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Interested in films from France, Japan, Korea...? Well there's plenty of reviews from non-Hollywood films to entertain you here.

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

 

With: Alain Delon, Andre Bourvil, Yves Montand, Francois Perier, Gian Maria Volonte

Directed by Jean-Pierre Meville, this French detective movie stars 3 of France’s biggest actors. We follow 4 main characters: Vogel (Volonte) is a gangster who manages to escape the well-meaning commissioner Mattei (Bourvil) by jumping off the train in which he was being transferred from Paris to Marseille. Corey (Delon) is an ex-convict who was just released from jail. During his escape, Vogel hides in the boot of Corey’s car when he wasn’t looking in order to go past the police roadblocks installed by Mattei. Vogel becomes Corey’s friend but the former has carelessly killed 2 men who had tried to rob them. Corey proposes that they both rob a big jewellery store (he had received a tip from a dirty prison guard), Vogel agrees and calls up ex cop Jansen (Montand), an expert shooter, to help them do the robbery. Jansen, a solitary alcoholic whose life is barely a life anymore, puts a brilliant plan in motion and the “casse” goes perfectly. Meanwhile, commissioner Mattei, who seems quite harmless at first glance, tries to get some information from shady bar owner Santi (Perier) and slowly gets to the bottom of this complicated affair. And even though the 3 gangsters do a terrific job stealing the jewels, it never looks like they’ll actually get away with it. This smart film is certainly worth seeing, if only to see those 3 great French actors in the same picture. Alain Delon is in full “brooding” mode and is as charismatic as ever (even with the moustache). Bourvil, usually a comedy actor, is in “serious” mode and does very well, especially in the few scenes where we see him acting out his daily routine of coming home, greeting and feeding his 3 cats. It is the great Yves Montand, however, who steals the show. His performance is a respectable one and he really manages to create a character who constantly emanates sadness and misery. The scene where he wakes up and has hallucinations about snakes and lizards creeping up to him in his bed is excellent. As for the film itself, it’s more about actions than words. The screenplay is certainly low on dialogs but its storyline is a rich one. There are a few unfortunate “longueurs”, some overlong moments which slow down the pace of the film. It may be a tragedy but even tragedies should have a little energy and “pizzazz”, no? Just look at The Grifters or Reservoir Dogs. Having said that, the film is still a very enjoyable one: Meville’s terrific direction and the 3 main stars’ presence will be more than enough to keep you interested. Overall, Le Cercle Rouge is a smart, eventful, gripping film that’s well worth a look, just don’t expect to be totally blown away.

 

Overall: ****/5    

 

 

Je Suis Timide Mais Je Me Soigne (1973)

 

With: Pierre Richard, Aldo Maccione

 

Pierre Richard, aka Ben Stiller’s ancestor, stars and directs this little French comedy. We follow a man who’s shyness has become a real handicap in his life: talking to members of the opposite sex is an impossible affair. So, he hires Aldo Ferrari, supposedly an expert in overcoming one’s shyness, to help him out. We soon realise that Aldo is not much of a “playboy” neither and he is just a conman who lives with his Italian “mama”. Both become friends and Aldo is going to help Richard get the girl of his dreams. Aldo, even though he’s pretty useless himself, still tries to give Richard pointers on how to act around women, with hilarious consequences. The film is narrated by Richard himself and since he directed it as well, we finally get a decent glimpse of his Steve Martin-like style of storytelling. As an actor, he is his usual clumsy self and is as funny as ever. It is Aldo Maccione though, who steals the show. He is practically absent in the first half hour of the film but when he becomes a central character in the story, the film just gets funnier and funnier. This is Pierre Richard’s second collaboration with the Italian, the other was in the excellent C’est Pas Moi C’est Lui. As in many Pierre Richard films, the story is pretty limited and the genius is in the gags and unbelievable situations. His exploration of shyness is an interesting one filled with wit and quirky little examples of how being shy can be a handicap. It is comparable to the way The Lonely Guy (with Steve Martin) looked at loneliness. The film is very funny throughout and there are some classic moments (the night club scene for example). The Pink Panther-style opening titles are also worth mentioning as they are very good indeed. Unfortunately, it seems Pierre Richard wasn’t sure how to finish his story so the ending is tagged-on and slightly disappointing. Still, the film is an original, clever, at times hilarious one and is very enjoyable indeed. Not quite as inspired as C’est Pas Moi C’est Lui but still worth a look.

