shunning away from tougher and more taboo subjects. So much in fact that it will probably raise a couple of eyebrows.

The story revolves around two friends (Tracy and Chloe) who befriend a third girl (Alice) at school. Alice is living by herself, abandoned by her father and mourning her deceised mom. To pay for food and shelter she goes on paid dates, usually with older men. Chloe is drawn to the life Alice is leading, while Tracy feels like she is being left out and substituted as a best friend. When Alice ends up dating the boy that Tracy has had her eye on for years, the friendship of the three is ripped to shreds.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

Visually the film is on par with the more traditional coming of age dramas from greater China (which is a pretty high standard). Colors are crisp and summery, the camera work is breezy and dreamy (with a camera that constantly circles the film's main cast) and the editing is soft and lazy. It creates a very mellow, laid-back atmosphere, which makes for an interesting contrast with the onscreen drama. Above all though, it's just really beautiful to look at.

The soundtrack, again, is one of the weaker aspects of this film. There is some beautiful music here and it does strenghten the laid-back atmosphere of Lazy Hazy Crazy, but at the same time it's all so predictable. It's just a little bit too comfortable to be considered good, which is something of a returning problem for Hong Kong (and by extension Chinese and Taiwanese) films. I wish they tried something different for a change, on the other hand why bother as long as it is effective.

Nudity is still considered doubty in Hong Kong cinema and it can gravely taint the reputation of an actress (regardless of current stature), so it's remarkable that Luk found a cast that was willing to push the boundaries when needed. The main cast consists of mostly newcomers, which seeps through during the more dramatic moments, but overall the acting is on par and there's real chemistry between the three friends, which elevates the dramatic impact considerably. Secondary parts are good too, which a notable appearance by Susan Yam-Yam Shaw.

screen capture of Lazy Hazy Crazy

Much like Marielle Heller's The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Lazy Hazy Crazy finds a comfortable tone to talk about taboo subjects. It's not a coincidence both these films were directed by women, as they tend to have a more natural approach towards female sexuality. Having women behind the camera also helps to make the film's topics easier to discuss, without having to diverge into "creepy male director" debates. With a man in the director's chair a film like Hazy Lazy Crazy could've been quickly dismissed as a creepy male fantasy, with a woman there it can simply be an empowered coming of age drama.

For once, availability isn't a big issue either. People interested in Hong Kong youth culture and phenomena like the paid dating business should have no trouble finding this film with the proper subtitles. Luk shows she has talent as a director and delivers a powerful, confrontational yet endearing drama. Hopefully her talent is recognized and she isn't shot down for the unconventional choices she made here, because Hong Kong can use a director like her.

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Tue, 17 Oct 2017 11:50:24 +0200
<![CDATA[Kill Zone/Wilson Yip]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/spl-review-wilson-yip

Nowadays Wilson Yip is an established name with a series of critically acclaimed action films to his name, but when he first released Kill Zone [SPL: Sha Po Lang] he still had everything to prove. The first time I watched Kill Zone I was pleasantly surprised by the gritty action on display, but 12 years is a long time, especially in genre cinema. Needless to say I was looking forward to revisiting the film in order to find out if it was still as impressive. Luckily for me it didn't disappoint.

screen capture of Kill Zone

Hong Kong has faced extreme up and downs in its cinematic history. The 70s and early 90s were highly successful periods, while the 80s and late 90s were way much darker. Hong Kong picked itself up again during the early 00s and Kill Zone is one of those films to emerge from that resurrection. Yip himself spend most of the 90s honing his skills directing mediocre (but sometimes amusing) genre fodder, Kill Zone was one the first times his talent was allowed to flourish.

Kill Zone is a martial arts film, but not the regular Hong Kong kind. Yip even alludes to this halfway through, when he puts one of his characters in front of a King of Fighters (SNK) arcade machine. There is no streamlined and/or highly technical martial arts here, instead the film features a cast of skilled brawlers, each with their own fighting techniques and sporting a very distinct, individual look. It's as if the characters in Kill Zone were transported right out of SNK's flagship series.

