Archive for the ‘Movie Festivals’ Category

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Yubari Fanta 2013-2015: Part 2

August 22, 2015

Here are some pictures from the streets of Yubari.

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Yubari Fanta 2013-2015: Part 1

August 22, 2015

I had intended to write a long article about Yubari International Film festival; however, since it seems I’ll never find the time I’ll just post a very quick introduction with some pictures.

The festival is held in the small town of Yubari in February, when the whole place covered in snow. It’s a pretty beautiful view with all the snowy mountains. The city streets alone are good enough a reason to visit Yubari since they are packed with beautiful old movie billboards from samurai films to yakuza flicks and Charles Bronson movies. I have counted at least 50 of them and trying to find all of them is part of the fun. I’ll post some pictures in the next post.

The festival itself focuses on small genre and indie films, from splatter to drama. Most of the films are world premiers of titles you’ve never heard about before – and may never hear about again. Consequently the average level of the films may not be as high as on some other festivals, but there are many small treasures to be found every year.

Another highlight is the insane side-program. If you attend a screening of a martial arts film, you can probably expect a live martial arts demonstration. If you attend a screening for a special effects splatter film, you may see the film’s makeup artist holding a 2 hour workshop on how to turn an actor into a zombie. And if you attend anything with regular quests Yoshihiro Nishimura or Noboru Iguchi, you should expect total insanity. Seriously, half of the madness that goes on in Nishimura and Iguchi events cannot be posted publicly, with the two gentlemen running around naked in snow being among the cost casual and innocent of their acts. Others include a human sushi plate (a naked woman, of course), Iguchi and Nishimura dancing to a AKB-48 pop song while dressed in girls’ school uniform, and SM torture competition hosted by Eihi Shiina – just to give a few examples of things that kind of can be mentioned publicly.

“Cruel!”. In front of the venue for an insane 2 day Yoshihiro Nishimura program.

Yui Murata mini concert

Nishimura, Iguchi and Kayano dancing to ABK-48

Iguchi and Rina Takeda in Iguchi event

Nishimura, Iguchi, Asami and others

The oriental Tom Cruise

Makeup effects wizard Soichi Umezawa does his magic on Momoko Kuroiwa

Band playing at the closing ceremony

Of course there are also some relatively down-to-earth Q&A sessions, like

Asami, Kudando Mitsutake and Dean Harada at Gun Woman premiere

Maki Mizui and Yoshihiro Nishimura at Kept (Ra) premiere

And what’s best, there are no red carpets in Yubari. Filmmakers and the audience hang out together, sit in the audience together, and constantly run into each other everywhere. In fact, most of the time when you’re sitting in the audince you later discover the guy next to you was the film’s director/actor/cinematographer etc. Or you’re eating delicious deer in the stove party and only later realize the cook was Masanori Mimoto…

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Nippon Connection 2011

July 20, 2011

While I’m still in the process covering festival highlights, I thought I might post some brief feedback on the fest itself. For better introduction on this annually held (Frankfurt, Germany) awesome film fest, please see Midnight Eye’s article.

Amazing Film Selection (++)

Many film festivals commit the cardinal sin of only playing acclaimed movies by established directors. Nippon Connection provides an amazing variety of movies from mainstream hits to arthouse, splatter, and student films, without forgetting short movies. While the latest mainstream movies draw larger audience, it’s the unknown indie films that are Nippon Connection’s most important asset. At Nippon Connection one can witness cutting edge cinema and new talents being born – not after Cannes told you about them (as if interesting films were invited to Cannes), but before anyone else knew about them.

Many of the indie treasures, no matter how good, never receive home video distribution in their native country, let alone in foreign countries. Often Nippon Connection is one of the few, if not the only, place outside Japan to see them.

Culture and Food (++)

Nippon Connection is more than a film festival – it’s a culture venue including lectures, activities, movies, food, and more. When you’re not watching movies you can be listening to a film lecture or singing karaoke. The local streetfighters will head to the gambling den, zen-fans go to teahouse. When you get hungry you can have sushi, ramen, or other delicious foods cooked by the Japanese chefs at the festival. And beer – a German movie festival wouldn’t be anything without it. Asahi Superdry always within reach. Those looking for something stronger can try sake.

Atmosphere (++)

More than a few people have concluded that Nippon Connection is the nicest film festival they’ve ever visited. Despite the festival’s high reputation, respect, and star attendance, everyone is friendly. You can chat with Noboru Iguchi on the corridors, run into Koji Shiraishi in the bathroom, and make friends with audience members from different countries. It’s not visiting a movie festival, it’s attending a movie festival – and a lot more.

Poor Film Scheduling (- -)

This is the only negative. The scheduling is, simply put, a failure. There are too few screenings for most films (many of them play only once). Most of the program is also scheduled for evenings, sometimes leaving noon and afternoon half-empty. It’s a terrible choice to make in the evening when four top films are screening at the same time. This year’s theme seemed to be “Sion Sono Retro (with his early works like Bicycle Sighs) vs. Everything Else. Can’t have both. Nippon Connection needs to add more second screenings for afternoons.

The second problem concerning the scheduling is that screens are not synchronized. The main screening room especially is completely out of synch with other screening rooms. This means that Nippon Visions screenings might be starting at 16:00 and 18:00, while Nippon Cinema screenings would be starting at 17:00 and 19:00. As a result one Nippon Cinema screening is overlapping with two Nippon Visions screening. This makes it difficult to surf between screens and make it to the next screening.

In comparison, Helsinki International Film Festival manages this very well. The screens are synchronized to a large extent, they often play films of approximately same length at the same time, and the don’t fall much behind schedule. If there is an unexpected delay, they will even come to ask audience if there is anyone in a hurry to the next screening elsewhere, and try to delay the other screening if possible. With the amount of delays at Nippon Connection, this wouldn’t even be possible.

Fun Stories (++)

• Little screw-ups are a seminal part of all good film festivals. 2011 Nippon Connection audiences got to witness how a film reel inserted backwards (or upside down?) looks like (The Room). People who saw Sketches of Kaitan City in the sold out screening at Orfeo’s Erben were left breathless – not because of the film, but because the theater staff forgot to turn on the air conditioning for the first 40 minutes. And in Nippon Visions it seemed to be a tradition that for the first 60 seconds the projector man plays lottery with aspect ratios – until he finds one that pleases him.