 

Overall: ****/5

 

Ma Femme S’appelle Reviens (1981)

 

With: Michel Blanc, Anemone

 

Directed by Patrice Leconte, this little French romantic comedy stars Michel Blanc as Bernard, a loser doctor who, after his wife leaves him for another man, tries and rebuild his romantic life and find someone else. He moves in to a bigger apartment in a building where most residents are single. His next door neighbour Nadine (Anemone), an unlucky-in-love photographer, develops a friendship with Bernard. Meanwhile, both get involved with other people: Bernard meets a young, pretty high school student and Nadine’s unfaithful ex-boyfriend Terry resurfaces. Bernard and Nadine are both deeply lonely characters: the former doesn’t even bother to unpack his furniture when he moves in to his new place, and the latter empties her fridge instantly when she gets depressed. Actually, the first time they meet, in an elevator, Nadine is crying her heart out. The film itself is quite funny, mostly thanks to Michel Blanc’s deadpan, grumpy character and, as is well known, Blanc is one of the best at playing unlucky losers. Anemone is well cast and, even though she is occasionally irritating, provides a good, entertaining performance. Peter Leconte’s directing is far from visually striking and stylish but, by shooting most of the whole thing in a grey, damp Paris, he brings some realism to his story. The real star here, it must be said, has to be the screenplay: the witty, dry dialogs and the way the story is developed are terrific (the ending is refreshingly un-cheesy). Of course, the film is not perfect, the relationship between Bernard and the high school student is pretty unbelievable and Blanc is certainly an unlikely “romantic” lead. Thankfully though, he gets away with it and the few flaws which this film contains are not very bothering. Overall, Ma Femme S’appelle Reviens is a very enjoyable little film. The desperation and loneliness of the main characters are dealt with light-heartedly but a touch of sadness still manages to resurface in some scenes, which adds a real heart to the story.

 

Overall: ****/5

 

Le Pere Noel Est Une Ordure (1982)

 

With: Thierry Lhermitte, Gerard Jugnot, Anemone, Christian Clavier

 

This cult classic black French comedy not only has an all-star cast but it also has what French comedies often lack: originality. The premise is an odd yet engaging one: it’s Christmas Eve and a group of people, all completely insane in their own way, come into contact with each other and live together what is perhaps one of the most eventful, twisted night ever caught on film. For a fuller description of the story, I refer you to my review of the American remake Mixed Nuts on this very page, the premise is pretty much the same. The film is simply hilarious from start to finish and the craziness never stops. The real genius of this movie, in my opinion, is the characters. We have Felix (Jugnot), a bum, a loser who only seems to have his Santa Claus outfit to wear. He is cranky, violent and intermittently angry. His girlfriend Josette, probably the most irritating creation in film in the world ever (she’s even more annoying than Anemone and Jar Jar Binks having a spelling contest), is a sort of Kathy Burke-like goofball. She’s ugly, vulgar, dumb as a broomstick, annoying and…pregnant (poor kid). Felix and Josette are having another row and Josette, who fears she might get beaten up, goes to find refuge at her “friend’s” place. The “place” in question is an apartment in which an insignificant organisation is based. A group of people answer phone calls from suicidal, depressed people and try to cheer them up and save their lives. It’s soon pretty clear they’re terrible at their job. It’s a nice intention and all but it’s also a fatally preposterous one. Philippe is a member of this organisation. He is played brilliantly by Thierry Lhermitte (his tour de force) whose famous line “C’est cela oui…” is now a classic in France. Philippe is a nerdy, odd little man who looks as though he’s filled with anger and feelings he cannot express. He is therefore stuck-up and cannot admit that he’s in love with Anemone’s shy …, instead, he offers her a grotesque painting of her getting pursued naked by an oversized pig for Christmas. Lhermitte steals the show. I should also mention Christian Clavier’s hilarious performance as a lonely, over-dramatic transvestite. Other great characters include Mme Musquin, a snobbish older woman who gets stuck in the elevator twice, and Preskovic, a weird foreign guy who keeps bringing them revolting food from his country. Michel Blanc also provides the voice of a pervert who keeps calling Philippe and… Overall, what more can I say, I didn’t expect it to be this funny before seeing it but I didn’t stop laughing all the way through. The remake Mixed Nuts is not as good or as funny as the original but is still very quirky and an ultimately good version. Le Pere Noel Est Une Ordure is loud, twisted, clever, laugh-out-loud funny, brilliantly written and acted. A must-see.