The story revolves around a longstanding feud between Chung (a hardened police detective) and Wong Po (a local criminal). With Chung's retirement just days away, he undertakes one final attempt to nail Po for his heinous crimes. Meanwhile Ma Kwan (Chung's replacement) also gets swept up in Chung's desperate attempts to put Po behind bars. With a police force running rampant and a crime boss fighting back, nobody is safe anymore.

screen capture of Kill Zone

Visually the film has lost very little of its shine. Moody lighting, very cool camera angles and snappy editing make for a fast-paced action film with more eye candy than you might expect from a film like this. It's not very high-brow or high-class, nothing like the Chinese martial arts films that were making headlines around that same time, but it still looks pretty damn badass and the action in particular is shot with great care and precision.

The soundtrack is the traditional weak point of Hong Kong cinema and it's no different here. It's not such a bad score to be honest, but it's so ultimately forgettable that you have to wonder why they even bothered. It's functional and it does add some flair, mostly to the battle scenes, but there's really nothing beyond that. Just some music that function as wallpaper so your ears don't have to wonder why there's only dialogue interrupted by the sounds of fists hitting faces.

Casting-wise there's a lot more going on. Leading the film is Simon Yam, but it's the people surrounding him that made Kill Zone stand out. The role of Ma Kwan was given to Donnie Yen, a part that marked Yen's return as a viable actor in Hong Kong (a credit shared with 14 Blades). Even more notable is Sammo Hung's appearance, as he takes on the part of the film's villain. Hung rarely played the bad guy in his career, but clearly not for lack of talent. Finally fans of Jing Wu can warm themselves to one his first stand-out performances, kicking ass as one of Hong's henchmen.

screen capture of Kill Zone

It's not just the fighting style and the prime casting that turned Kill Zone into a niche masterpiece though. Yip delivers a surprisingly harsh film with A-listers dying left and right. There's no Hollywood sugarcoating here, though that doesn't mean Yip shuns sentimentality. The plot is still pretty corny, but the execution is quite relentless compared to Hong Kong standards. Cherry on the cake is the ultimate face-off between Yen and Hung. A marvelous martial arts scene that stands as one of the highlights of modern Hong Kong cinema.

Kill Zone is a modern martial arts classic. Yip assembled a phenomenal cast, revitalized the classic martial arts choreography, gave the film some visual polish and never flinched when the story dictacted his characters to die. It's not a film that transcends its niche, but it considerably upped the bar for all the action films that followed. And a good 12 years later, it's still heaps of fun. It's not hard to see why this film launched Yip into the top league.

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Thu, 12 Oct 2017 11:42:47 +0200
<![CDATA[Two Pigeons/Dominic Bridges]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/two-pigeons-review-dominic-bridges

To create something near-original as a modern film maker is a tough challenge. Thousands of films are being made each year and although most of them are fine recycling older ideas, there's always a small group of films trying to deliver something the audience hasn't really seen before. Dominic Bridges's Two Pigeons (formerly known as Freehold) is a little like that, though it's the combination of subject matter and execution that sets this one apart. The result is fiendishly amusing though.

screen capture of Two Pigeons

Two Pigeons is a film that leans heavily on its core concept, which explains its rather short running time. It's really just a single idea expanded into a feature film, but the execution is spot on, mixing eeriness and suspense with a big fat smudge of dark comedy. Some might say it would've worked better as a short, but the build-up is pretty on point and it would mean ditching some of the more elaborate pranks. As a result though, the film is somewhat of a one-trick pony, but when a trick is executed this well that's hardly a point of critique.

The film is essentially a home invasion movie, but with a sneakier intruder. The concept is reminiscent of several other films, but none of them were executed quite like this one. There are traces of Bin-jip, Amelie, Dream Home, 2LDK and Jaume Balagueró's Sleep Tight, yet Bridges manages to twist the plot in such a way that the film never truly references any other films directly. It sorta kinda feels familiar, but it also feels like watching something entirely new.

