Movie Review – Ghost Theater

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EXPECTATIONS: A return to form for horror director Hideo Nakata.

REVIEW: Director Hideo Nakata has been long-anointed as a Master of Horror due to the wildly successful film, Ringu (1998). His film(s) including the latter and its sequels/prequels had started a massive wave of Asian horror films and remakes for many years to come. He also had good films post-Ringu like Chaos (2000) and Dark Water (2002). But his recent work has been very problematic and some were quite abysmal. Films like the British film Chatroom (2010) and the sequel to the remake, The Ring Two (2005) were laughably bad and even his native work like The Incite Mill (2010), L: Change the World (2008) and Monsterz (2014) were mostly seen as disappointments. But he ventured back to horror with The Complex (2013) and while it wasn’t a triumph, it was, in this reviewer’s opinion, an entertaining film that was reminiscent to 90’s horror, with a great lead performance from former AKB48/rising actress Atsuko Maeda. Now, Nakata remakes his own work, the 1996 horror film, Don’t Look Up, to create Ghost Theater. Is Ghost Theater a return to form for the man who was once known as a Master of Horror?

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The film starts off with a prologue that shows two schoolgirls being scared out of their minds by a moving mannequin. Their father (Ikuji Nakamura) tries to destroy the doll, but only manages to decapitate it before the police arrest him on suspicion of murder. AKB48 member Haruka Shimazaki stars as Sara, an aspiring actress who wants her big break after working small roles like a cadaver in a TV crime show or recently, a corpses in a crime scene. She goes to an audition for a small role in a stage play of “The Whimper of Fresh Blood”, to be directed by renowned director, Gota Nishikino (Mantaro Koichi). Sara captures the attention of the cast and crew (positively and negatively) and she is cast. The lead actresses Aoi (Riho Takada) and Kaori (Rika Adachi) look down on Sara but that’s the least of Sara’s problems. One day, a female crew member is mysteriously found dead after acting possessed and Aoi is found unconscious, after seeing the mannequin supposedly winking at her. Having memorized all of Aoi’s lines, Sara is, in a serendipitous fashion, cast in one of the lead roles. It is only later in the rehearsals of the play, does things get more malicious and spooky, to the point of the possibility that the production is cursed.

Oh boy, where do I start with this film? Well, I will give the film credit for this. This film did scared me and shocked me. Of how incredibly bad it was. Seriously, this was both one of the most disappointing AND one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies I’ve seen this year. Let me start off with the acting. Every single actor in this film acts as if William Shatner was their acting teacher in teaching them how to look scared. All of the actors are hamming it up in their expressions of fear to the point that it would seem like it is their last role of their careers. This kind of acting would pay off big in kaiju/monster films but in a horror film like this, it just comes off as laughable. It’s not entirely the actors’ fault, as Haruka Shimazaki does fine as Sara. But when the characters are not developed much as all, the actors become are lifeless, particularly Riho Takada and Rika Adachi, who play Sara’s rivals. You figure that the two would ham it up at those moments of jealousy, but nope. Most of the fault goes to director Nakata. His overuse of reaction shots to supposedly offer scares only offers a 180 approach to complete and utter hilarity. Even the reaction shots are used when the actors are reacting at nothing! There’s a scene where characters are possessed and they spout out the word(s) “Gimme!” over and over. It’s supposed to be scary, but it comes off sounding like a zombie cheerleader squad. It’s as laughable as it sounds.

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Speaking of Hideo Nakata’s direction, everything from his talent in his use of sound, his assured storytelling, his way of wringing suspense and tension through eerie visuals and the power of suggestion are all absent in this film. Everything is just plain assaultive and cheap. The sets, the lighting and the cinematography (which tries to emulate a giallo film) never offer a minuscule amount of spooky atmosphere and the sound design, I swear, could’ve came from old film stock and it is used in the most unsubtle way. Like sounds of rain or thunder utilized in Ghost Theater could’ve only come from films in the 50’s, and that’s not a compliment.

Speaking of cheap, the main villain, which is a mannequin. You can’t say dolls cannot be scary (Chucky is a great example) but in the case of Ghost Theater, this has to be the least scary antagonist in a horror film in a long time. The look and movement of the mannequin will elicit more passive shrugs and amused loud chuckles than gasps. Maybe gasps of air before chuckling again. It moves like a malfunctioning robot with little power left in it. Hell, its movement adds to the unintentional hilarity in the climax when the characters are too damn slow to outrun the damn thing.  And the storytelling (or the script) is incredibly boring. Filmed within the same sets for the majority of the movie, and set within the same dress rehearsals, repeating the same lines over and over, alongside the droning narration, it becomes incredibly tedious. Until the hammy acting starts up again.

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Now are there any positives besides the unintentionally farcical humour and Haruka Shimazaki? Not much. The music, from Mamoru Oshii collaboator, Kenji Kawai, is fine on its own merit, but does very little for the film. The story itself had tons of potential to become a great film, with elements of giallo for atmosphere and gore, the Black Swan influence for psychological trauma, or a whodunnit mystery on who is causing the murders. But unfortunately, that’s all it is. Ideas without proper execution. Instead, we get the nadir of Japanese horror.