 

Overall: *****/5

 

Les Compères (1983)

 

With: Gérard Depardieu, Pierre Richard

 

You probably already know the American remake of this classic French comedy. It starred Robin Williams alongside his pal Billy Crystal and was entitled Father’s Day. The original is a much better film even though that, it must be said, the remake was very enjoyable. The premise of Les Comperes is exactly the same: the rebellious kid of a married couple runs away and the mother, tired of waiting for her useless uptight husband to do something, calls up 2 of her ex-boyfriends. She tells them both they are the biological father of the child in order to get them to track her son down. Depardieu is a tough but nerdy reporter who used to be nicknamed “the caveman”, and Pierre Richard is a clumsy ex-school teacher who’s having an endless depression: he cries for no reason, tries to commit suicide daily. They both start to look for the boy and they soon become aware of each other. But a subtle quiproquo makes it so they believe their “kids” are probably together somewhere. The odd couple in question go and ask questions to the parents of the boy’s girlfriend and this chapter ends in them finding out they’re looking for the same person. The boy’s mother makes up another story: she’s not sure who the father is. This complicates things for Richard and Depardieu who, since they’re both alone and lonely, are going to try and guess who the real dad is whilst looking for the “son”. These 2 great French actors already collaborated on hilarious comedy La Chevre and Les Comperes is another brilliant effort. Pierre Richard’s famous Chaplin-esque slapstick and Depardieu’s one-liners and Obelix-style negotiating techniques are in perfect contrast to each other. The result is an unlikely team who get in Laurel and Hardy-like situations: one perfect example is when Richard is forced to eat his own tie. The film is very funny throughout and even though there are a few drops of cheesiness towards the end, most of the “camembert” from Father’s Day isn’t present here. Very well acted and written, Les Comperes is a classic French comedy that’s simply irresistible. Great fun.

 

Overall: ****1/2 /5        

Les Ripoux (1984)

 

With: Philippe Noiret, Thierry Lhermitte

 

This French comedy directed by Claude Zidi sees the terrific Philippe Noiret as a dirty cop who knows and owns just about every thug in Paris and therefore never arrests anyone. This inspector is given an honest and naïve partner (Lhermitte) and is going to try and teach him the ropes of being a “ripoux”, a dirty cop. But it’s not all that simple since his partner’s conscience and honesty keep creeping in and making it hard for Noiret. Little by little, his new partner becomes more and more corrupted and ends up as crooked as him. There are numerous great one-liners and very funny scenes, one of them involves Noiret sending a masochistic nut into Lhermitte’s office. Noiret’s character is comparable to Phil Silvers’ Sergeant Bilko but the former is considerably “dirtier” and darker. The reliable Thierry Lhermitte is as good as ever but it’s Noiret’s great performance that’s the most memorable. And even though we follow 2 dislikeable human beings as they get deeper and deeper in their own “ripoux-ness” it’s ironically very hard to really dislike any of them. The jokes are numerous and come quickly, thankfully, most of them work and the result is very funny indeed. Les Ripoux is a terrific satire of the French police and the result is a fine comedy that’s very well acted by both its main leads and the whole cast in general. Overall, Les Ripoux may have its predictable moments but it’s definitely a French comedy worth seeing.

 

Overall: ****/5

                

Ringu (1998)

 

With: Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani

 

Yes, it’s the original Japanese horror classic. It uses the concept of a video tape that, when you watch it, you die horribly a week later. When some high-school students are found dead (their hearts just stopped suddenly), a female reporter feels the need to investigate since one of the victims was from her family. She finds a tape and, out of sheer curiosity, watches it: big mistake! As soon as the tape finishes, she receives a phone call telling her she will die in 7 days. Very worried, she asks her ex-husband to help her find out the meaning of the tape and hopefully get to the bottom of it all. Things go pear-shaped when her own son (a very creepy kid I have to say) unwittingly watches the tape. The mother is now on a mission to save her son and herself, but she only has a few days left. Her investigation brings her to suspect a strange little girl called Sadako that suspiciously died a long time ago. The film is a cult hit and spawned two sequels, none as good as the first one obviously (even though the second one was pretty cool). The atmosphere is intermittently creepy as are all the actors actually. The special effects are purposely not used in abundance which makes the last scene all the more disturbing and surprisingly good. It’s all shot in monochrome: everything seems grey, rain-drenched, wet and tense which makes the film even more effective. It is pretty stylish but its goal is not to look “cool”, it’s to tell a terrifying story, and that it does perfectly. It’s obviously scary, although some find the American one scarier: this is normal. The original relies on atmosphere and planned chocks whereas the remake relies on “jumps” and special effects. The actors all give terrific performances which the gang of the remake should have taken example on. The original is far superior to the American remake and, overall, it rules.