The story revolves around Hussein, a real estate agent living a rather cozy life in a 2-bedroom apartment in London. He goes through his daily routines, but isn't quite aware of a second person living in with him. The man only comes out when Hussein is away for work or when he's sleeping. At first the second man seems only there out of necessity, but as time passes he starts to undermine Hussein's physical and mental health. The pestering gets progressively worse with each passing day and before long Hussein's life is slowly falling to pieces.

screen capture of Two Pigeons

Two Pigeons is a single-location film (quite literally, the camera never leaves the appartment, apart from the very last scene), but Bridges did his best to keep things visually interesting. The appartment is clearly a set (as some of the open wall/ceiling shots reveal), but it helped Bridges to be a bit more creative with his camera. The editing is tight and the use of color and lighting is pretty cool. It makes for a modern-looking film that may not make a big visual statement, but is easy on the eyes nonetheless.

The soundtrack is a collection of hip-hop and electronic-inspired instrumental tracks combined with more moody electronic for the creepier bits. It's nothing too out of the ordinary, but again it gives the film a fresh and easy-going flair that adds to the overall atmosphere. Bridges also keeps faithful to the typical British sounds, which, together with the thick London accents, give the film some spatial context. That's not too bad for a film that never ventures outside its four walls.

The cast is small, but picked with considerable care. Taking on the role of Hussein is Mim Shaikh, who turns his character into a goofy, somewhat miserable guy, yet manages to draw just enough sympathy from the audience. Not too much though, so his cruel punishment can still be shamelessly enjoyed. But the real star of the film is Javier Botet, one of the modern horror scene's most notable actors, yet virtually unknown to the public. It's nice to see him out of disguise for a change and he clearly grabbed this chance to prove he can do more than just look freaky on camera. The secondary cast is decent enough, but their parts are relatively negligible.

screen capture of Two Pigeons

The first hour of the film focuses on an increasingly nasty payback, though the audience remains mostly clueless as to why these things are happening. There are some short narrations (featuring the titular pigeons) that include small reveals, but apart from that there's very little to go on. Somewhat surprisingly, Bridges sprinkles his finale with heartfelt emotion, which makes the ending that much more interesting. Based on his personal experiences, the ending leaves a bitter aftertaste without ruining the shameless pleasure of the payback. A tricky feat that he pulls off with style.

Two Pigeons is a small delight. It's not a big, swooping movie, but it offers plenty of nasty smiles, some genuine wonder and a very balanced ending. The film looks and sounds modern, features a strong cast and doesn't outstay its welcome. It's just one of those little gems that pop up out of nowhere and might fly under the radar should you blink twice. So if you get the chance to watch this one, make sure you do. It's a pretty safe bet that might leave you with a personal favorite.

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Tue, 10 Oct 2017 12:17:37 +0200
<![CDATA[Secret Fruit/Yi-chi Lien]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/secret-fruit-review-yi-chi-lien

China's movie industry is booming and that ripple is felt well beyond its own borders. Hong Kong and Taiwan in particular are seeing a lot of directors making the jump, no doubt lured by a combination of better opportunities and bigger bugdets. The latest one to make the move is Yi-chi Lien, one of the young talents to have emerged from the latest Taiwanese renaissance. With Secret Fruit (Mi Guo), he takes a typical Taiwanese coming of age drama and moves it to China. The result is pretty great.

screen capture of Secret Fruit

It actually took me a while to realize Secret Fruit was Lien's film, as most online sources credited the director as Lian Yiqi. Different ways of transliteration have always made it tougher than necessary to keep track of Chinese artists and movies, a severe lack of English sources keeping up with the Chinese movie industry (Secruit Fruit isn't even on IMDb yet) doesn't make it any easier. Luckily I remembered the in-film credits listing a different name or I might have never known.

I might have suspected though, because Secret Fruit has all the bearings of a Taiwanese film. Even though directors and actors are quite interchangeable between the three Chinese industries (and crossovers happen regularly), each one has a very distinct style that sets itself apart from the others. Taiwanese cinema tends to be more subdued, less flashy and while not exactly subtle, at least a lot softer in tone. All the right ingredients for a proper coming of age drama in other words.

