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Comic Tales: Death Note – The Last Name April 25, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Thriller, Fantasy, Comic Book , add a comment

This sequel to the original Death Note picks up directly where the first film left off, no real surprise as the films were made at the same time, and has the same strengths and weaknesses as that film. The plot gets ever more intricate, as do the machinations of Light Yagami when he tries to keep the fact that he’s the vigilante Kira a secret.

As with the first film, it’s the plot’s twists and turns that keep you hooked, with the Gods of Death lacking substance as both CGI creations and as characters. They merely serve as catalysts to pit Light and “L” against each other. This time a couple of different characters get their hands on the Death Note book (or books, as there is a second one featured this time) but as they are both manipulated by Light we don’t really get to see how someone with a lesser sense of “justice” would handle it.

The final resolution is well handled, you’re never quite sure if Light will get away with his scheme or if “L”, who always seems to know, or at least suspect, more than he lets on will come out on top.

There is plenty of the mythology of the Death Note and the Gods of Death still to be explored, with one follow up already having been made. L: Change the World focuses on the enigmatic sleuth with a sugar habit and, with Hideo Nakata, of Ring and Dark Water fame, taking over the director’s chair it could well top both the original and this and should almost certainly be more visually inventive as well. I’m looking forward to seeing Ken’ichi Matsuyama again, his portrayal of “L” is the best thing about the Death Note films and he’s someone I’ll be keeping an eye out for in the future.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: Tokyo - The Last Megalopolis April 20, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Fantasy , add a comment

Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis blends the development of Tokyo as a city in the early years of the twentieth century with the occult battle between the powers of good and evil going on behind the scenes. Blending history and fantasy is an intriguing idea but the film is far too unfocused and talky to make the most of it, perhaps if I had more of knowledge of Tokyo’s history it might have been more rewarding.  It also has aspirations that go beyond its budget and the special effects capabilities of the time which results in some pretty silly moments. There are a few effective scenes but on the whole this was a real chore to sit through, with the two hour running time feeling almost double that. Even Shintarô ‘Zatoichi’ Katsu, in one of his last roles, couldn’t save this.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: Highlander April 7, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Fantasy , add a comment

Highlander was a big success, less for box office business and more for starting a franchise that to date includes four live action sequels and one animated, plus two live action TV shows and a cartoon. So how does the original hold up after more than 20 years? Not too well, to be honest.

The casting was always a little suspect – Sean Connery I can accept as an Egyptian (via Spain) because…well he’s Sean and has that hypnotic quality real stars have which stops you asking “Why does that Egyptian (via Spain) sound like he comes from Edinburgh?” This quality isn’t shared by Christopher Lambert, not an actor who would leap to my mind were I looking for someone to play a Scot circa 1536. Lambert’s limited range saw him rapidly descend from starring roles in theatrical films to straight-to-video fare. In Highlander he fails to convince as a Scotsman or as an action hero, with the sword fights looking pedestrian by today’s standards and never remotely life threatening.

Roxanne Hart is even less impressive than Lambert, showing zero chemistry with the films star (despite the obligatory ‘80s sex scene) and almost as little personality. Thank god for Clancy Brown, who, as the villainous Kurgan, just about makes the film watchable. He may have no depth as a character but as a display of comic book style villainy it’s great fun. He’s funny, he’s nasty, he’s just so much more entertaining than Lambert’s Conner MacLeod.

The biggest disappointment though was the films look. I used to think Russell Mulcahy’s film oozed style, and in truth it does, it’s just that said style is ‘80s pop video chic. One scene, where Conner walks outside after leaving Hart’s character’s apartment, overuses the smoke machine to such an extent that I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a foggy night or if the building next door was burning down. It’s no surprise now that Mulcahy’s career didn’t reach the heights I’d once expected it to, the film is all surface gloss and no heart.

And the payoff is, and has always been even when the rest of the film seemed cool, a complete letdown. “The Prize” turning out to be less of a lottery win and more the kind you’d find in a cheap Christmas cracker. It’s no wonder the sequels and TV series’ ended up being so contradictory of both each other and the original.