 

Overall: ****1/2 /5

 

Train De Vie (1998)

 

With: Lionel Abelanski, Rufus, Agathe de La Fontaine

 

This little French film is a comedy/drama about a small Jewish community from East-Europe who, because they fear being caught by the nazis, decide to organise their own fake deportation by buying a train that will carry them all the way to Russia, where they will be safe. At first, the old rabbis reject this whimsical solution as a crackpot idea but, pretty soon, they agree to it and everyone is soon working on creating a believable nazi train. Some Jewish men of the community (those who speak German fluently) are even given the difficult task of dressing up in a nazi uniform and pretending to be one, just in case they were to come upon some “real” nazis on the way. The whole film is surprisingly funny and its Jewish humour makes the difficult subject of deportation tackled more lighthearted. There are numerous loveable character: from the old whining sarcastic rabbis to the young idiot who starts his own communist group in the community. Other characters seem a little more detached from the Jewish community, the pretty nymphomaniac Esther whom everyone fancies or the young quiet boy who is also the narrator of the story. It is, however, the Jewish “fake nazi” who has to speak German, dress and act like a nazi in order to save the community: he has the biggest responsibility and gets more and more uncomfortable with the whole “being a nazi” thing. It’s all very tense as problem after problem occurs and the real nazis appear repeatedly. There are many twists and the film is pretty unpredictable and at times tense, not to mention good fun. The parts where the community stick together and start to have hope are brilliant, the scene in which there’s a music “face a face” between the Jewish people and some tziganes is terrific. It all ends with a poignant and deeply depressing twist that’s in direct contrast to the lighthearted, whimsical events we’ve just witnessed. It brings the painful realism we almost forgot back in the film. Overall, a surprisingly good film that’s well acted, directed and written and is at times funny and moving. Highly recommended.

 

Overall: ****1/2 /5 

 

Le Diner de Con (1998)

 

With: Thierry Lhermitte, Jacques Villeret, Daniel Prevost

 

This Francis Veber comedy was a big hit in France. It has a promising story: Pierre Brochant (Lhermitte) and his friends enjoy hosting dinners on Wednesday evenings. But these are no ordinary gatherings as they only invite idiots (“con” means idiot and moron in French) and laugh at their flagrant stupidity. Francois Pignon is the next victim, an accountant whose passion is making models of famous landmarks entirely out of matches. He is asked to go meet Brochant at his apartment before joining the rest of the unsuspecting morons for dinner. Problem is, Brochant has injured his back in a golfing accident and can barely move, therefore he is unable to go anywhere. Pignon offers his help and it soon becomes very clear that he is a first class idiot, a world champion in the art of stupidity. When Brochant’s wife leaves him abruptly and tells him she’s never coming back, Pignon feels sorry for him (since he was in a similar situation once) and offers his help once again. From then on, it’s catastrophe after catastrophe as Pignon proves that he is a “con” in a league of his own and Brochant gets a well deserved lesson in life. The late Jacques Villeret has rarely been better and is very funny as Pignon. Lhermitte though has been better but still does a fine job as snobbish jerk Pierre Brochant. The best thing about Le Diner de Con is not just Pignon but particularly the way the jokes and quid pro quos are linked together and are effortlessly effective. However, even though this is an enjoyable light-hearted comedy it is also slightly overrated. The empty story is held together solely by the jokes and unfortunately there are some important plot holes. I mean, are we ever told the reason why Brochant’s wife leaves him? What terrible thing did he do to her?. Overall, the film may be a little flawed but truthfully, it’s not too bothering as the whole thing is consistently funny, clever and original.

 

Overall: ***/5

 

In The Mood For Love (2000)

 

With: Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung

 

Wong Kar Wai received much praise in the Cannes Film Festival and amongst critics with this arty romantic masterpiece. It won awards for best actor, cinematography and editing. Wong Kar Wai had already proven he was a brilliant filmmaker with films like Chungking Express and Happy Together but this film really confirmed his position as the best Chinese filmmaker around. The story of In the Mood for Love takes place in Hong Kong in 1962 and is fairly simple. Newspaper editor Chow and his wife move into a new apartment at the same time as another couple who become their next-door neighbours. But Chow’s wife is never there and Li-zhen’s (Cheung) husband is always away on business. Actually, Kar Wai was clever in not showing us Chow’s wife and Li-zhen’s husband clearly: this puts us in the protagonists’ place. Chow and Li-zhen start to suspect that their partners are actually having affairs with each other, which would explain why they’re always away at the same time and bring back similar gifts from Japan. It soon becomes pretty clear that they were actually right so they both start going out and acting in the way they believe their partners are probably acting. It’s all pretty innocent and we don’t see them having a sexual relationship but we do see them fall in love gradually. They don’t want to be like their cheating partners but they end up understanding that falling is love is not always something that’s planned out. The film is very stylish and Kar Wai’s usual techniques are all present and put to excellent use (slit-staging, slow motion, mirrors). It’s all very colourful with rich, hot colours (purples, reds, oranges) creating a perfect and visually beautiful background, not to mention the many, many dresses Li-zhen wears in the film. The music is, as usual, strangely enchanting and purposely repetitive. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung both give subtle and careful performances that work brilliantly. Kar Wai’s film is also very mysterious with most scenes taking place in narrow corridors and some new enigmas appearing right at the end. It’s a visually impressive and mature arty film that deserve all the praise it has received.