Secret Fruit is the continuation of a TV series, though the story is easy enough to follow without having seen the series first. It revolves around Mili and Duan, two childhood friends. As these things go, she loves him but he is looking elsewhere for affection. Duan has a crush on his teacher, but she is having romantic problems of her own. The characters keep twirling around each other and while the audience probably has no trouble predicting who's going to end up together, the characters themselves seem to be having a much harder time figuring things out.

screen capture of Secret Fruit

Lien's Make Up was superbly stylish and he brought that same sense of style to Secret Fruit. Impeccable use of color and lighting, strong camera work and amazing use of the various settings make for a lush-looking film. It sure helps when a tried and tested concept gives you some neat visuals to snack on while the story is slowly unfolding, luckily there's plenty of that here. Quite a few memorable moments are derived from the film's visual prowess and make a lasting impression.

The score might be a bit more divisive. The music is pretty typical for Asian dramas, with lots of pianos and strings dominating the soundtrack. It isn't exactly subtle either, but it does help to ground the atmosphere. If you're not taken with the characters and visuals, it's the kind of score that will quickly turn into sentimental dreck, but I really didn't mind it that much here. On the upside, the soft-spoken dialogue has a bigger impact on the overall atmosphere and adds a fine layer of melancholy that somewhat counters the boldness of the music.

Heading the film are Nana Ou-Yang and Oho Ou. Ou is quickly making a name for himself (he also took on the lead in Fist & Faith) and it's not hard to see why. It's Ou-Yang who has the most work here though, as Ou's character doesn't do too much beyond looking sullen and detached for the bigger part of the running time. Ou-Yang shoulders the dramatic part of Secret Fruit and delivers a fun, cheeky character with just enough depth. The supporting cast is nice too, though they are mostly just there to flesh out the lead characters.

screen capture of Secret Fruit

Secret Fruit is a coming of age drama/romance that politely asks its audience to allow it some slack for its frivolous romantic escapades and light-hearted drama. If you're not in the mood for the romantic woes of adolescents, this is definitely not a film for you. But if you don't mind a little trip back to a simpler time (that is of course, if you're 30 or above) Secret Fruit is a stylistic highlight that feels cozy and warm and charms its way from start to finish. It's not genre-bending cinema, but it's executed to near perfection.

Yi-chi Lien delivers another fine film. His move from Taiwan to China has zero impact on the end result s and unless you're familiar with the Chinese scenery present, chances are you won't even realize you're not watching a Taiwanese movie. Unless you're completely allergic to coming of age films with a strong injection of romantic drama, Secret Fruit is an easy recommend. Sadly the availability of this film is terrible (again), which may make it almost impossible to actually give this one a fair chance.

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Tue, 03 Oct 2017 11:52:46 +0200
<![CDATA[Man on Fire/Tony Scott]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/man-on-fire-review-tony-scott

Tony Scott peaked with Domino, but the foundations of that film were laid in Man on Fire. The two films form a perfect double bill, though not for the faint of heart. Man of Fire is a raging action movie, a fast-paced visual assault that tests the boundaries of the acceptable. At least, that's how I experienced Man on Fire the first time around. That was more than 10 years ago though and so I was curious to see how Man on Fire held up after all this time. Just like Domino a couple of weeks earlier, Scott's little gem didn't disappoint.

screen capture of Man on Fire

Man of Fire is a film that still comes off as fresh and modern, though that's not just Scott's doing. The fact that almost nobody bothered to copy his peculiar stylistic approach is one of the main reasons this film has preserved rather well. Scott borrowed and expanded on the cinematic language of movie trailers and went on to build an entire movie out of that. While it earned Man of Fire plenty of novelty credits, it's clear that your average movie audience prefers a well-rounded narrative and proper, decent storytelling. Present company excluded of course.