• Nippon Connection draws plenty of audience – I witnessed this from the floor when Noboru Iguchi took the last remaining seat – even though I had a ticket, too (Hoga Holic triple). I wonder if he did.

• <Sunday, what a Sunday. Deciding to protest the Kou Shibasaki cooking film Rinco’s Restaurant (oh, come on, it can’t be good) I took the afternoon off and went to meet a Japanese friend downtown. Music, cheerleaders, beer, bratwurst… and, sunburn, dammit. Getting back to the fest I must admit Teto went beyond me thanks the beer – sunburn – headache combo. Thankfully the day was saved by the last fest film: Karate-Robo Zaborgar. More beer with my good friend Alex, meeting Iguchi after the screening (my Japanese literally downgraded by 2 years as I was trying to explain some nonsense of who I am and how I saw Iguchi in Sapporo last year).

Conclusion (++)
Awesome film festival, just fix the scheduling issues, please! Will certainly attend again if I get a chance.

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Hiff – Part 2/2

October 2, 2010

Monday

Jackie Chan’s long time dream project Little Big Soldier (HK/China, 2009) turned out a mediocre action comedy. A historical road movie with war background, Jackie plays a coward warrior with unbeatable battle strategy: play dead. As a sole survivor after a battle he captures a wounded enemy general and tries to take him back to collect a reward. The mission is made difficult by countryside bandits, enemy troops, and a hostage that attempts to fight back at every chance.

Slightly more violent than expected, Little Big Soldier entertains but fails to leave a bigger impression. The action choreography and humor have their moments, although there’s little new on offer for Jackie’s fans. The ending isn’t entirely successful, and the gray visual look feels somewhat out of place.

R (Denmark, 2010) is a Danish prison film that hits hard even in its own genre. Unlike most award-hungry prison film it doesn’t attempt to tell a “coming of age” story nor does it feature wise and philosophical narrator. Instead it’s a 90 minute dive to hell. R refers to its protagonists, Rune, and also supporting character Rashid, both of who are serving only a short term sentence in a prison where it’s impossible to survive alone. Loyalty must be towards those who can keep you alive. Even then, R does have his sunnier days behind the bars.

The film doesn’t swallow itself in constant pessimism or overly graphic images, which only makes it more powerful. Many of the actors are real life prison guards and ex-prisoners. Impressive although not overly original film to depress the audience.

In Symbol (Japan, 2009) a Japanese man in funny pajama wakes up in a big white room covered by small buttons resembling a little boy’s genitals. He discovers that by pushing these buttons he can have various items delivered to the room: chopsticks, manga comics, bonsai tree… One button opens a hope in the wall. Getting out proves easier said than done. Same time in Mexico a middle aged wrestler Escargot is preparing for his match. What does this second story – shot entirely in Spanish and falling under the serious drama category – have to do with the nutcase white room Japan scenario?

Hitoshi Matsumoto’s (Dai nipponjin, 2007) brilliant comedy is not only the most confusing but also one of the funnies movies in years. Yes, there’s symbolism – what would you expect from a film with such title – but whether it’s meant to have any comprehensible meaning is up for the viewer to discover. While there’s room for 12 million interpretations, ultimately the “symbolism” is just one of the director’s tools and easily ignorable in the sense of deeper meanings. Matsumoto’s main aim is to entertain, not philosophize. Even if he heavily borrows Kubrick.

Bong Joon-ho’s (Memories of Murder, The Host) new film Mother (South-Korea, 2009) is a brilliant and darkly humoristic thriller-drama. The film’s central character, as suggested by the title, is a mother whose grown up son is arrested as a murder suspect. Convinced that her son has been framed, the mother starts her own investigation to find the real killer.

Unlike many other Korean directors Bong Joon-ho makes more old fashioned cinema. Mother doesn’t excel with ultra-stylized visuals or fast moving plot, but allows plenty of time for characters and storyline. This is why its excitement curve also resembles typical cinema from half a century ago: the film gets more involving little by little as it builds on good screenplay and takes its time to do so. The main character is never given a name in the film – she’s the anonymous woman resembling all loving mothers in the world.

Titles can be deceiving yet accurate at the same time, proves Pang Ho Cheung’s Category III thriller Dream Home (Hong Kong, 2010). While flawed, Dream Home is easily one of the most exiting finds in recent Hong Kong cinema. Lead actress / producer Josie Ho stars as a young woman obsessed with purchasing a flat she’s been dreaming since childhood. The money is there, now she only needs to get rid of the current tenants.

A refreshing mix of social commentary, Hong Kong city landscapes, and unusually inventive splatter, Dream Home is a rare beast to come out of today’s Hong Kong. It’s decently well acted, technically competent, and allows plenty of time for storytelling, even characterization. The somewhat slow moving back story, which forms the majority of the film, is played next to the current moment – the lovable Josie Ho butchering people in ways that are as stylish as they are graphic. Some of the gore and gratuitous sex turn into successful black humor. Dream Home is a modern flashback from the golden years of Hong Kong Category III cinema. And no, it won’t be shown in Mainland China.

Tuesday

Following his sub-par manga adaptation Crows Zero Takashi Miike surprises with a solid sequel Crows Zero II (Japan, 2010). The second film in the high school action saga improves on all areas: the dullish back story is now wrapped, the punk-rock soundtrack is more effective, and most importantly, the strange flashiness that plagued many of the first film’s action sequences is gone. Simply put, Crows Zero II works like an oiled engine despite its longish, 133 minute running time and zero-surprise storyline.

Meisa Kuroki’s odd R&B numbers are included, too, but even these parts are relatively catchy. The focus, however, is on the (near-openly homosexual) male struggle: good looking male idols beating the hell out of each other. The high school war finale alone is 27 minutes of non-stop fist fighting action, some of it surprisingly masochistic fist-in-the-face beating. If it wasn’t already done by the original manga by Hiroshi Takahashi, Miike’s film would define the modern Japanese high school delinquent gang. This is true beat em up punk cinema!

Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Japan, 2009), the second remake movie in the series of four films, takes a more independent path that the first one, including adding a new character to the story. For an Evangelion fan it no doubt makes a more rewarding film, although newcomers may still be puzzled. With more than 10 episodes fitted into one movie, the pace is quite dazzling at times. After the action packed and somewhat uninteresting opening the film does slow down quite nicely. It’s the quiet moments that are Evangelion’s strength.