Admittedly, this film was one unintentionally hilarious experience to witness (the reaction shots from the actors can’t be taken seriously), so for lovers of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, it can be a worthwhile experience. But on the other hand, it’s just so sad to see such a director stoop so low after knowing what promise he used to have. If you want a sure impression of the film, watch the trailer. It’s a pretty accurate impression of the film, if you ask me. As much I hate to say it, this film is pure unadulterated dogsh–

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Quickie Review

PROS

Haruka Shimazaki gives a fine, if unimpressive, performance as Sara, the lead

Many moments of unintentional hilarity, thanks to Nakata’s blunt direction and the hammy performances of the actors

Kenji Kawai’s score is fine on its own, but not the way it is utilized in the film

CONS

Cheap production values from the sets to the lighting and the cinematography

Nakata’s direction is so assaultive, that no suspense, tension or scares can be found

The acting, for the most part, is terrible or worse, lifeless

The storytelling is boring, with droning narration and many scenes of repetition (rehearsals of the same lines happen over and over)

The antagonist is laughably stupid in appearance as well as execution

SCORE: 3/10 (The nadir of Hideo Nakata’s career.)

Cast: Haruka Shimazaki, Mantaro Koichi, Rika Adachi, Riho Takada, Keita Machida, Ikuji Nakamura

Director: Hideo Nakata

Screenwriter(s): Junya Kato, Ryuta Miyake

Movie Review – Solomon’s Perjury [Part 1 & 2] (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

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EXPECTATIONS: A murder mystery about whiny kids acting whiny to achieve justice. Featuring whiny kids.

REVIEW:  Ever since I watched the Scooby-Doo cartoon series to reading Goosebumps books and even watching the Sherlock Hound anime series, I’ve always known that I love a good mystery yarn. But for the mature stories, it’s not always the destinations and conclusions that thrill me, but the character’s journeys that they go through in their investigations that kept me on edge. Like the David Fincher film, Se7en, where the mystery is just as compelling as the journeys of the characters and when the two coalesce in the climax as well as it does, there’s no surprise it is still regarded as one of the best film endings ever made. From a movie with a similar setting to the one I am about to review, Confessions, by Tetsuya Nakashima, also had characters that undergo compelling journeys (from grief-stricken mother to vengeful angel), but does Solomon’s Perjury measure up, even with its two full-length films?

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A boy, Kashiwagi (Mochizuki Ayumu), is mysteriously is found dead on Christmas Eve at a high school. Two suspects are found. A gang leader, Oide (Hiroya Shimizu) who is widely known for bullying many students and a bullying victim, Juri (Anna Ishii), who has an ulterior motive that could be used against her. With the teachers, parents and authorities bringing very little to no help to the proceedings, the students, led by Ryoko (Ryoko Fujino) and Kambara (Mizuki Itagaki) unleash their own brand of justice by starting their own trial to uphold justice for the victim(s) of the crime and the aftermath of it.

Notice that the film synopsis is really vague to avoid spoilers. To watch a mystery film such as this, it is integral for a viewer to avoid having preconceptions or prior information before watching. But for Solomon’s Perjury, the beauty of the story is that the characters are compelling to the point that the story supports them and not the other way around. The slow-burn approach of Part 1 is all about the repercussions and consequences of the character’s actions and reactions of the death of Kawashigi where as in Part 2, it revolves around the courtroom trial itself and the revelations that come with it. I love how the film portrays the crime in the social of Japan. The school faculty want to cover it all up, the parents want rushed justice with little to no remorse and the media want to milk the situation for all its worth. Whether it is in the view of the media or the parents or the teachers, the ripple of the crime is felt throughout the town and director Narushima shows that without feeling heavy-handed and it adds to the story, particularly on the side of Juri, who uses the media to her advantage.

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The adults mostly carry the load of the first film, and they all provide their professional support, with Tomoko Tabata standing out as the lead investigator, Fumiyo Kohinata as the troubled principal and Haru Kuroki in a small role, as a teacher who may or may have not been involved. The young talent provide the massive potential that leads into Part 2, with Anna Ishii and Hiroya Shimizu standing out as the suspects. Anna Ishii is questionably sympathetic and unlikable but what makes her stand out is her portrayal of simmering rage as she does whatever it takes to get revenge. Hiroya Shimizu is similar to Ishii’s performance, but he never goes over the top with his portrayal of a bully and throughout the films, he becomes more a tragic figure than a monster that he is perceived as. It was weird to see Shimizu play a bully here when he played a bully victim in  Tetsuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako.

For the second film, the young talent are given the opportunity to shine. More of a bystander in the first film, Ryoko Fujino gives a star-making performance as she shows strength, sorrow and grace with such admirable understatement and restraint, that you can’t even fathom that this was her first acting role. Mizuki Itagaki is also given more of a prominent role than in the first film and he plays the facades of his character really well, making you question whether he is on the side of good or bad. It’s talent like this that makes you think that young talent in Japan is more than just idols, models and singers turned actors.