Man of Fire is an adaptation of A.J. Quinnell's novel and follows a (rather obscure) late 80s adaptation of the same book. Scott moved the setting from Italy to Mexico (City) and mixed in some real-life Mexican cases to make the film a bit more topical. While the film hardly qualifies as socially relevant and/or important, there is a definite message here that Scott pushes through as much as he can. In the end though Man of Fire is very much an action/thriller that works best on a visceral level.

The film follows John Creasy, a former CIA operative who finds himself in Mexico, visiting one of his old pals. Creasy lacks a clear goal in life and his friend recommends taking on a job as a security guard in Mexico City, where kidnappers are running rampant. Creasy lands himself a job protecting Pita, a young American-Mexican girl who sees Creasy more as a friend than a bodyguard. It doesn't take long before Pita becomes the target of a lucrative kidnapping, what Creasy doesn't know is that the kidnapping is just the tip of the iceberg.

screen capture of Man on Fire

If you've seen Domino, you pretty much know what to expect. If not, watch a random Michael Bay trailer, quadruple that and imagine it smeared out over an entire film. There's an excess of color filters, edgey camera work and crazy camera angles, but the truly defining part of the visuals is the editing. Every scenes looks like it was fully deconstructed and put together again by someone with ADHD. For a film that relies on adrenaline and tension, that's not a bad thing though. Scott defended his approach by saying it reflects the mental stability of Creasy's character, but if you're sensitive to visual impulses that explanation isn't going to save the film for you. That said, I absolutely loved it.

The soundtrack isn't quite as crazy but the synchronicity with the images is remarkable and definitely adds to the overall atmosphere. The music itself is edgey enough, not too insane to scare people away but still well above the generic film score level. When there's a discotheque scene that is accompagnied by some actual, believable real-world dance music, you can tell that an above average amount of effort went into the soundtrack. Don't set your expectations too high, but Scott did well here.

Tony Scott counts on regular Denzel Washington to bring his lead character to life. Washington does what he does best and delivers an introverted but powerful performance. The contrast with the young Dakota Fanning couldn't be bigger, but that in part is the appeal of the lead duo. The secondary cast is good too, though a little expendable, except for Christopher Walken. His part isn't all that big, but he makes quite the impression in a very short span of time.

screen capture of Man on Fire

The second half of Man on Fire is mixing detective, revenge and thriller elements in order to make everything appear a little grittier. The film remains well within the boundaries of the expected, but there are some pretty brutal scenes, with very few cop-outs on Scott's side. Creasy's descent into the Mexican underground is not the most pleasant thing to watch, but his almost superman-like powers keep the film firmly grounded into action film territory. In the end, the entertainment value overshadows whatever message Scott was trying to push through, but seeing as subtlety isn't Hollywood's strong point, that's probably not a bad thing.

If you're looking for a traditional action flick or you're one of those people who loves to complain about the MTV aethetic of modern cinema, leave this film alone. Man on Fire is a film with very few stylistic compromises. Together with Domino it marks the highlight of Scott's career, an influence I feel is dearly missed in modern-day Hollywood. It's definitely not for everybody, but a little love/hate rhetoric never hurt the long-term survival chances of a film. If you like your action cinema over the top, make sure to give this one a try.

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Thu, 28 Sep 2017 11:21:11 +0200
<![CDATA[Fires on the Plain/Shinya Tsukamoto]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/fires-on-the-plain-review-shinya-tsukamoto

It's been a while since I watched a new Shinya Tsukamoto film. Kotoko and Fires on the Plain [Nobi] were released just 3 years apart, but somehow Tsukamoto's latest got stuck in release limbo. Thankfully Third Window Films stepped up to the plate (again) and opened up the film to the English-speaking world. And it's a good thing they did, because Fires on the Plain is vintage Tsukamoto. True bulldozer cinema that lashes out violently and constantly, yet purposefully. It's the kind of film only Tsukamoto is able to make.

screen capture of Fires on the Plain

Tsukamoto has been very vocal about the fact that Fires on the Plain is not a mere remake of Kon Ishikawa's 1959 film, but rather a new adaptation of Shohei Ooka's book. I haven't seen Ishikawa's film, nor did I read Ooka's book, yet it shouldn't come as too big of a surprise that Tsukamoto simply did what he's known to do and made the material his own. While he borrows the premise from the original, he wanders off in a direction that cuts right into Tsukamoto territory, steering this film away from any potential remake discussions. Fans of the existing film and/or book shouldn't expect to see a faithful adaptation though.