The second film doesn’t quite reach the epic hights of the first film, though, and the humor feels mostly repetition. Nevertheless, 2.0 is a very solid viewing that leaves the audience look forward to the next film. And, the scene showing Tokyo waking up to yet another (deceiving) beautiful sunrise – next to the music borrowed from The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979) – that is pure perfection.

Samuel Maoz’s war film Lebanon (Israel, 2010) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Based on the director’s own experience as a tank gunner in the Lebanon war in 1982, the film could be described as the Das Boot of tank movies. Opening and closing shots aside, the camera stays inside the tank for the entire film. Maoz places the viewer where he was; trapped inside a tank, only knowing what the radio tells him and only seeing what he can see from inside the tank. The director’s choice makes the film as difficult and claustrophobic as it’s impressive.

Needless to say Lebanon is not a tale of war heroes. Maoz stated people think veterans get together and share their old memories. That’s bullshit, Maoz says. Those are times you never want to remember again, yet they will haunt you for the rest of your life. War is kill or be killed. And when Maoz once hesitated to pull the trigger, it resulted in team member being killed. Lebanon attempts to display real war on screen to the extent possible without losing the audience. Much of the footage that, according to the studio, would make no one want to see the film, was left in the cutting room.

And then

I didn’t have time to see Armadillo (Denmark, 2010) on the fest, but it opened in normal distribution soon after so I rushed to see it. Might as well attach it to my report because A), it was port of the festival selection, and B) it’s the most talked about movie in Scandinavia right now, and hopefully in the rest of the world soon! Janus Metz’s documentary film follows a platoon of Danish solders in Afghanistan for several months. Why are these young men traveling to the other side of the world to fight and die in a war that has nothing to do with them? What could easily be another “war is hell, ice is cold” documentary becomes so much more in the hand of Metz. He remains objective and unsentimental to the extent of not featuring any interviews or narrator in the film. Instead the cameraman is one member of the platoon, following them everywhere they go, including battlefield. This gives Armadillo an extremely cinematic feel, not to mention the almost unbearable tension of the “battle scenes”. The cinematographer, fully armed to protect his own life, actually gets involved in gunfights, being lucky not getting hit by any of the bullets that seriously wound some other soldiers just next to him.

Armadillo also creates a very interesting comparison part to Samuel Maoz’s Venice Winner Lebanon. While Maoz stated, based on his own experience, that war is hell that you will never want to experience again, Armadillo shows how many of the soldiers in fact enjoy the adrenaline rush of it. Many of them returned home, only to sign up for 2011 comeback to Afghanistan. It’s no wonder the film has been an eye opener and somewhat of a small scandal to the public in its native country. Technically a documentary, Armadillo should be treated as what it truly is: a superb movie that happens to be 100% reality.

Verdict:

The Housemaid (South-Korea, 2010) – 2.5/5
Outrage (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5
Kaboom (USA, 2010) – 3.5/5
Sound of Noise (Sweden, 2010) – 2.5/5
I’m Gonna Explode (Mexico, 2008) – 2.5/5
Summer Wars (Japan, 2009) – 1/5
Accident (Hong Kong, 2009) – 3.5/5
Little Big Soldier (HK/China, 2009) – 2.5/5
R (Denmark, 2010) – 3/5
Symbol (Japan, 2009) – 4/5
Mother (South-Korea, 2009) – 4/5
Dream Home (Hong Kong, 2010) – 3.5/5
Crows Zero II (Japan, 2010) – 3.5/5
Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (Japan, 2009) – 3.5/5
Lebanon (Israel, 2010) – 3.5/5
Armadillo (Denmark, 2010) – 4/5

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HIFF 2010 – Part 1/2

October 2, 2010

The annual Helsinki International Film Festival (aka Love & Anarchy) was held in late September. With 125 movies shown in 400 screenings, 133 of them sold out, the festival keeps rising in popularity. The film selection contained movies from all around world, including a handful of advance screenings and more than 100 films that would not make it to theatrical distribution in Finland. Since I can see my introductions here sucks (just read it again. Wait, don’t) I’ll save your time and go straight to movie reviews. 16 movies only since I only had a chance to drop by for four days.

Saturday

The Housemaid (South-Korea, 2010), a remake of the famous 1960 shocker of the same name, had the honor to kick off my festival. While the original classic focused on the battle between South-Korea’s poor and the new born middle class, the remake attempts to update the story to modern day South-Korea. The plot is as follows: a young poor woman hired as maid for rich family discovers the ruthlessness of the elite world as she becomes the secret lover of the family head, and ultimately tries to play the game at their rules.

While occasionally haunting in its emotional coldness, much of the film’s intended “scandal value” comes off a bit short: dirty talk and sex scenes that aren’t ultimately all that graphic. The characters, an older maid (Youn Yuh-jung) aside, have very little depth. Lead actress Jeon Do-yeon, who took home the best actress award at Cannes a few years ago (Secret Sunshine, 2007) is a talented actress and certainly easy on the eye, but her characters is walking very familiar paths. Director Im Sang-soon’s social critisism may be accurate but hardly original. The film’s mansion setting is mainly kept alive by excellent cinematography that is the best thing about the film. The ending, while slightly comical and difficult to take all that seriously, does load some punch and bring the film to a nice conclusion.

Kitano is back! After the creative destruction of his cinema career, the iron faced comedian and media personality returns to the genre western audience best know him for: yakuza film. Outrage (Japan, 2010) is a straight forwards crime film in the vein of Violent Cop (1989) or Brother (2000). Gone is the arthouse imagery and humanism of Kitano’s mid-90’s masterpieces, making way for a more simple cinematic expression. Outrage is the core of yakuza film: violence and men in black suits in a superbly stylish package.

The endless brutality is guaranteed to exhaust less experienced viewers but it also works for the benefit of the film in form of dark humor – to the extent of bringing Outrage to the verge of genre satire. Kitano’s more obvious comical touches are firmly included as well. The actual storyline is minimal – crime bosses and their subordinates wasting each other off left and right – and the film admittedly runs 20 minutes too long for its content. Kitano’s ice cold directing and terrific cast featuring actors such as Kippei Shiina, Renji Ishibashi, Jun Kunimura, and Kitano himself, nevertheless keep the film captivating till the end. Outrage also deserves a special award: the most atmospheric use of black cars in the history of yakuza cinema.