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As much as I liked the storytelling and the acting, it’s the climax that lets it down a notch. Not so much the reveals and revelations that come with it but how it is all handled. The way the character’s accountability is well acted by everyone but it goes on too long and it starts to become preachy, almost like an after-school special. In a moral standpoint, it makes perfect sense, but in retrospect, it can be seen as ironically funny.  Plus, the adults take a backseat, which is a bit disappointing since some of them have missed opportunities that could have been more developed, like Hiromi Nagasaku’s character, Juri’s mother.

But most of the characters are so well done, that their journey is felt and their development is conveyed in a compelling fashion. If you are looking for a compelling mystery, it suffices. But if you are looking for a drama with compelling characters and a good why-dunnit story, Solomon’s Perjury is worth viewing.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The adult cast are capably professional in their roles (Tomoko Tabata handles the most, with her investigator role)

The young acting talent are fantastic in their roles, exhibiting maturity beyond their years as well as an astounding level of poise, without looking phony

The focus on character makes the storytelling involving, immersive as well as emotionally satisfying, thanks to Narushima’s direction

Great social commentary about how Japan deals with student affairs (i.e, the media, the education system, the students themselves etc.)

CONS

The revelations, while well-told and realized, won’t satisfy everyone on a story standpoint

The ending drags a bit, becoming almost preachy

Missed opportunities with some characters

SCORE: 7.5/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Fujino Ryoko, Itagaki Mizuki, Ishii Anna, Shimizu Hiroya, Tomita Miu, Mochizuki Ayumu, Sasaki Kuranosuke, Yutaka Matsushige,  Kuroki Haru, Tabata Tomoko, Fumiyo Kohinata

Director: Izuru Narushima

Screenwriter: Katsuhiko Manabe, based on the original story by Miyuki Miyabe

Movie Review – Poison Berry In My Brain (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A fun romantic comedy that just so happens to be very similar to Pixar’s Inside Out.

REVIEW: Before I start talking about the movie (and its similarities to Pixar’s Inside Out), let me talk about the main actress, Yoko Maki. Being in the unfortunate position of being known in the West in a small role in The Fast and the Furious – Tokyo Drift, I think that she’s one of the most under-appreciated actresses in Japan today. Her performances have great restraint that rings human; she shows strength and authority in a compelling way and she has surprisingly comedic chops that are underused. Great examples of her work are in Before the Vigil, The Ravine of Goodbye, Like Father Like Son and fittingly, Poison Berry In My Brain. Despite sharing many similarities to the Pixar film, Poison Berry In My Brain is nonetheless, a very funny romantic comedy that has enough innovations to make it fresh and worthwhile to watch.

Yoko Maki stars as Ichiko Sakurai, a smart and talented woman who recently got fired from her job due to her indecisiveness and her impulsiveness. But in an optimistic fashion, she uses her time off to work on her long-gestating novel. It is in her daily life, where she has problems with making decisions in general. Every time she has to make one, it is brainstormed in her head, represented as a committee of five people including the chairman Yoshida (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who represents reason; Ishibashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who represents optimism; Ikeda (Yo Yoshida) who represents pessimism; Hatoko (Hiyori Sakurada) who represents impulsiveness and imagination and Kishi (Kazuyuki Asano) who represents memory. There is also another member of the committee that suddenly appears when Ichiko meets Ryoichi Saotome (Yuki Furakawa), and it starts a tumultuous relationship that could see the committee and Ichiko go for a bumpy ride.

I’ve already written enough praise for Yoko Maki (also in Lion Standing Against the Wind) already so…I’m gonna do it again. In this movie, she displays everything from vulnerability, strength when it is needed and her comedic chops are in full display, especially when she struggles to hold in her sexual urges and feelings towards Saotome. She also never feels like she’s a guest in her own film as she stand her ground as a character, which was a problem for me as I watched Inside Out, as the main character felt like she was benched out. As for the supporting cast, most of them are great, while some are just present. Hidetoshi Nishijima is amusing as a timid leader and when he finally shows authority, he becomes compelling. Kazuyuki Asano shows adds credibility in the dramatic scenes as well as amusing asides during the comic arguments. The duo of Ryunosuke Kamiki (also in Bakuman) and Yo Yoshida lend plenty of laughs with their confrontations while Hiyori Sakurada (who was good in The Furthest End Awaits) is a hoot as Hatoko, who stands on the delicate line between overly cute and pure hilarity. Even when she stands in the background, doing nothing, she just comes off as hilarious. But unfortunately, the performances of the male characters that want to court Ichiko are quite frankly, bland. It may not be the actor’s performances but it might be their character archetypes. Granted, they are more developed than the norm of romantic comedies, but it doesn’t offset the fact that these characters are still bland. It makes a bit of a dramatic vacuum since we don’t really care about who Ichiko chooses out of the two.