When you strip everything away, Fires of the Plain is the umpteenth variation on the classic "war is hell" premise. There's some pretty stiff competition in that particular niche, with films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket towering above their competitors. But where those films are still framed in a somewhat comfortable and reassuring narrative (firmly taking their audience by the hand while slowly submerging them into chaos), Tsukamoto dives right in and smears out all the vileness over a period of 90 minutes. There are no breathers here, no easy way outs, just the grim and hellish surrealism of war.

The film starts with a sick soldier being cast out of his garrison. The nearby field hospital doesn't really want to care for him either as they're dealing with worse off patients, so with no place to go the soldier starts wandering around aimlessly. He has no rations, no companions and worst of all, no real purpose. On his trip through the Philippine jungle he encounters nothing but death and destruction. The few people who did survive the battles are either begging him to be killed or are scheming to kill the few remaining survivors. Slowly the soldier starts to lose his mind.

screen capture of Fires on the Plain

Tsukamoto's body of work is known for the overall intensity it harbours. The visual aspect has always played a substantial part in establishing that intensity and he's not changing course with Fires on the Plain. I do have to say that the overtly digital look isn't doing the film many favors. The colors and lighting are harsh, the framing appears a little random and at times the chaotic cinematography feels slightly out of control. Luckily the editing is top notch and the intensity remains very much intact, but Fires on the Plain isn't one of Tsukamoto's nicest-looking films.

The score too isn't Tsukamoto's finest. There are some odd musical choices that don't do much to help the film forward. It's a bit surprising, because Tsukamoto is known for incorporating strong and unique scores, which are a defining element in his overall aesthetic, but here it just never truly clicked. Luckily the sound design is outstanding, with lots of accentuated sounds adding an extra layer of surrealism to the film. It still makes for a dense and suffocating experience, it's just that there is some untapped potential.

The acting on the other hand is exquisite. It's not the first time Tsukamoto takes on the lead role in one of his own films, but he's really front and center in Fires on the Plain. A good thing then that it's probably his best performance to date. His descent into madness is quite simply horrifying. You can see his physical and mental state deteriorating, as the anguish of his existence grows more painful by the minute. It's a very physical performance, which goes well with Tsukamoto's style of acting. The rest of the cast isn't too bad, but none of them have truly substantial parts.

screen capture of Fires on the Plain

The challenge of Tsukamoto's Fires on the Plain is its utter disregard for direction and context. You're thrown into a story (/war), piggybacking onto a character who ends up being little more than a stand-in for the audience. He is clueless as to where to go, what to do or how to continue, but he's alive and not planning on dying. It's all about survival, but with no clear way forward some people are bound to feel a little helpless and lost. Fires on the Plain is a pretty demanding film, but the pay-off is all the better because of it.

This is not a very happy film, nor is it very subtle. The first 15 minutes are a little tough and disorienting, but as things get increasingly dire for Tsukamoto's character the film starts to really creep under your skin. Tsukamoto pushes through after that and Fires on the Plain might end up devouring some of its audience, but in the end that's exactly what this film was aiming for. Not as stylistically accomplished as some of his earlier work, but a dense and harrowing experience nonetheless. Comes highly recommended for fans of Tsukamoto, others might want to reconsider, or at least choose their timing wisely.