Some films stand the test of time, some don’t, Highlander falls into the latter category.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: The Sword and the Sorcerer February 4, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Fantasy , 4 comments

‘Twas a time of sorcery and adventure, a time of strapping heroes with floppy hair and big swords, ‘twas…the early eighties! Fantasy movies of the sword and sorcery variety had their heyday then, with Conan and his wannabes hacking their way into theatres.

The Sword and the Sorcerer is Conan Lite, a barbarian on a budget. Its cheap production allowed it to reach cinemas ahead of the film that it was aping, if only by a few weeks. Whereas Milius’ Conan was an epic spectacle, The Sword and the Sorcerer was about making a little go a long way. In the director’s chair for the first time, Albert Pyun made probably the best film of his career, but with a career that includes Brain Smasher… A Love Story and Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon that’s not really saying much.

The film makes up for what it lacks in class with copious amounts of bloody violence and female nudity. It also has some decent effects work (for the budget) with the demon Xusia an unpleasant looking villain.

Lee Horsley doesn’t have half Arnie’s muscles and plays the part of Talon more like Indiana Jones with a sword than Conan. Perennial bad guy Richard Lynch is the evil usurper Cromwell, while Richard Moll plays/voices Xusia (he only appears in the make-up in the opening scene). Kathleen Beller is the princess who needs rescuing, because this kind of film has to have one. No nudity from her sadly, she keeps her bits covered up (nice butt though).

This is fun flick if you’re in the mood for some mindless B movie nonsense. Unfortunately the sequel, Tales of the Ancient Empire, promised in the closing credits, never materialised, surprising as the film was a big hit, taking as much at the US box office as Conan and costing a hell of a lot less.

Comic Tales: Death Note January 25, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Fantasy, Comic Book , 1 comment so far

The Death Note of the title is a book with the power to kill, all you need to do is write your targets name inside and hey presto! they’re history. Of course there are some conditions; you need to know what they look like for one – if for example you wanted John Smith to die, how’s the book going to know which John Smith is your intended target? On the plus side you can even pick the time and method of departure for your victim.

When this book comes into the possession of Light Yagami, a law student who’s lost his faith in the legal system, he uses it to dispatch criminals the system, for one reason or another, has been unable to convict. He’s like The Punisher with a pen, no need to get your hands dirty when all you have to do is scribble in a book.

The authorities are understandably not too happy with this one man judge, jury and executioner (dubbed Kira by the press) but how far will Light go to protect his secret identity? The “god of death” Ryuuk, the original source of the book, is Light’s sole confidant. Only someone who has touched the book can see Ryuuk, who looks like a Goth version of The Joker with wings.

I’ve not read the manga on which the film is based, so I had little idea what to expect but was pleasantly surprised, although the film certainly has its faults. First among them is that it’s visually pretty dull. You’d expect a film based on a manga to be something of a feast for the eyes but the look of the film is flat and uninspired. Also on the down side is Ryuuk, a completely computer generated character who looks like he’s stumbled in from the animated version of the comic. Apart from eating a few apples (he’s got a taste for them) he doesn’t really interact with the environment at all.

Without flashy effects the film has to rely on the story and luckily it’s more than up to the task. Intricately plotted, with the Death Note allowing for some clever twists, it engages the brain if not the eye. Central to the film is the competition (both characters treat it like a game) between Light and the mysterious “L” who works with the police, helping them close the ever tightening net on the vigilante.

Tatsuya Fujiwara, who starred in Battle Royale, plays Light. He gives a terrific performance, you see him go from idealist to… well that would spoil the fun, but it’s an interesting character arc to be sure. How much wrong would you do to keep doing what you believe is right? And is there, in the grand scheme of things any real difference between the two? These are the questions Light wrestles with.