There are many blatant similarities to this and Pixar’s Inside Out. Both feature a female protagonist with a committee that represent five different personalities and both revolve around a major part of a person’s life. In Inside Out, it revolved around a child’s adolescence, but in Poison Berry In My Brain, it revolves around a person’s love life. Though there are plenty of opportunities for depth and nuance, the film doesn’t take that route that much (except for the climax) due to the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. The story itself can be predictable but the addition of the committee is what makes the film stand out. The visuals of the committee looks quite good and I liked how it was set in a castle, which conveys Ichiko’s world of fantasy and imagination, especially when she’s a writer of romantic stories. And I really liked the choice of choosing a beautiful woman, dressing eerily close to BDSM, representing Ichiko’s sensualist emotions, impulsiveness, and how she easily overrules the committee.

Regardless of similarities, what it lacks in substance, it makes up for it in laughs. And besides the performances, the editing is another reason why the film earns its laughs. With the careful timing of cutting back to the committee’s reactions of Ichiko, it earns many laughs and thankfully, the filmmakers never overdo it to the point of tedium or attempt it at the wrong time like during a dramatic scene. The dramatic scenes can work although at times, the music can be used a bit too much just to get a rise out of the audience. The substance in the film still counts as the film can be a bit more than just a romantic comedy, but it can be seen as a commentary about love and happiness. And it definitely rings true in the climax.

Speaking of dramatic, the climax earns its poignancy thanks to the capabilities of the cast alone and the journey of Ichiko is very well-traveled. Her character arc is nothing new, but it is portrayed enough to drive its point home. I would like to see a sequel to this film just to explore other major life events that Ichiko might come by, as this film only explores love (in every sense of the word).

Poison Berry In My Brain is a fun romantic comedy that applies more effort than most of its kind and when you add Yoko Maki, the talented supporting cast and its innovations (derivative or not), it becomes more than just fluff; it has brains.

Quickie Review

PROS

Yoko Maki gives an understated,  charming, “emotional” and very funny performance

The supporting cast (committee) are all great

Many different diversions to make the romantic comedy template seem fresh

CONS

Boring male romantic leads

The music can be a bit overused

Those who have seen “Inside Out” may be put off a bit

SCORE: 7.5/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Yoko Maki, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Yuki Furukawa, Sungha, Yo Yoshida, Hiyori Sakurada, Kazuyuki Asano

Director: Yuichi Sato

Screenwriter: Tomoko Aizawa, based on the manga by Setona Mizushiro

Movie Review – American Ultra

EXPECTATIONS: A fun stoner action-comedy akin to Pineapple Express.

REVIEW: Typecasting for an actor can be a blessing or a curse. In the case of actors like Cary Grant, George Clooney or even Seth Rogen, it can be quite beneficial. But for some, it can be a curse, like for Michael Cera. Hence going into the unfairly maligned Jesse Eisenberg. First seeing him in Wes Craven’s Cursed and, of course, Zombieland. But for his movies proceeding the latter, he has, more or less, played the same character over and over with very little diversions like the idiosyncratic The Double and Night Moves. Also suffering from ridicule is Kristen Stewart. Confined and noticeably dreading to be in blockbuster films like the crappy Twilight films and the depressingly boring Snow White and the Huntsman. But after those films, she feels rejuvenated again with one good performance after another and topping her career with Clouds of Sils Maria. But the two have something great between them in a little seen (in my opinion, anyway) film called Adventureland. A fantastic coming-of-age film as well as a good romance, where Eisenberg and Stewart have great chemistry. So when I heard of American Ultra, I thought it was a blockbuster, but it had a small budget and it was written by Chronicle writer Max Landis and it looked like the two leads were having fun in the stoner teaser of the film. So imagine my surprise when I find out that American Ultra is being incorrectly marketed by the trailer and it is more than what I thought it would be.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a stoner who works in a convenience store, occasionally writes stories for comics and has a loving, yet problematic relationship with Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is also a stoner who works as a bonds-woman. The two have problems due to Mike’s phobias and panic attacks but Phoebe sticks by him for better or worse. Until one night at work, Mike has a talk or two with a mysterious woman (authoritative and paternal Connie Britton) mentioning some code words of some sort, but he doesn’t recognize her or the words she spoke. After the awkward conversation, she leaves and Mike sees two men tampering with his car. As the two men proceed to attack him, Mike subconsciously kills both of them armed with a pot noodle and a spoon. Scared of his capabilities, he calls Phoebe about it for support and the two are sucked in a plot that involves more than they could ever hallucinate imagine, involving FBI agents (annoying as hell Topher Grace, angry Bill Pullman, questionably loyal Tony Hale), drug dealers (over-the-top John Leguizamo), sweeper agents (laughable Walton Goggins, Monique Ganderton) and other paranoia.