“Weird is the new normal”. Upon receiving award for his previous film Mysterious Skin, director Gregg Araki was told by trash king John Waters that Mysterious Skin is great and all, but what he really would like to see is another old school Araki film. That is Kaboom (USA, 2010): drugs, college sex, and mysterious men in animal suits. That’s for beginners, before it really starts getting weird.

The increasingly trippy film ultimately escapes genre classification and wraps up with a big question: what the hell was this all about. It’s the latter that is Kaboom’s potential problem. While realism isn’t what you’d ask for from a Araki film, any movie nevertheless needs some rules and a logic, fantasy it may be, that is at least remotely understandable. Otherwise there’s no reward and the puzzle couldn’t possibly be solved by the viewer. Araki is balancing on a thin fence here, not quite falling but spending some time hanging with one hand. The director’s sunshine-approach towards the subject saves a lot, though – Kaboom is eye candy with terrific soundtrack. Call it the bright side of Donnie Darko if you will.

Sunday

Good idea can take you far – around 30 minutes in case of Sound of Noise (Sweden, 2010). This Swedish crowd pleaser is pure ingeniousness in the beginning. 6 musical terrorists attack a city and turn any objects they can find into musical instruments. It’s the Jackie Chan art of action applied to making music. Unfortunately after the classic hospital attack the film turn for repetition gear for the following 80 minutes. While relatively entertaining, and cinema novices will no doubt find it mind blowingly original, those more familiar with the inventive cinema of Takashi Miike and the likes would expect bets to be raised throughout the film. The ending aims at epic but comes out soft and corny. A catchier remake or shameless rip off would be more than welcome to give the concept the execution it deserves.

Mexican Bonnie and Clyde for teenagers, perhaps with a drop of Natural Born Killers without killing. I’m Gonna Explode (Mexico, 2008) follows two 15 year olds who run from home with guns and big talks. The parents are left home wondering what went wrong and who is to blame.

The strengths and weaknesses of I’m Gonna Explode are as described before. It’s a slightly pretentious film with something to say and plenty of artistic shots – God help the viewer with all the sudden cuts to blue sky at a dramatic moment. Romance, sex, and cry for freedom – what else would be on a 15 year olds mind – also make it bit strange experience considering its protagonists’ young age. Nevertheless, the film is at its best when it lets go and sings for freedom. Immoral and dangerous it may be, but better cinema. These bits are, however, are ultimately in a minority in an otherwise preachy movie. Even then, it does manage to be decently captivating, partly thanks to the cinematography. The grainy film stock used supports the teen angst dream flawlessly.

Mamoro Hosoda’s unbearable anime Summer Wars (Japan, 2009) hit mixes countryside landscapes to IT-commentary – of course not managing the latter without brain-dead, mecha-style action mayhem in computer drawn virtual world. The storyline follows a shy school boy following a girl to countryside to meet her family – an appalling inbred commune where family decides for the lives of its members. Not entirely rare even in today’s Japan, it’s sad having to witness Hododa’s noncritical and narrow minded philosophies on cinema screen. The film’s “go abroad, become devil” side message would be ignorable and meaningless in any other context, here one can only wonder if it was intentional after all.

Family politics aside Summer Wars still has its healthy load of universally embarrassing bits and pieces from heroic grandmother to teary scenes of the daughter overcoming herself. The potentially accurate social commentary – a virtual community taking over people’s lives – drowns itself in noisy action sequences that do not even allow the viewer to fall asleep. The few humoristic and romantic bits between the main characters are the film’s only redeeming qualities.

Dog Bite Dog director Soi Cheang’s much praised Accident (Hong Kong, 2009) is a Hong Kong flavored combination of Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola. Louis Koo leads a team of assassins who disguise their kills as innocent looking accidents. Each hit takes enormous planning – and luck. The latter is the film’s obvious flaw. While the kills are superbly stylish and exciting, they do lack all credibility. Even with perfectly planned set up too much is left on assumption that the target plays his role and outsiders will not interfere, which almost never works in real life.

In fact, the film improves notably once it gets over the killings and moves on to paranoia phase – the part that plays out like a loving homage to The Conversation (1972). The ending doesn’t quite hit the target – once again playing with coincidences, and later even taking an easy moral route out, but if you can ignore the flaws Accident is indeed one of the better Hong Kong thrillers of the recent years.

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HIFF 2009

September 23, 2009

First, I must apoligize. This year’s Helsinki International Film Festival report (aka Rakkautta & Anarkiaa / Love & Narachy) is short and written without too much thought put into it. That’s because I’m in a huge hurry. Later this week I will fly to Hokkkaido to become an exchange student for the next 12 months or so. Because of all the preparations that need to be done I could only go to the festival for 3 days (it’s 11 days in total) and watch no more than 12 movies. I had two more scheduled but something came up and I could’t attend those screening. I gave the tickets to my friend. Now I’m back at my hometown (500 km from Helsinki) writing this post as fast as I can. Sorry for the typos and strange grammar; I don’t have time to read this throught twice.

Friday

I had my first screening at 16:00, although I arrived Helsinki already at 11:30. After a lunch I went to check out my friends place (never visited him in Helsinki before) because that’s something you wanna do when it’s daytime and not after the last film when it’s dark and you get completely lost and then russian mobsters rob and kill you. Another thing I had to do before the films was to get my student visa from the Japanese embassy. That only took 15 minutes, so I had plenty of time to have another meal.You need to eat well before the films start, because my schedule is tight and usually doesn’t even leave room for brabbing hamburgers. Instead I carry some bread in my bag, in case feel starvation death is about to reach for me.

My festival program opens with violence, black suits, good music. Just Walking (2008) is Mexican crime thriller that introduces two storylines that will later merge. In Mexico a handsome and extremely cool hitman Gabriel (Diego Luna) is mafioso Felix’s right hand man. They are planning a big drug deal with an Asian gang. At the same time in Spain four women attempt to rob the Russian mafia. They fail and one of them is captured and sent to jail. Some time later one member of the group, now living in Spain, becomes Félix’s wife. It doesn’t take her long to get bored , and come up with a plan steal his husband’s money. Just Walking’s (titled after a song, not the film’s tempo) best twist is to set likable characters on both sides and this way avoid a simple good vs evil setting. Audio-visually the film is mostly good, but occasionally leaning too much on intentional cool (the director is an admirer of Quentin Tarantino, but thankully not a talentless copycat and does have his own style as well). The film’s biggest short coming is the ending, which misses many opportunities in terms of characters, and also lacks real punch. But all in all, it’s a stylish film.