The thing I loved the most about the film is the cat and mouse game played by the two leads. It brought to mind Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty and “L” is very much a Holmes type - brilliant, arrogant and undiplomatic. He’s a teenage Sherlock with a sweet tooth, with the police relegated to pawns in a deadly game of chess between two super brains. As the enigmatic “L” Ken’ichi Matsuyama brings new meaning to the work quirky, perching birdlike on a sofa while eating the sort of foods that would give a dietician a heart attack, he steals every scene he’s in.

It’s surprisingly long at almost two hours but I never found the time dragged and the ending left me eager to watch the sequel (also included in the rather nice Korean 3 disc set) and I’ll be revisiting the world of Death Note again in the near future.

Comic Tales: Spawn January 18, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Fantasy, Comic Book , 1 comment so far

1997

I was a big Todd McFarlane fan, I’d loved his Spider-Man work and I enjoyed Spawn. Not only did I like his art, I thought what he was doing with Image comics was a commendable endeavour. I went to see Spawn at the cinema and, while it was certainly a watered down version of the comics, it filled my craving to see comic book heroes translated to the big screen. With the exception of Batman and Superman few had made the transition and, with no new Superman film for 10 years and Batman on a downward spiral (1997 was the year of Batman and Robin), anything new was cause for excitement.

2008

Just over 10 years later much has changed. McFarlane has been revealed for the money grabbing executive he is, Image no longer publish anything of interest (apart from Fell) and these’s now an abundance of superhero action on the big screen.

With films like Spider-Man, X-Men and Batman Begins showing how to make a comic based film that will appeal to more than just the geek audience, the dark days of 1997 seem a long time ago. Re-watching Spawn now shows what a poor film it really was. The effects look truly awful (hard to believe ILM had a hand in this) and it’s amazing they had the balls to put so much in the finished film.

It’s not just the effects that made this revisit a painful one, the film is full of simplistic characters with Martin Sheen’s villainous turn, that’s straight out of the “How to play a Villain” handbook circa 1923, (all he really needs is a top hat, a train track to tie Spawn’s wife to, and some moustache twirling and he’d be perfect) the worst example. He’s far from alone in being bad; Nicol Williamson redoes Merlin as Spawn’s mentor and provides a voice over narration for anyone with ADD, while Michael Jai White’s Spawn elicits about as much sympathy as a politician in a sex scandal.

There is one bright spot, John Leguizamo’s evil clown. Crude, rude and lewd he’s the only character that improves on the comic version. Funny, but also unpleasantly creepy as only a clown can be, he really deserves a better film.

Thank god for Sam Raimi, Chris Nolan and Bryan Singer (even if he did make Superman Returns) for elevating the superhero movie to new heights and ensuring that comic fans no longer have to rely on trash like this to get their fix of big screen thrills.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: Conan the Barbarian January 14, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Action, Fantasy , 7 comments

When I first saw Conan the Barbarian I was disappointed, I was a big fan of the character and the film failed to match my vision of him. My image of Conan was one made up as much by Marvel’s Savage Sword of Conan and Conan the Barbarian comics as by Robert E. Howard’s stories and John Milius’ film felt too ponderous, it lacked that pulpish fun that made the books and comics so enjoyable.

Yet I’ve come back to the film time and again over the years, owning it on VHS and two different DVD releases, and each time I think I’ve enjoyed it more. The reason for that is simple; it no longer bears the weight of having to match my image of Conan. It is what it is, and while that isn’t my ideal vision, there is still much to enjoy about the film.

One thing it doesn’t have though is great performances, Arnie would improve as his career progressed, but he’d always be closer to winning a Razzie than an Oscar. What amazed me while doing a little research before writing this, was that Sandahl Bergman, who played Conan’s love interest Valeria, wasn’t just nominated for the Golden Globe’s New Star of the Year but actually won the award! Was 1982 a particularly lean year for new talent in Hollywood? Surely it must have been as she manages to make Mr Schwarzenegger look good, giving a flat lifeless performance. Thankfully her career nosedived after winning the award.