There are many surprises that happen in this film which I did not expect to happen. One, the stoner aspect of the film is really minor. It’s almost a non-sequitur of sorts so anyone expecting anything along the lines of Pineapple Express will be disappointed. Another surprise is that the situations in the story are, typically, all exaggerated to entertaining effect but thankfully, the movie commits to its off-kilter logic all the way to its last frame. But the best surprise here is the romance aspect. Showing great chemistry in Adventureland, Eisenberg and Stewart rekindle that chemistry here and it grounds the film nicely, making the audience care for the characters. They make it easy for the audience to get invested, and they share intimacy that pays off fantastically in the climax and earns a poignancy when they question who they are in the world. Unlike Adventureland, where Eisenberg stood out with his genuinely timid charm, Stewart stands out the most with her subtle, endearing and heartfelt performance. Showing more regret and sadness than anger towards Mike, she truly stands alongside her man for better or worse and she also isn’t a damsel in distress and can stand up for herself. She also handles the comedic aspects of the film capably, as she has the best lines of the film, particularly one about alerting people about guns. Eisenberg sure as hell isn’t a slouch, as he plays Mike with a loser charm and we definitely feel his disappointment to not live up to his expectations of being good towards Phoebe. He also plays his action beats really well that we can buy him as a killing machine, especially when the action scenes are sometimes done in one take.

The story is a lot more unpredictable than the usual action norm, thanks to scriptwriter Max Landis, but the problem here is the tone. The logic is consistent but the tone isn’t and it can throw off a lot of people. With exaggerated portrayals from the supporting actors (from John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins and especially from the antagonist, Topher Grace), it can be a bit hard to take the film seriously when it needs the audience to do so. Plus, the scenes outside from the Mike and Phoebe relationship can be a bit jarring at times; sometimes they feel like they belong in another movie. The violence in the action scenes are brutal to watch. I can take the tone switches since I’m inclined to many films of its type, especially from old 90’s Hong Kong films, but for general audiences, it can be a bit taxing. The storytelling is fine for the most part, but some parts lack closure, mainly Mike’s character arc. But the film does end with an opening for a sequel, (the ending can be seen a bit twisted as well when you think about it), so it might be open until then.

For its small budget, the film looks great while the visuals are amiably small-scale (like the town its set in) and the shaky-cam is used effectively to add tension and suspense in the scene. The film also has a hell of a fantastic end credit sequence that features one of the characters that Mike created for his comics. The music compliments the film as well, with well-chosen tracks that add some surrealism and poignancy to the film, particularly in the romantic scenes. So overall, if you are looking for a different type of action film, American Ultra is a good alternative. What it lacks in focus, it makes up for in entertainment and the pairing of Eisenberg and Stewart is again, fantastic.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great lead performances and chemistry

Action scenes are well-executed

The genre mix of action, comedy and romance is entertaining

CONS

Tonal inconsistencies

Some flaws in the storytelling

Some annoying supporting performances

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Lavel Crawford, Stuart Greer
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenwriter: Max Landis

Movie Review – The Man from U.N.C.L.E

EXPECTATIONS: An over-stylized and annoyingly modernized action film that bears little to no resemblance to the source material.

REVIEW: Guy Ritchie is a filmmaker that I used to admire in terms of his great sense of humour in his early work but ever since he worked on the Sherlock Holmes films, he tends to over-stylize his films to the point of annoyance. Particularly in the sequel to Sherlock Holmes, where he tends to overuse slow-motion and flashbacks to compensate for clear and concise storytelling. So when I was preparing to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E, I was nervous. Aside from the female leads, the male leads hadn’t really impressed me with their prior performances, particularly Henry Cavill. At least Armie Hammer was surprisingly noteworthy in J.Edgar. So imagine my surprise at how much I enjoyed The Man From U.N.C.L.E but also imagine my disappointment at how much more it could’ve been.

Set during the brink of the Cold War, a mysterious crime organization, led by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) is hellbent on using nuclear weapons to disrupt relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Against this tumultuous backdrop, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced to put aside their differences to work together and stop the crime organization of their evil ways. Their one lead into their mission is the daughter, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) of a missing German scientist, who happens to be the one weaponizing for the evildoers, so it is imperative that they find him to prevent a global catastrophe.

If this plot sounds typical to you, unfortunately, it is exactly as it reads out. And this is the major problem with this movie. Very little effort is made to the plot and it bores at times, which is not a good sign for an action film. And even more so is when Guy Ritchie employs flashbacks, especially when they play out just mere minutes after the event happens. It can be amusing as it actually delivers a punchline, but most of the time, it’s repetitive and it can be seen as an insult the audience. Also adding to the fire is the tone shifts. They can be very abrupt at times and can make the audience question whether the film is meant to be a fun romp or is it meant to be serious. Addressing these major flaws, it is just so frustrating to say that it delivers on all of its other fronts, from the acting, the throwback style, the look and especially the soundtrack.