Also known for visual style is director Park Chan-wook, who misfired with the miserable comedy I’m a Cyborg But That’s Ok (2006). His new vampire film Thirst (2009) however is a positive surprise. Song Kang-ho (The Host) plays a Korean priest, who volunteers in medical experiments. He walks out as the single survivor, but soon discovers he has developed a new kind of taste for blood. Thirst received some additional publicity during the casting process when Park was reported to have great difficulties in finding an actress for the sexually explicit leading female role. He did manage to cast the role eventually, but it’s not hard to guess what type of actress would accept such a role. But there’s a surprise; Parks finding, Kim Ok-vin, is by far one of the most attractive actresses in Korea. Besides, the fuss appears to have been heavily exaggerated; even if Kim may not quality as an idol after this mixture of sex and religion, none of the content is of very graphic in nature. Her performance is also good to certain extent. During the second half of the film melodrama takes over, but that’s mainly the screenplay’s fault. Some of the scenes in the beginning even reach the level of excellence of Park’s best films. Violence, eroticism, and absurd comedy are in good balance. On the negative side the film is a bit too long can’t quite hold up till the last scene. Nevertheless, Thirst is quite an enjoyable film and an interesting take on the vampire genre.

I’m very glad Park succeeded with Thirst because the price I had to pay for being able to see it was not only the film ticket, but it also meant missing the Russian film Morphia (2008), which was screened at the same time. I saw director Aleksey Balabanov’s previous film, Cargo 200 (2007), at last year’s HIFF, and found it quite good. But after Thirst thankfully didn’t have to feel sorry for the decision I made, and I really wouldn’t have had time for self criticism either because the next screening, Kinatay, was scheduled to begin only 2 minutes after Thirst was to end. And of course it was playing in a different theater. I stole myself additional 2 minutes by rushing out from the cinema as soon as the Korean ending credits hit the screen, and then made a Shuffle (1981) esque sprint to the next theaters. I arrived on time, managed to exhaust myself for some reason. Maybe it was because I had too much stuff to carry, and I was over-dressed as well. In any case, the next 15 minutes I wasn’t sure if someone sitting behind me was kicking my chair, of if it was just in my head. Go figure…

There was a bit of kick toward the audience in the film as well. This spring Roger Ebert apologized Vincent Callo for calling The Brown Bunny the worst film in the history of Cannes film festival, because he thought the honor belonged to phillipino film Kinatay (2009). The Cannes jury replied by awarding Brillante Mendoza as the best director of the year. Kinatay follows a normal man’s one night journey into the heart of darkness. And it is dark; 75% of the film takes place night time, and there’s no ”movie lighting” or steady camerawork. The director aims at documentary style, or perhaps even snuff style, some exaggerator might say. Many have also compared Kinatay to Gaspar Noes’s films such as Irreversible. It’s hard hitting story and may be easier appreciated as an experience than genuinely enjoyed while watching. But it needs to be seen from a good print, because this is perhaps the darkest films ever made. In the festival screening I attended we got to enjoy a terrible digital projection that made it completely impossible to see what was going on most of the time. No wonder approximately 10% of the audience walked out during the film. However, a far superior presentation for this film is possible. For this reason I have not given a rating for the film (in the form I saw it, it would be a 1).

And then, the award for the year’s most mentally insane motion picture goes to… Yatterman (2009). The year’s best film on the other hand… well, that just might be Yatterman, too. Based on a 1970’s anime series Yatterman is an over-the-top adventure in which Yatterman 1 (Sho Sakurai from Arashi) and Yatterman 2 (Saki Fukuda with blond hair) battle evil Doronjo (Kyoko Fukada) and her two dumb helpers around the world, usually destroying half of the city in the process. Also included are all kinds of robots from mecha dog Yatterwoof to Doronjo’s various battle tanks. Yatterman is basically two hours of non-stop, high energy insanity. The maniacal musical scene in Jackie Chan’s City Hunter’s would be the best comparison. There’s dancing and singing, huge explosions, robots trashing the streets, clumsy villains usuing Fukada’s breasts as air bags, and a mountain of schoolgirls (literally). The tempo is amazing, and, apart from one scene at the end, never runs out of fuel. The leather dressed Kyoko Fukada is the film’s real star, playing a role somewhat similar to Chiaki Kuriama in Miike’s previous family fantasy The Great Yokai War. She’s not quite on par, but the film is ever better. However, it must be said that the amount of sexually crude jokes inserted into a family film here is mind staggering. Yatterman is Takashi Miike’s craziest film by a mile. It’s also his best.

Saturday

Since the Russian mobsters failed to get me last night, I was ready for another load of films on Saturday. I begin my day by writing notes about the films I saw yesterday (how else could I write mini reviews with even the slightest accuracy) and then walk to the city centrum with my friend. I believe owe him a pizza, because he allows me to sleep on his floor. Actually, he even had an extra matress, so it softened my festival experience nicely. Usually I don’t have and don’t even ask for such luxory. But still, I should have taken use of the luxory transportation that the local buses offer. Now I left a bit too late and almost had to run to make it on time to pizzeria and the film that would follow.

That film wasn’t just your average festival filler. United Red Army (2007) is one of the movies this decade will be remembered for. 1960’s / 70’s pink rebel Koji Wakamatsu has made a 190 minute film about student activity that lead to the formation of the extremist group United Red Army in 1972. The film begins almost as a documentary, filling the firts 15 minutes with narrated news footage and cutting in short scenes with actors. After the opening this composition is flipped; the archive footage becomes supporting, and actors take over. Wakamatsu depicts the birth of the movement, and shows how common sense and good intentions get lost and become insanity when the passionate youngsters begin their armed training at the mountains. This part of the film goes on for a bit too long, but it doesn’t weaken the film’s incredible impact. Wakamatsu’s approach is admiring, critical and intelligent. This has been a very personal project for him; Wakamatsu financed the film himself, and can no longer even return to his home. That’s because the limited budget forced him to use his own house in the film and burn it. But it was worth it. United Red Army is a masterpiece.