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Tue, 26 Sep 2017 12:03:54 +0200
<![CDATA[Fist & Faith/Jiang Zhuoyuan]]>http://www.onderhond.com/blog/fist-and-faith-review-jiang-zhuoyuan

Chinese cinema is booming. It's been steadily growing for the past 10-15 years or so and it's getting increasingly difficult to ignore. That said, the West is really trying its hardest to look the other way. A movie like Jiang Zhuoyuan's Fist & Faith shows plenty of potential for international success, but for some reason it's unable to catch a break outside China's borders. And that's a real shame, because if you're looking for something fun and creative with a darker edge, Fist & Faith is a solid bet.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

Not longer than twenty years ago, Chinese cinema was quite limited. Not that there weren't any good films around, but you'd be hardpressed to find much outside the realms of martial arts and social drama. Chinese directors had to rebrand themselves like crazy in a short period of time, which does make it considerably more difficult to navigate all the Chinese films being produced today. Suddenly there are blitzy comedies, haunted house horrors and crazy urban fantasies all fighting for attention, borrowing and copying from and adding to foreign influences.

Knowing all that, Fist & Faith still came as a pretty big surprise. The film finds itself somewhere stranded in between Crows Zero, Cromartie High and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, but still comes out its very own thing. The typical Japanese school gangs combined with the comic book aesthetic and the geeky comedy are a triple first for Chinese cinema, but Zhuoyuan does well to put it in a local (historical) context while making sure the presentation is slick and polished.

The film is set during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in the 30s. In order to colonize the Chinese, the Japanese are doing away with Chinese literature and are taking over their history classes. Underground book reading clubs are popping up left and right, but the Japanese are using school gangs to disrupt and disperse these gatherings. Jing Hao is one of the first Chinese students to stand up against the Japanese. He unites the different Chinese clans and vows to take on the Japanese oppressors.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

Visually there's a lot happening here and most of it is pretty neat. Even the less-accomplished CG shots carry a clear aesthetic and add to the overall atmosphere of the film. The comic book effects are very cool, the camera work is fun and creative and the use of color is bold and extravagant. Zhuoyuan is a younger director and it clearly shines through in the look of the film. Not every single effect and/or filter is successful, but overall the film looks superb and presents itself as both modern and stylish.

The soundtrack too is quite remarkable. Chinese films tend to play it safe when it comes to choice of music, but Zhuoyuan opts for a slightly more daring approach. Some hip-hop and dubstep influences bring a lot of extra energy to the film, not in the least because these aren't the typical soundtrack interpretations of said genres. The music here feels genuine and edgy and supports the scenes effortlessly, while adding a lot of extra flavor to the film. It's a great example of how a soundtrack can be both modern and impactful without sounding like a bad pop compilation.

The cast is also pretty on point. Jing Tian and Oho Ou carry most of the weight and do a solid job. There is some oustpoken comedy that might come off a little weird for those not used to the Chinese sense of humor, but the lighthearted first half of the film makes it pretty easy to cope with. Jiang Zhuoyuan deserves extra credit for casting a fine selection of Japanse actors (Meisa Kuroki and Kento Hayashi are perfect) to fill out the Japanese parts. While that may sound like an obvious thing to do, it wouldn't be the first film to use Chinese actors in Japanese roles.

screen capture of Fist & Faith

The first half of Fist & Faith is pretty casual. Bits of comedy, comic book silliness and romance brighten up a pretty simple plot. Halfway through it turns dark though and the second half of the film is a lot harsher. Things escalate quickly and characters end up dead, yet somehow the film manages to maintain its air of entertainment. It's a tough trick to pull off and the transition might not to be everyone's liking, but by the time Zhuoyuan starts his final act it felt like a natural progression of the story.

Fist & Faith is a film that isn't shy to pay tribute to its influences. From the 300-esque Crows Zero clan fight to the Scott Pilgrim-like introduction, Zhuoyuan borrows royally from a broad varity of films. The way he brings everything together though is quite unique, not in the least for a Chinese film maker. The result is a thorougly entertaining film that amuses, dazzles and delights. Getting your hands on it is going to be a tougher challenge, but I'm sure those willing to go the extra mile will find a way.

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Wed, 20 Sep 2017 12:01:43 +0200