First off, the actors. As I stated earlier, none of the male leads impressed me before but in The Man From U.N.C.L.E, both of them surprised me. Henry Cavill is pure charisma as Napoleon Solo and he fits the character like a glove. From his womanizing ways to his controlled mood during the action and his excellent passive-aggressive chemistry between Armie Hammer, he’s a hell of a lot of fun. So much so, I can definitely see him as a contender for James Bond. As for Armie Hammer, he took a bit to adjust to, with an acceptable Russian accent, but he becomes more human throughout the movie, especially when he’s alongside Alicia Vikander. He’s like a bear of a man; cuddly and aggressive yet easy to warm up to. But it’s the chemistry between the two leads that pay off with some of the best moments in the film, like in a scene where they argue about what Vikander’s character should wear. Alicia Vikander is lighthearted and strong as Gaby and also has great chemistry with the two leads. It is very nice to witness her play a lighter role after all of her emotionally draining (in the case of Ex Machina, physically) roles. Elizabeth Debicki, who was a delight in The Great Gatsby, gives life to her archetypal villain (that would usually be portrayed by a man) and her scenes with Cavill are a delight. The rest of the supporting cast are fine, if not impressive, except for Sylvester Groth, who was pretty creepy in his scene with Cavill on how he reveals his own backstory.

Another surprise in the film is how Ritchie tones down his frenetic style to a suitable amount that actually adds to the film. The directorial choices like split-screens, subversiveness of the spy genre (like Elizabeth Debicki as the villain) and even the soundtrack all add to the retro-feel, even with some modern touches. All the action scenes are amiably low-key but they have enough style to stand out from the norm and some scenes even divert from the action with great effect. There’s a scene when Cavill is patiently waiting in a truck while Hammer is being attacked in a boat chase. The song coming from the truck radio is beyond cool and and really exemplifies the bond between the two characters. Another great use of music is during a torture scene involving Cavill and it balances between cool and haunting very well. The music recalls Steven Sodebergh at times, which is ironic considering that he was considering to direct this film.

As much as I can say about the positives of the film, it just pains me to say that this film could’ve been a lot more. The sum of its parts do not add up to what it could’ve been and what hurts more is that the film was a bit of a box office flop, so a sequel is very unlikely. I enjoyed the characters and their adventures and I wanted to see a sequel that could improve on the original’s flaws, but alas.

Quickie Review

PROS

Very charismatic leads (and a fun villain)

Guy Ritchie’s direction is thankfully restrained

The soundtrack is a fantastic listen

Great throwback feel and modern touches compliment each other

CONS

Problematic storytelling (i.e many flashbacks)

Boring plot

Abrupt tone shifts

SCORE: 6.5/10

Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Luca Calvani, Misha Kuznetsov, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant

Director: Guy Ritchie

Screenwriters: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, story by Jeff Kleeman, David Campbell Wilson, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, based on the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Movie Review – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

EXPECTATIONS: Another typical terminal cancer film that hides its manipulative ways with excessive quirkiness. But it has Park Chan-Wook collaborator, Chung Chung-Hoon as cinematographer?!?!

REVIEW: If you seen as many terminal cancer films or disease-of-the-week films as I have, especially films from South Korea, you have a tendency to guess where the film is going and there’s very little the filmmakers can do in terms of innovation to make you forget the predictability. You can have excellent acting and bring a new fresh coat of paint to it all but deep down, the cliches and formalities are still there. I wasn’t that familiar with the cast although I saw Thomas Mann in the crappy Project X and Olivia Cooke in Bates Motel, I saw one of the director’s work, the remake/sequel The Town that Dreaded Sundown. I thought it was a visually stimulating film that made the slasher genre alive again until its anticlimactic ending. So when I watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I expected something along those lines with a problematic script. Fortunately, all those positives I mentioned are there but there are other fantastic elements that are nostalgic, subversive or just plain clever that makes the story seem fresh again.

Thomas Mann stars as Greg, an awkward and self-loathing senior who just drifts through high school without socializing with any of the school cliques and gets by with his childhood “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler) who make amateur parodies of classic films; and his unorthodox teacher, Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal). He hears that his other estranged childhood friend, Rachel (Olivia Cooke) is diagnosed of leukemia, and is forced by his quirky parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) to visit her for moral support. Obviously not wanting each others company, they gradually bond over time and have an unexpected friendship, especially when Earl shows Rachel the amateur films, despite Greg’s reluctance. Over time, Rachel’s condition worsens as she begins chemotherapy, Greg decides to spend more time with her and less time on his high school studies. As the whole school learns of Rachel’s condition, Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) a crush of Greg’s convinces him to make a film for Rachel, but Greg’s selfishness gets in the way to the point that it tests his friendship with Rachel.