That can’t be said about Tony Manero (2008) I’m afraid. Instead a word of warning is needed here; this Chilean film about a low life killer obsessed with John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever is not quite exotic film finding some audiences may be expecting. Instead Tony Manero is a naturalistic drama about the most repulsive leading character in recent memory. He’s a killer and thug who beats defenceless elderly people to death and steals their money. Needless to say, he doesn’t treat his family much better. The main character is intended as an allegory for the country’s state in the late 70’s.There may be an audience for this kind of misery-cinema, but I’m not among them. Casual viewers will find little else to enjoy than the two Travolta dance scenes. The lead actor Alfredo Castro’s face looks like a mix of Al Pacino and Christopher Walken.

Now, according to my original schedule, I was to see The Hurt Locker and North next. But since Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglorious Basters also interests me, I decided to go see it instead outside the festival program. Inglorious Basters isn’t playing in my hometown yet, and I don’t want to see it in Japan either because the film’s dialogue is 30% English, 30% German, and 40 French. My kanji reading isn’t even close to being up to following Japanese subtitles in a film. But I return to the festival alter in the evening to see another Takashi Miike film.

Unfortunately Crows Zero (2007), an adaptation of a high school action manga by Hiroshi Takahashi, is 30 minutes too long, and more often dull than exciting. It’s obvious from the terribly edited, flashy opening action scene that many of Miike’s stylistic choises don’t work this time. Manga haired tough guys beat each other and form alliances in the notorious ”School of Crows”, but it’s mostly the comedy bits that manage to entertain. Another asset is punk; the brilliant opening credits scene echoes of Sogo Ishii. Unfortunately it’s followed by Meisa Kuroki’s R&B, something that shouldn’t even be in a film that should be rage and anarchism from the start to end. Miike also fails with the yakuza content; there is only bad cliches on offer. While clearly a mainstream film, it’s the violence that sets Crows Zero apart from similar style American productions that would probably aim for the pg-13 category. Miike has given up on his old gore shockers, but the kicks and punches in Crows Zero feel and look like they could make a hole in one’s face. The final fist fight, which is the only truly exiting action scene in the film, is the best example of this. Not dance-like soft-martial arts scene, but a genuinely masochistic beat the shit out of each other match.

Sunday

Last night I succeeded in something that I’m slightly proud of. I managed to return to my friends apartment without waking him up. Even though I hit the same chair three times and also has some disagreements for the closet door that was on my way…. Yes, it was very, very dark, and I didn’t want to wake him up by turning the lights on. The time was around 2am. The film ended after one, but not being familiar with the night busses of Helsinki, it took me some time to find the right one. I discovered half of the bus drivers don’t even know the major streets in Helsinki…

In any case, the Sunday opens with a very positive surprise. The British film The Tournament (2009) is one of the several recent Battle Royale soft variations… although ’soft’ is not exactly the best word to use when describing this ultra violent old school actioner. 30 of worlds deadliest assassins gather to play a survival game; the last man standing wins. A normal (fully populated) city in England serves as battle ground. The premise is delicious, and outcome is just as great…. and messy. Head explode and bullets rip off arms when 9 assassins find themselves at the same strip club at the same time in one of the film’s numerous action highlights. The budget appears to have been unsually big for such honest violence entertainment; there is no obvious cgi but real cars blown up to the sky, and of course genuine fake blood splattered all over the walls. The most memorable characters include Chinese kung fu killer (Kelly Hu), amazing french parkour expert armed with double pistols and sniper rifle (Sebastien Foucan), and Ving Rhanes the general bad mofo. And of course Robert Carlyle as a drunk priest who becomes a player by accident when someone throws a tracking device in his coffee! The Tournament is Rambo for 2009.

More action ahead, this time from Thailand. It may not become a huge surprise, but Ong Bak 2 (2008) has a problem with its story. But this time it’s a serious problem. A lot of people complained that earlier Tony Jaa films like Tom Yum Goong didn’t have proper story, even though these films had a good flow and sometimes even a greatly enjoyable ”who stole my elephant” storyline. But people would have preferred some bullshit cliche collection storyline to be inserted. The 16th century set Ong Bak 2 actually takes one very small step to that direction, and it immediately becomes a drag. Anything related to characters and storyline only slows Ong Bak 2. The entire first hour is quite miserable actually; not even the fight scenes manage to impress (not counting a couple of great stunts). But it’s the ending that makes Ong Bak 2 worth seeing. The 20 minute action finale comes pretty close to being the best martial arts scene ever captured on film. It doesn’t make the preceding hour any better, but it does make the ending worth seeing once, twice, maybe thrice. It will be interesting to see how Ong Bak 3 continues from here. One new trick the filmmakers have learned is mure fluent but also faster editing. It’s not entirely a good thing.

After two violent action films a change of tone on at place. During the past 10 years director’s like Ryuichi Hiroki, Shunji Iwai and Hiroshi Ishikawa have re-invented Japanese drama film by making more intimate, often digitally shot films that move away from the classic Ozu style. Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking (2008) on the other hand is more old fashioned film. Koreeda marches characters from several generations in front of the camera for a family meeting. The middle aged son (Hiroshi Abe) and his new wife and son visit his parents and siblings in the old family house. There is no clear storyline, but rather 24 hours of one family’s life captured on camera. Koreeda’s idyllic images and slow tempo have won the critics over, but without the actors Still Walking wouldn’t stand on its feet. Hiroshi Abe and Yoshio Harada’s (the father) performances are a pleasure to watch. Some of the other actors, or rather their characters, do not get much room and make the first half of the film quite poor and uninteresting. The film improves later when there are fewer characters left. Another reason for the film becoming better during its second half is the director’s dry approach; there is little else than the characters, and they only become interesting once you get to know them better. In Koreeda’s hands that takes time.

A lot of time must also be reserved for my last film, which is a 5 hour double screening. Red Cliff (2008 / 2009) was John Woo’s return to Hong Kong and it wasn’t a modest one; all time highest budget in an Asian film, and approximately 100 000 men borrowed from the Chinese army to avoid the use of little cgi soldiers. And yet, there is a fair bit of cgi in the film, and not nearly all of it is well done. Another problem is characterization and supplementary story bits that aren’t very engaging. This kind of period drama has been seen before and done better, and without a clumsy love scene that Woo has for some reason left in his final cut. However, the epic scale and highly interesting war scenes keep even the first half of this film entertaining, and it’s Part II that truly shines. Once the dry set up is done, it’s hard core war tactics were brains matter more that manpower take over. Part 2 also introduces plenty of humour and it works far better than expected. Even the cgi is better done, although an overused ”ripped screen” transition effect is introduced. The final war scene is probably the most impressive war sequence even shot on film; kind this of sequence movie theaters were build for. Still, Woo remains honest to his old trademarks; heroism is emphasized more than realism, and white doves fly above the battle grounds.