So if it doesn’t feature great acting what does it have going for it? Great visuals is the answer. It’s a film all about the look, even down to the actors – you don’t pick Schwarzenegger for his acting ability. The film is breathtaking to look at, giving the film a real epic feel. It may be shallow but at least it looks nice, and as the film features one of the lowest word-per-minute averages of any Hollywood film we get plenty of time to enjoy it.

Then there’s Basil Poledouris’ bombastic score. If the film didn’t fit the vision I conjured up at least Poledouris managed to provide the musical accompaniment to the Hyborian Age that dwells in my mind. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s frankly bloody beautiful.

Another big plus is the action. This isn’t a toned down PG13 Conan as we’d probably see him today; this is a hacking, slashing, blood spurting barbarian. It’s during the action scenes that Arnie comes into his own, showing he’s capable enough when it comes to physical acting.

There are some things that still don’t feel right though, and top among them are Thulsa Doom’s mullet haired henchmen who’d look more at home in Spinal Tap than the Hyborian Age. Having seen the film so many times this is now more amusing than irratating (particularly where one of them starts swinging his big mallet about).

There’s more good than bad here though and while it may be not be intellectually stimulating it does provide plenty of visceral thrills. After all it’s good to let your inner barbarian out once in a while.

Animonday: Final Fantasy VII – Advent Children November 19, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Fantasy , add a comment

This movie spin off from the long running Final Fantasy game series is doubtless essential viewing for fans of the games but for everyone else it’s almost completely incomprehensible. Characters pop up without explanation and the film assumes the viewer will already have knowledge of the protagonist’s relationships and motivations. It’s a bit like watching Return of the Jedi having never seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back.

Visually though the film is a treat with some of the best computer generated animation I’ve ever seen. The design work is unique and the battle scenes spectacular, although there are only so many sword fights you can watch before it gets repetitive, and without the grounding in the mythology and characters it’s hard to really care about anyone.

In fact the final half hour feels like you’re watching someone else play a visually impressive video game. It’s “big fight, followed by motor cycle chase, followed by big fight” structure is like the levels in a game, it feels like you should be hitting “save” at the end of every big action sequence.

Interesting more than enjoyable, the film does show what’s now possible with computer animation and during one big action sequence featuring a very big beastie I was struck by how good a Godzilla film would be if animated in this style. Now that’s a film I’d really like to see…

Animonday: Ninja Scroll October 30, 2007

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I’m sure had I seen Ninja Scroll for the first time fifteen years ago when it was made that I’d have thought it incredibly cool, just as I did with Akira when that was released. The film’s blend of sex, violence and gore is aimed at a young male audience and back then I’d have just about qualified (I was 28). But sadly I didn’t see it then and watching it for the first time as a 42 year old it doesn’t really impress.

The sex is lurid and a little juvenile, the violence incredibly stylised but excessively graphic. Only the plot’s machinations hold up for this somewhat jaded viewer, with characters displaying hidden depths and motivations and even the love story angle works.

The animation wasn’t state of the art when it was made and now looks incredibly dated. While I can see why some would rate this as one of the best anime films ever made it wouldn’t make my top ten but then, as the director says in an interview on the DVD, “teenagers are my target audience” and I haven’t been one of them for quite awhile.

Animonday: Kai Doh Maru September 3, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Animation, Fantasy , add a comment

Set in Japan’s Heian era this tale of love and political intrigue feels way too short at just 45 minutes. We skip over Kintoki learning to be a warrior after the opening scene and pick up the tale years later. Maybe it’s just me, but I got the feeling that the intervening years would have been more interesting than the tale that unfolds.

Coming from the creators of Blood the Last Vampire you’d expect the animation to be good, and it is, just not as good as that (equally short) anime classic. The use of colour is outstanding though, with the bright red blood standing out in harsh contrast to the more muted blue tones of the rest of the film.

Ultimately there isn’t much to recommend this, you’ll find far better and more involving historical anime out there. The animation may be more basic but I’d recommend the Rurouni Kenshin TV series over this any day.

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