First things first, this is not a romance, so there is no Florence Nightingale syndrome influence or any of the romantic cliches that would recall Nicholas Sparks, which I am truly grateful of. This is a coming-of-age tale of friendship and a good one at that. The actors are all fantastic in portraying their characters, that they come off as real people instead of characters that could only come from a script. Thomas Mann is  great as Greg, who shows a sloppy likability to him despite being selfish and he becomes more sympathetic as the film paces along, with his character development from self-loathing to caring; is convincing. RJ Cyler is charismatic as the seemingly one-joke (about breasts) Earl and his act as a moral compass to Greg as well as comic relief, makes him very entertaining. But the standout is Olivia Cooke as Rachel. Not thinking of her much in the terrible horror film, Ouija, she gives a refreshing performance that subverts the “cancer victim” archetype, never feeling weighed down or feeling sorry for herself and she has a charming presence. Her commitment to the role also pays off like how she shaved her head for the role and her performance in the later stages of the film shows she’s got dramatic chops.

The supporting cast are fine in their roles, with Nick Offerman and Jon Bernthal adding amusement and Katherine C. Hughes breaking the “hot, yet vapid chick” archetype by adding humanity to her part. Molly Shannon was a surprise in the film as she displays both comedic chops (as she’s primarily known for) and her dramatic chops (especially in the scene where she’s involved in an interview) as Rachel’s mother. This wasn’t the first time I saw her in a dramatic role (like her creepy character in the TV series, Hannibal), but I hope people would give her a chance to do more parts like this, like how Kathryn Hahn was in the horror flick, The Visit.

As for the technical qualities, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, as I’ve seen in his horror remake/sequel, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, is a very visual director. And he brings that touch to here to great effect, showing high school life as energetic, off-kilter yet still relatable to witness. Gomez-Rejon knows especially when to pull back and let the scene flow naturally and it pays off with its best scenes, like a confrontational scene between Greg and Rachel that plays in one single take. The cinematography from Park Chan-Wook collaborator, Chung Chung-Hoon (of all people!) is fantastic, especially when we see the amateur film parodies. Film buffs (like me) will especially enjoy these moments sprinkled throughout the film, that recalls the low-fi nostalgia of Be Kind, Rewind.

The story is also told in a refreshing way, that has no heart-tugging moments or any excessive melodrama and not even the use of any sappy music. The characters and their portrayals that makes the story touching as it is, but it’s the humourous approach to the story that makes the film stand out. The amateur film parodies are hilarious (even if you don’t know them) and Greg’s lack of social skills pay off with many funny moments, especially when he says things that no pitying human would say. Earl’s comic relief syncs up with Greg’s self-loathing well and the chemistry between Greg and Rachel is great, particularly when they reference pillows or even make fun of Rachel’s condition, without sounding mean.

The film however has some weaknesses, mainly due to the quirkiness being a bit too much, especially in its first act (the use of Vietnamese Beef Noddle Soup was a bit random, so was Hugh Jackman) but the film is a very entertaining watch due to its subversiveness of terminal cancer films, high school films and the wonderfully likable characters and performances. I was surprised that the film didn’t make me consider killing myself. There’s one film this year that made me consider that, but that’s another review.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Wonderful visual style

Great subversiveness towards its own genres

Many film moments for cinephiles

Humanistic touch adds poignancy without feeling fake

CONS

The quirkiness and visuals can be a bit excessive

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenwriters: Jesse Andrews

Film-momatic Flashback – Hausu

EXPECTATIONS: ????????????????????????????

REVIEW: What do you get when you cross Scooby-Doo, House on Haunted Hill and–wait, that’s no good. What do you get when you cross Evil Dead, Suspiria and–that’s no good either. What about changing Pee Wee’s Playhouse into a horror? You know what, none of these analogies work. The film (if you can even call it that) that I am about to review is indescribable. And I mean that in the pitch perfect sense of the word. There’s nothing else like it or anything that even comes close to the cult appeal of it. I remember hearing about it for the first time when I was bragging that no horror movie would scare me and I was looking for some that would. Many have failed (like supposed snuff films like Niku Daruma or The Guinea Pig films) but I came across the trailer for Hausu. It really puzzled me out. I had so many questions I had to answer after I watched it. Was that really a horror movie? Why was this highly regarded? Then I started to read about the film without going into spoiler territory, and some of the information was even more puzzling. One mind-boggling example that I read was that Hausu was made due to the popularity of Jaws. This is the movie Japanese filmmakers came up with to counteract Jaws? How can this be? It was the compelling production stories, the trailer and the melange of genres and tones that disturbed, thrilled and seduced me into buying the film. Now was it worth it? That’s questionable to many, but I’m willing to bet bananas to watermelons that once you’ve seen it, you can definitely say there’s nothing else like it.

The drug trip story starts off with Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), who is planning to spend her summer vacation with her father (Saho Sasazawa), who is a famous composer (amusingly praised as better than Ennio Morricone). But unfortunately, he makes the announcement that he has found a new wife, Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi) and she’ll be joining in on their summer vacation. Feeling resentment towards her father, she mourns about her deceased mother which eventually leads her to think about her auntie (Yoko Minamida), who has a tragic backstory about losing her husband during World War II. Wanting to see her, she plans her summer vacation to go at her aunt’s house in the countryside. Through an air of serendipity, her six friends’ plans for summer vacation have fallen apart, so they all join Gorgeous on her vacation, hoping for a wonderful time. Little do they know, Auntie is more than she shows and funnily enough, seems to be more sprightly every time a girl goes missing. That leaves Gorgeous, Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Sweet and Mac (Mieko Sato) in a horrific time that could end in a drug trip deadly consequences.