 

Overall: *****/5

 

Andre le Magnifique (2000)

 

With: Michel Vuillermoz, Patrick Ligardes, Isabelle Candelier, Jean-Luc Porraz, Loic Houdre

 

This fine little French comedy is an adaptation of a successful play which won 5 Molieres awards in 1998. The good thing about it is that it was adapted to the screen by the same theatre team. Michel Vuillermoz is Andre, a gardener of the tiny village of Vigoule in the south west of France: he is also the village idiot. When he is asked to be the prompter of a new play, he is obviously overjoyed. The play in question is written by a well-meaning man called Alexis Ader (Ligardes) who is really excited about reopening the theatre (which he grew up loving) after 30 years of it being closed down. In order to bring more people to the play, Alexis and his wife hire a pretentious Parisian actor, Jean-Pascal Faix (Porraz), to play the main part, the knight. Everything goes fine…until the rehearsals actually begin that is. Turns out creating a play in the theatre is a quest in its own, forget knights and swords and all that stuff! As everyone rehearses, everything that could go wrong does, expect technical problems agogo, tension between the actors, impossible situations and plenty of laughs. Will the play be ready in time for the big representation? Are these amateurs really good enough to pull it off? Porraz is excellent as the pompous, arrogant, farting Faix and Vuillermoz steals the show as the simple-minded but loveable Andre. It’s the relationship between these two terrific characters which brings most of the best jokes. Faix simply doesn’t have the patience or the time to cope with Andre’s mind-boggling stupidity and he spends most of the movie insulting him, which is hilarious as you can totally understand how a man like Andre could get on your nerves. But I must say the whole cast is perfect and surprisingly each actor manages to bring laughs more than once during the film which shows that Andre Le Magnifique is very much a team effort. Overall, this film is a little gem that’s very funny from start to finish not to mention cleverly filmed and brilliantly written and acted. A must-see.

 

Overall: *****/5

Happiness Of The Katakuris (2001)

 

With: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda

 

This Japanese film is actually a remake of a Korean film entitled “The Quiet Family”. It tells the story of a family, the Katakuris, who live in the country and try to run a successful  guesthouse. The only problem is: no one ever comes by and everyone’s losing hope. One rainy night, a strange customer arrives and spends the night in their guesthouse, in the morning he’s found dead: he committed suicide. But telling the police would inevitably bring bad publicity and ruin their already slim chances of running a profitable guesthouse. So they bury their deceased guest in the garden. Little do they know that more weird guests are on their way to die in unexpectedly gruesome ways in their peaceful country inn. The film itself is very bizarre: think of a cross between Beetlejuice, Little Shop of Horrors and The Sound of Music. It is a black comedy with a sense of humour darker than a night in the catacombs. It is very funny and I have to say that I hadn’t laughed so much watching a Japanese film before. The musical numbers are catchy (even though if you aren’t Japanese it’s kind of hard to sing along) and brilliantly over the top. It doesn’t take itself seriously and every time a scene becomes too serious it’s quickly followed by some terrific black humour. There’s also a lot of surreal animation at the beginning and during the film which is reminiscent of Czech cult film Little Otik or even Tim Burton’s work. The first scene (partly animated) really sets the tone for the whole film: hilarious, surreal and dark. Expect horny sumos, fake British spies, killer zombies, creepy little monsters with wings and plenty more imaginative folly. The film looks good, especially the end, the acting is over the top, the music is great and it’s all very original, entertaining and fun. A delirious and gruesome black comedy that has to be seen to be believed, an instant cult classic.  