Verdict:

Just Walking (Spain / Mexico, 2008) – 3/5
Thirst (South-Korea, 2009) – 3,5/5
Kinatay (Philippines, 2009) – ?/5
Yatterman (Japan, 2009) – 4,5/5
United Red Army (Japan, 2007) – 4,5/5
Tony Manero (Chile / Brazil, 2008) – 1/5
Crows Zero (Japan, 2007) – 1,5/5
The Tournament (UK, 2009) – 4/5
Still Walking (Japan, 2008) – 2,5/5
Red Cliff: Part 1 (HK / China 2008) – 3/5
Red Cliff: Part 2 (HK / China 2009) – 4/5

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Night Visions 2008: MH

October 28, 2008

Less than a month was given time to recover from the Hiff load until it’s already time for the next film festival, this time something shorter, something that turns movie watching into an extreme sport; Night Visions: Maximum Halloween 3008. Night Visions is a one weekend film festival celebrating mainly horror, fantasy and cult cinema (plus a few mainstream advance screenings as a filler). The festival is held twice a year; the main event Maximum Halloween in October, and Back to Basics in May/April. Following the tradition the event was held in Maxim; the oldest movie theatre still operating in Helsinki. It’s located only a few hundred metre from the famous Helsinki Cathedral.

The structure of the fest is simple; friday is the warm up night (films staring at 21:00 and 23:00), and saturday the actual festival night (films playing from 21:00 to approximately 11:00). There’s always two films playing at the same time so you can choose which one to see. Although two is not so much to choose from it’s not a big problem as the program is trictly customized and the target audience rather narrow. The festival is mainly targeted at hard core film geeks willing to fight the exhaustion and sit through the whole night. If you High School Musical 3 is on top if you “to see” list, you’ve come to the wrong theatre.

Friday: Warm Up

The festival kicks off with one of its most interesting new titles; Ryuhei Kitamura’s Hollywood debut The Midnight Meat Train (2008 ). Kitamura & Hollywood doesn’t sound like a promising combination, but the feedback has been highly positive, and for a reason. Using a Clive Barker novel as a base, Kitamura delivers a strong horror film that borrows its atmosphere mostly from the late 80’s / early 90’s American horror cinema. The director has left out his usual trickery for the most part and remains loyal to the source material; this is far more Barker than Kitamura. Bradley Cooper plays the lead role, but it’s Vinnie Jones as a giant butcher that takes his work to the midnight train once the day closes that really stands out. The only notable negative is the use cgi gore effects, although they don’t come even close to sinking the film. Humour is used very sparsely, and it works. Also bonus from sticking to the simple but effective base idea, instead of trying to spread it out too much to please bigger audiences.

More horror follows when Quarantine (2008 ), the American incarnation of last year’s over-rated Spanish horror hit [Rec], finds its way into my schedule. Rationally thinking, it would’ve been a better choice to go see Tokyo Gore Police instead, but since I wanted to save Eihi Shiina’s mini-skirt to saturday night, I ended up into a half empty theater, hoping the film wouldn’t be as bad as it had every reason to be. And thankfully it isn’t. It is a direct copy of [Rec] as far as screenplay goes – meaning the whole story of a group of people who get stuck in an apartment building when the government, without telling the reasons, isolates the building and allows no one to leave is seen through a reporter’s handhelf camera -, only this time shot in English and with a new cast. Technically, however, it’s an effective movie and better than the original.

[Rec] suffered from realism; the panicking and yelling characters became more irritating than likable during the film’s course. The American cast handles this aspect a tad better, perhaps making the pic less convincing to some, but overall more enjoyable. Another nice improvement is the cameraman who is given slightly more characteristics than his counterpart in [Rec] that never grew into something more than a walking camera. Admittedly the character development is not deep, and having an African-American man in the role, often consoling his nervous white female colleague, feels quite obvious Hollywood calculation, made even more obvious by making things even by casting another African-American as the bad tempered policeman. Such strong anti-racism is almost racism in itself.

The dark atmosphere continues outside the theater; it’s raing, and dark, and 1 am. I run to the train station where my buss leaves, it’s only about one kilometer from the movie theatre. When I arrive, I see several policemen in front of the station. I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s a bunch of bald men standing in rain and arguing with the police. Some bystander mentions racism, but I’m not sure if it was related to the incident. Either way, once again it’s a moment when I’m not proud of my home country. When the buss leaves, I count five police cars plus one that I think belonged to the law enforcement but was a civil model.

Saturday: The Festival Night

Bangkok Dangerous remake, or Into the Mirror remake? Obviously the mean spirited festival ministry did this on purpose, making the audience choose between two Hollywood remakes of Asian movies. The logically thinking side of my brains tells me to go see Mirrors (2008 ). Director Alexande Aja’s career has gone downhill ever since his brutally effective debut Haute Tension, but assumably he’s still capable of keeping the tech side under control. Also, the festival is playing the uncut version – the US cut was edited for R-rating.

But I can’t help myself. In the promo pics of Bangkok Dangerous (2008 ) Nicolas Cage looks so utterly confused and spiritually absent that I just have to get myself a ticket. Bangkok two way it is. And it’s a decently good trip. Brothers Pang deliver an average assassin pic that surpasses the Thai original simply by lacking the revolting disco direction it suffered from. Sentimentialism is also kept under control this time. The oriental location works, but feels a bit under-exploited.

The first thing the fans and non-fans of the original notice is that Nic talks. The main character, now an American killer for hire, Joe, is no more a deaf-mute. It’s a shame, really, as the thought of Cage as deaf-mute assassin lost in the streets of Bangkok sounded quite delicious. But the good thing is that the Pang bros have created an entirely new screenplay that only throws a few familiar elements into the mix. One of them is the female lead Charlie Young who – here it comes – is a deaf-mute. Her role is not very extensive, though. Cage and his enjoyable art of acting from the fourth dimension dominates the pic.