There are some points of fascination that I just have to make. According to an interview, the director took inspiration from his daughter’s nightmares and what scared her and incorporated it into the film. Watching it in retrospect, it makes perfect sense in terms of tone and style. This is what a nightmare looks like in the eyes of a child. Their power of imagination can make the most mundane astoundingly fun or eerily scary. There’s a scene involving someone about to be eaten by futons. It reminded me of my childhood, when I would be scared if my bed had swallowed me and no one would be able to find my body. It’s one of the many moments in the film that feels paradoxically human and surreal. Another scene in the film involves one getting her fingers eaten by a piano that she was playing. That scene and the former also explores how the character’s strengths (hinted by their names) become their burdens to the point of their downfall. In the same interview, the director stated that he was a child during the Second World War, and it affected him and it shows in Hausu. These are children who lived after the war, so when Gorgeous recounts the backstory of her Auntie, they are oblivious to the massive ramifications that the war had on Japan, and it pays off with some deliciously dark humour as well as some compelling visual metaphors that amp up the scares as well as the surrealism.

There are also other elements of the film that made it far ahead of its time. For example, there’s a “cast” commentary over Gorgeous’ telling of Auntie’s backstory that earns laughs, particularly in terms of dark humour (i.e. a character sees an atomic bomb explosion shown pink and compares it to cotton candy). There are scenes in the film that are so random and unfathomable (like a scene with a cat on a piano), that they can be compared to Youtube Poop; something that was definitely not known back in 1977. Even the character’s names can be seen as a amusing meta-commentary on female character representations in horror films. There are so many scary moments that can be seen as inspirations to modern horror films. For example, long locks of hair creeping up to someone which is an influence to Ju-On and The Grudge films to excessive spraying blood from walls which could be an influence to The Evil Dead films and even the stop-motion techniques could be an apparent influence to the Tetsuo films. There is so much visual chutzpah in its style that it will be looked upon in film schools for decades. All of the effects are on-camera, no excessive CGI, just practical effects and a vivid imagination from Nobuhiko Obayashi and his daughter.

The amateur cast along for the ride are all game to Obayashi’s vision and they are up for it, every step of the way. From the making-of video, some of the actress even went nude, and all of it wasn’t even for prurient purposes; meaning that some of them had to be painted blue so their bodies can not be seen in blue screen, to make it seem like they are beheaded or missing a limb. That’s a lot of commitment from them, and it is very appreciable. All the actresses live up to their namesakes, but my personal favourite is Kung Fu. Not only is she convincing in her action chops, she show a lot of charisma that makes us like her almost immediately, and I think Obayashi knows that too. Hell, he even gave the character her own theme song, which appears whenever she is about to throw a kick or a punch, and it’s great.

Speaking of the music, Godiego (who is most known for the Monkey TV show theme song) provide the soundtrack. Apparently, the music for the film was made before the film was even in production, so for the songs to even come together and coalesce is nothing short of a miracle. The joyous music comes across as exactly so, but over time, the repetition and joy becomes genuinely haunting at times. The film-making style comes across the same way. It all seems like fun and games at first, with the stop-motion, under-cranking, matte paintings but over time, it really comes off as disturbing. There’s a scene where Gorgeous is about to leave the house and she leaves the other girls behind and while she walks out, the frame rate of the scene is minimized to the point that it looks stilted, off-kilter that adds to the eerie atmosphere. Everything in the film, from the sets to the music to the special effects to the directorial style should create a train-wreck, but miraculously, it all comes together and even the story is told in a linear fashion. Even the ending can be seen as pure bittersweet since it shows both sweetness, fantasy and horror, all with a Godiego soundtrack.

I could go on and on forever about Hausu, but if the review were any longer, my brain would probably explode. And that goes the same for the film, which thankfully is only 88 minutes. Hausu is one kaleidoscopic experience that must be seen to be believed and if you can, purchase the Blu-Ray from Criterion Collection. It’s totally worth it. I absolutely loved this film.

Quickie Review

PROS

Perfectly resembles a true nightmare
Old-school film techniques and imagination add to an incredibly surreal experience
Fantastically inspirational and meta, filled with bizarre humour ( “Looks like a cotton candy!” )
So many mind-boggling, psychedelic experiences that it may trigger a seizure (and that’s including moments BEFORE they go in the haunted house!)

CONS

May be way too weird for audiences

SCORE: 9/10 (No matter how positive or negative your view is on the film, you can definitely say that there’s nothing else like it.)

Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Eriko Tanaka, Kumiko Oda, Ai Matsubara, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Sato, Miki Jinbo, Yoko Minamida, Saho Sasazawa, Haruko Wanibuchi
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Screenwriters: Chigumi Obayashi, Chiho Katsura