 

Overall: ****/5

 

Dolls (2002)

 

With: Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tatsuya Mihashi, Kyoko Fukada

 

Cult director Takeshi Kitano, who brought us Zatoichi and Hana-Bi, wrote, directed and edited this visually stunning arty film. It tells 3 different stories. The first one involves a young man who agrees to marry a rich girl and leaves his girlfriend, whom he really loves, behind. When he learns that she’s tried to commit suicide, he rushes to the hospital, leaving his “fiancée” at the altar, and finds his girlfriend in a catatonic state. From then on, feeling guilty, he takes care of her, even though she doesn’t speak anymore and doesn’t recognize him, and since the girl he was supposed to marry was the daughter of his boss, he gets fired. They become homeless and live in his car. Then, they wander aimlessly the land tied together by a red rope. The second story is about an old Yakuza who remembers that he too abandoned love for wealth. He decides to go to the park bench where he and his girlfriend, when they were young, used to go eat lunch. But he finds that she is still waiting for him on the bench after all these years. The final story is about a pop star who, after a car accident, gets disfigured and becomes a recluse, refusing to let any of her fans see her like this. Her biggest fan proves his devotion to her by cutting his eyes and becoming blind, just so he can meet her. It’s all very dramatic and very strange: the film begins with a little puppet show involving dolls that resemble the couple of the first story. The film is beautifully shot, very well acted, poetic, artistic and moving. It does contain a few “longueurs” but it’s nevertheless an impressive and unforgettable film that deserves to be more famous.

 

Overall: ****/5

The Grudge: Ju-On (2003)

With: Megumi Okina, Misaki Ito

You’ve no doubt heard of the American remake starring Buffy…I mean, Sarah Michelle Gellar. Well, this is the original. Since I haven’t seen the remake yet, I won’t be able to compare so we’ll just do without for now. The Grudge tells the story, in short, of a curse that passes from person to person in a house where, as a consequence of that, many people have died over the years. The film is organised in chapters, but they’re not really chronological, which makes it all very confusing to say the least. The film uses just about every horror cliché there is but the interesting thing they’ve done is: after each cliché moment, just when you expect the inevitable will happen, they’ve added a little twist at the end, which creates some neat surprises and some unexpected scares. It’s all very stylish and looks more than great. The performances are sometimes a bit unoriginal but on the whole, the acting is pretty ok. There are some things that bother me however. First, if you want to organise a film in chapters, that’s fine, but try to make it so the viewer doesn’t go “How did I get here? Who’s that? Where are we? When is this?” every time! It’s unnecessarily confusing and this makes it quite frustrating at times. Grrr. Also, there is such a thing as putting in too many scares one after the other! Most of them are effective mind you, but by the end, the surprise effect is a bit lost. Finally, another thing I didn’t really fall in love with was all the similarities with Ringu (the weird TV image, the deformed photographs, the girl with her hair covering her face, you get the idea), it makes the film seem unoriginal at times. Having said all that, when it’s scary, it’s scary and there are some truly brilliant surreal moments (dozens of black cats in a room…). It’s all very entertaining and good-looking but it does lack a bit of originality, a twist and a logically organised story. Other than that, it’s very good fun.

 

Overall: ***1/2 / 5

 
A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
 

With: Lim Su-jeong, Mun Geun-yeong, Yom Jung-ah, Kim Kap-su

 

In 2004, the Koreans brought us 2 extremes: first, the beautifully shot Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring!, a magical and enchanting film about the cycle of life. The Koreans also brought us the extremely violent but brilliant dark thriller OldBoy. It was only a matter of time before they would try their luck at the horror film genre. And the result was A Tale of Two Sisters. It’s the story of two sisters who come back from a mental institution to their father and weird step-mother (think Anette Bening in American Beauty only 10 times crazier). But spooky things start happening in the house and it soon becomes clear that all is not what it seems. The film is beautifully shot and at times very scary. The colour red is present in almost every shot which makes you feel like you’re surrounded by blood and danger all the time. This idea was first used by Alfred Hitchcock in the film Marnie. A Tale of Two Sisters was obviously inspired by films like Marnie, Carrie and The Ring but it still manages to be original and to surprise the audience thanks to its complex narrative that keeps you guessing till the end. Some scenes are quite disturbing because of how real they feel, like: for example, at one point, a woman starts choking, falls to the floor and tries to breathe but starts to panic and has a breakdown. There are very strong performances all round as well as a terrific score, which is rare in horror films these days. Overall, It’s definitely the best horror film Asia had to offer last year (yes, it’s better than The Grudge) and a very good film as well.

 

Overall: ****1/2 /5

Zatoichi (2004)

                

With: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano

             

After 10 years of absence, the deadly blind masseur is back, and this time, he’s blond! Takeshi Kitano (who was in Battle Royale and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence) has brought an old hero like Zatoichi into the 21st century. He not only directs the movie but also plays the main role. This Zatoichi is a shy and very dark character but man, can he kick major ass! It’s very simple, he’s unbeatable.The story takes place in a small Japanese village in which nothing is what it seems. A criminal gang is planning to take over the village but for this, an annihilation of 2 families is required. The gang leader hires a samurai called Hattoori as his bodyguard and it becomes clear that a showdown between him and Zatoichi is inevitable. Not only is the film stylish, arty and entertaining, it is also very funny. Surprisingly, Zatoichi is, at times, hilarious and filled with some great slapstick humour (delivered mostly by Zatoichi’s loser gambler friend). If you haven’t seen this film yet, do it, you won’t regret it. It is wonderful to look at and, most of all, great great fun!