Up next is the first of the three UK horrors shown on the fest, two of which I would see before the night has turned into a day. Eden Lake (2008 ) is a debut film by James Watkins. A couple’s holiday to nature turns into a nightmare in a way that references the problems of the real world in many ways. Technically a superb film, with a very good cast and beautiful locations, but unfortunately the screenplay takes continuous turns to the wrong direction. It fails to surprise the viewer, and lowers the audience dedication by too often doing the exact thing you were hoping for not to happen. It’s a shame as Eden Lake is a strongly involving film that could’ve been really great if it was better written.

Yoshihiro Nishimura’s literally jaw dropping gore opus Tokyo Gore Police features some of the most impressive handmade special effects in recent memory. And plenty of blood (four thousand litres were used, according to the director). Audition’s Eihi Shiina stars as an engineer hunter tracking down mutants who can replace body parts with deadly weapons such as chainsaws. Yes, it’s Blade Runner in red. Sometimes Nishimura tries too hard – the wrist cutting scene in the beginning being a good example – but he’s also got some sense of style; the main character drives an old Saab turned into a police car in the Shinjuku neon light jungle. Additional fun is provided by movie director cameos, including Takashi “I hate the Japanese” Shimizu, and Paul Verhoeven esque commercials (Suicide is kawaii!!, by Noboru Iguchi). All in all, it’s unbelievable Nishimura managed to shoot this all in just two weeks and with no time for rehearsals. Thrilling trash, just don’t expect technical merits on other areas than special effects.

Back to traditional celluloid film. A few years ago when Paul Andrew Williams made his debut with a hard hitting but slightly pretentious London to Brighton he advised new film-makers to avoid shooting in digital as it always looks worse than film. Obviously he had little idea what he was talking about, but having personally just sat through a painful reminder of how poor digital formats can look like when used incompetently, Williams’s preference for traditional film came very much welcomed indeed. In The Cottage (2008 ) Andy ’Gollum’ Serkis and Reece Shearsmith play two men with an intention to make money with a kidnapping plan. Things go worse than possible. Instead of a thriller or pure horror, The Cottage is a comedic no hold barred ride that will surprise more than once. It the first half doesn’t work entirely, though, and the music choices are less cleaver than the one responsible for them probably thinks.

Before the next film there was a bit a of extra program, with four volunteers picked from the audience to act in a post apocalypse short play. The first player got a big advantage as he was given a cardboard bazooka – the only prop there was. The rest had to rely on their improvised ”Give me fuel, bastards” -lines. The winner got something, but I can’t remember what it was. Perhaps it was the Speed Racer promotional item that was for share (yet another sign of the festival ministry’s twisted sense of humour). Later in the morning competitors had to get into mood for a horror film to come by building WALL·E models. It’s hard to say who were more confused; the players, or the audience.

Battletruck: Warlords of the 21st Century (1982). In the recent uprise of Ozploitation (thanks to the documentary pic Not Quite Hollywood) this New Zealand post apocalypse pride could also find a new audience… perhaps its first major one. The basic elements are all there; armored trucks, lonely hero, and deadly battles for gasoline. What’s extra are the fine landscapes of New Zealand, effectively used in a couple of ’helicopter tracking shots’ but otherwise playing little role in the story. The title truck is driven by a villainous bunch that oppresses the ordinary poor people. Michael Beck has to stand up for them. The middle third features some dead moments but the action is rather good and the armored truck itself leaves no room for complaints.

Where’s that energy drink I brought with me? I fell asleep for 5 seconds during Battletruck (basically I was just having heavy thoughts… and then I noticed my eyes were closed…) sometime around 6 am. Energiajuoma, it states in Finnish in capital letters. The small printing says ”don’t drink before going to sleep”. Ah, exactly what need. Hope it’s good… uhg, no such luck. It tastes awful. But that’s not such a bad thing actually. It has an instant effect; every time I take a gulp I have to twist my face like Jim Carrey in a mid 90’s comedy and that alone keep me awake for 15 minutes at one go. Also, I better take this chance and eat those two buns I stole from school (one day they’re gonna catch me for that) on Friday.

A famous video nasty title with a creepy cover art that burned into my memory at young age, I Drink Your Blood (1970) turns out a hippie movie instead of the monster splatter I was expecting. But it’s not about free love and flower girls. No, these hippies are dangerous! I Drink Your Blood is a nice piece of unintentionally funny American exploitation cinema that works best when seen with people who have at least some understanding for the genre. The screenplay is wonderfully illogical; you’ll find yourself confused more often than not. Apparently the pic was originally rated X by MPAA, which sounds pretty far out considering the content. Perhaps 38 years ago someone did take the film with some seriousness.

If my memory serves me right, this is when the last remaining Saw 5 raincoats were given away. They really had hard time getting rid of those! Other, real prizes were also handed out to the lucky ones, although I believe the main prize went to the festival ministry after the came to the conclusion there no good competitions left and it would be easier if they just kept the items themself. The audience got smaller stuff, like posters and other items they had to discard but were too large to fit the trash bin…

The grande finale for the night, Robotrix (1991), a classic Category III title combining sci-fi, sex and kung fu. Amy Yip – delivering her usual Yiptease (the art of jumping around naked without ever really exposing anything) – and Chikako Aoyama – with a bit less restraints in front of the camera – star as female cyborgs after a mechanical villain (Billy Chow). A bunch horny male cops give ”support”. The outrageous film would’ve been great fun even normally, but as the last film of the marathon, watched at 8:45 am, after 6 other cult and horror films, it was a riot. The applauses during (especially when Chow disposes the dead prostitute) and after the film were all well deserved. No better way to end the festival.

Epilogue

Another great Night Visions experience. Big thanks to the organizers. The program was good, and so were all the films (keep in mind I’m using very harsh rating scale, with ”positive toned” ratings beginning from 1.5, and 2.5 equaling to a solid film). Looking forward to Back to Basics in Spring 2009. Films saw at Maximum Halloween 3008 in the order of viewing:

The Midnight Meat Train – 3,5/5
Quarantine – 2,5/5
Bangkok Dangerous – 2,5/5
Eden Lake – 2,5/5
Tokyo Gore Police – 2,5/5
The Cottage – 2,5/5
Battletruck – 2,5/5
I Drink Your Blood – 3/5
Robotrix – 4/5