 

 Overall: ****1/2 /5  

Hero (2004)

With: Jet Li, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi

 Jet Li is Nameless, an assassin with no name. He goes to see the Emperor so he can be rewarded for the killing of 3 assassins. Simple? Not at all. Because, Nameless is not what he seems and is the account of the killings that he gives to the Emperor true? This is a visually striking film that is filled with wonderful colours, beautiful and enchanting scenes and some most excellent fights! But if you didn't like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon I think you should steer clear of this arty film for it includes some flying around. Otherwise it's brilliant and you won't be disappoiinted. It may not be quite as good as Crouching Tiger, mainly because of the lack of emotionnal punch (we see the charcters die 3 times and at the end the impact is obviously lost) and because it is much too short. But it still kicks major butt. A must-see.

Overall: ****1/2 /5

 

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

 

With: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Clovis Cornillac

 

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the extremely talented French director who brought us the brilliant Amelie and Delicatessen, has created another very original and enchanting film. A Very Long Engagement is darker than Jeunet’s earlier films: it tells the story of a young woman (played by the hard-to-dislike Audrey Tautou) who believes that her soul mate, who has never come back from the trenches after WW1, is still alive hires a determined private detective to find out the truth about his whereabouts. Even when it looks hopeless, she never gives up the search for her missing lover. As a director it is hard to live up to past glories, and when your last film is Amelie, expectations are very high indeed. Jeunet, thankfully, succeeds in creating a film that doesn’t disappoint one bit and is a breath of fresh air from the usual average French films. He proves himself, once again, to be a very imaginative director with an eye for detail and beauty. Audrey Tautou does very well and puts her cutesy Amelie smile to rest (whilst still creating a child-like and loveable character). Also, it must be said that good support is given by almost the whole cast from Amelie disguised and hidden behind weird moustaches and bushy beards as well as a surprising appearance by Jodie Foster! Overall, I loved this film and it’s not only a very enjoyable romantic comedy but it works beautifully as a war film as well. If you’re French, and even if you’re not, don’t miss this film.

 

Overall:****1/2 / 5

 

Casshern (2004)

 

With: Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao

This Japanese epic film is an adaptation of a 70s anime series. The story isn’t exactly simple but I’ll give it a shot. The film takes place in the future and a scientist is looking for people to fund his revolutionary research which involves the ability to attach new body parts to soldiers who’ve been hurt in battle. He desperately wants to find a cure for his dying wife whose health is rapidly deteriorating. Then, one night, lightning strikes the scientist’s lab and the body parts start attaching themselves on their own and a new form of beings, the “neo-sapiens”, are created. They are immediately rejected by the humans who instantly start to destroy them, but a “neo-sapiens” revolution is already being planned by some blonde dude with a really cool red cape. The film is probably the most visually impressive film I have ever seen…seriously! It’s all filmed in front of blue screens (like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) but every shot is carefully crafted and carries a truly incredible originality and an artistic beauty . It is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to an “anime-film”, if you know what I mean. The film is at times reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, at other times Sky Captain and Wild Wild West as well as Metropolis but Casshern is unique. As you can see, it has a lot going for it: a visual treat, good acting, great fight scenes. But it is fatally flawed and it has given me a hard time to rate. The film is way way way too long (an epic 2h30) and gets confused,  unnecessarily complicated and even dull in places. Some scenes just don’t seem like they’re going anywhere and seem stuck in an infinite verbal and musical loop! The mixture of classical music with rock and dance doesn’t really work and the editing is frustratingly overdone with some dialogs interrupted by random images of noisy machines. The film is terribly messy and overlong, which is a shame because if it had been like 40 minutes shorter, it would have been a masterpiece. Which proves the validity of these 2 clichés: less is more and looks aren’t everything. 

 

Overall: ****/5

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

With: Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau

Zhang yimou brought us the visually stunning Hero and now he's made a film that's even better! Whereas the characters in Hero were almost emotionless, the ones in Flying Daggers are much more human and they have more interesting and deeper personalities. Ziyi Zhang, the B-E-A Utiful actress who was also in Crouching Tiger and Hero (and the forthcoming 2046) has the main role: She plays a blind gifted dancer in an "entertainment house" suspected of being part of the House of Flying Daggers, a clan that's against the Goverment. After being arrested and emprisonned she is recued by a mysterious man who claims to be a rebel also.The film is first a romantic one and only secondly an action flick. Ziyi Zhang is as good as ever and manages to kick major ass as well as enchant (the excellent Echo Game scenes). The movie is more "down to earth" than Crouching Tiger or Hero in that people don't just fly around randomly all the time, they do but rarely and it's done in a more stylish way. And the special effects are closer to Matrix than Hero. I believe the film could have easily surpassed Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger if only the last couple of scenes were not so overdramatic and unbelievable. Other than that, it's perfect and it's definitely one of the most visually beautiful films I've ever seen as well as a thrilling and impressive action film with a well handled romantic story.

Overall: **** /5

2046 (2004)

 

With: Tony Leung, Ziyi Zhang, Faye Wong, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung

 

Wong Kar Wai leads an all-star cast in 2046, the story of a journalist who embarks on a series of doomed romances after the end of an affair with a married woman. Meanwhile, his obsession with the number of the room where he met the girl inspires him to write a science-fiction novel called 2046. 2046, it is said at the start, is a place where people go to forget. One of the director’s earlier films, Chungking Express, was also a complex romance and the main characteristics of his filmmaking technique appear in 2046 just as in C. Express. Obsession is something that Kar Wai’s films have a lot of. In Chungking Express some characters were obsessed by such things as lost loves, tins of pineapple and The Mamas and Papas, in 2046 everyone seems to be obsessed with the number…2046. Not only is is the name of Chow’s (the journalist) novel, it’s also the name of a place in it and a room number so it’s kind of hard to make out which 2046 are the characters talking about sometimes. Wong Kar Wai (who also wrote the film) uses slit-staging which narrows our vision and makes it seem like we’re looking in on the action from the outside rather than being with the characters, he used this technique in previous films. Although some ambiguous things from the beginning are clarified towards the end it’s still a pretty confusing flick and demands repeat viewings. The acting is great all around and Ziyi Zhang shows that she’s not only good at flying around in silk robes like a goddess in “wu-shu” films but also a terrific actress. Tony Leung makes his character quite dislikeable during the first half of the film but manages to make us care about him in the end. Overall, Wong Kar Wai’s genius is still well active in this visually beautiful, very well acted, stylish film.

 

Overall: *****/5

 

Ong Bak (2005)

 

With: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao

 

 

Tony Jaa, aka the ‘new Bruce Lee’, choreographed and stars in this incredible martial-art film. The art in question is not kung-fu, however, but Muay Thai: a very violent Thai fighting style. This film is proud to say that it didn’t use any CGI effects, or stunts, or cables and it should be because the fight scenes are so well done that your jaw will undoubtedly reach the floor by the end of each sequence. Tony Jaa is just as theatrical as Jackie Chan and just as violent as Bruce Lee, although he still has some way to go to rightly deserve the ‘new Bruce Lee’ tag. For Lee brought with him not only amazing, kick-ass kung-fu but also philosophy, wit and surprisingly decent acting. Jaa, on the other hand, doesn’t say much during Ong Bak, and his character’s motivation seems quite silly and even immoral. That’s actually the main problem of Ong Bak: its dramatic content. The acting, the script and even the story are unfortunately below average. Jaa plays Ling, a Muay-Thai ass-kicking machine who lives in a little village in the middle of nowhere. One day, the head of a Buddha statue (which protects the village) is severed and stolen and it’s Ling’s job to find the thief and recover the head. Obviously, he doesn’t want to use his impressive technique to fight and tries, during most of the film anyway, to avoid fighting. But when his quest takes him to Bangkok it becomes almost impossible not to do a bit of butt-kicking. Once in this thug-filled city, he gets in all sorts of trouble and unwittingly becomes a street-fighter. The absurdity of this story is that, Ling wants to recover the head of a Buddha, right? In order to save a poor little community from…something, right? But like a billion people get killed in the process! Granted, ‘they’ started it, but still, is it really worth it going through all this trouble for a piece of rock? Oh well…As you can see, the film is pretty brainless and it’s definitely the best video game never made. But having said that, Ong Bak contains some of the most thrilling fight scenes and pursuits I’ve ever seen on film. And when you think that the stunts and choreographies are done by Jaa himself, the word ‘respect’ comes to mind instantly! I must also mention the extreme violence contained in this amazing action flick and the fact that it’s also very funny at times (intentionally and unintentionally). It also contains one of the best opening sequence of the year. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it and all martial-arts fans will adore it: probably the best martial-art film you’ll see all year. Don’t miss it, it’s 100% brilliant entertainment that’ll undoubtedly make you go: ‘how the F*** did he do that??’ more than once.

 

Overall: ***1/2 /5 

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