November 28, 2014

Rocky (1976)

There are certain movies that have a large enough cultural footprint that it's difficult to separate them from their pop culture references. It can be a struggle to watch Casablanca without quoting its famous lines, for example, or to see Kane's death at the beginning of Citizen Kane without thinking of the numerous parodies of the scene. I think Rocky easily fits into this category of film: hugely popular at the time, its elements and tropes were repeated in five sequels and copied, referenced and parodied in countless subsequent films. TV shows and cartoons. How do we see through that? How can we strip everything away and just assess the film on its own merits?

Rocky was written by and stars Sylvester Stallone. He was an aspiring actor who was failing to get any work. This in itself isn't a surprise: a forceps injury during childbirth severed a key facial nerve, leaving him with dropping features and a tendency to slur his speech from one side of his mouth. Broke and desperate, Stallone wrote a screenplay purely so that he could have something in which to star. Once written, his Rocky screenplay was good enough that United Artists offered him $250,000 to buy the script and make it with Burt Reynolds or James Caan. Stallone held his ground, and with producers Irvin Winkler and Robert Chartoff and director John G. Avildsen, Rocky was finally made on a $1 million dollar budget with Stallone in the title role. It not only launched his successful movie career but it defined it as well. It's an amazing screenplay tailored perfectly to the skills set of its author.

November 27, 2014

PSX20 #1: Final Fantasy VII

In 2014 Sony's PlayStation turns 20 years old. It was a revolutionary console, exploding the Nintendo vs. Sega paradigm that had dominated videogaming for a decade and its effects can still be felt today. PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily the best PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most. Today we've reached #1, my all-time favourite PSX title: Squaresoft's 1997 role-playing game Final Fantasy VII.

It's a very predictable choice, I know. The thing is: it's predictable for a reason. Final Fantasy VII seems amusingly dated these days, with its numerous advances and innovations long-since superceded or improved upon. At the time it felt genuinely revolutionary.

Final Fantasy had kicked off as a last-ditch attempt by a failed production company to have a hit game: hence it's name, a bleak joke that it was in all likelihood Square's final shot at success. It was a breakout hit on the Nintendo Famicom, and two sequels on the Famicom and three on the Super Famicom helped cement Final Fantasy as one of the premier franchises in Nintendo's stable. Then the time came to make Final Fantasy VII. Square planned to take advantage of the CD-ROM technology promised by Nintendo's forthcoming disc-based SFC successor. It would enable better sound and in particular the use of pre-rendered video sequences. Then, quite suddenly, Nintendo parted ways with their CD-ROM partner Sony, to focus on a third cartridge-based console (ultimately released as the Nintendo 64). Nintendo assumed Square would revise their plans. Instead Square jumped ship to Sony's PlayStation and gave Sony their biggest weapon in the fight for the loyalty of Japanese gamers.

Tsuritama: "Horrified Splash"

With his grandmother about to be released from hospital, Yuki wants to surprise her with fresh tuna for his coming-home party. That means learning how to fish for tuna, and a secret trip to a forbidden part of the ocean - Akema, an artificial reef built out in the middle of nowhere.

For the bulk of this episode it seems like Tsuritama has slipped into a sort of comfortable formula: each episode Yuki will learn a little bit more about sea fishing, and progress to fishing for a slightly more difficult kind of fish. He will become a little more confident, and open up more to his eccentric friends. Then, during this episode's climax, we suddenly make an unexpected right turn and- what kind of an anime are we watching again?

November 26, 2014

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Equilibrium"

Jadzia Dax begins to act erratically and out of character. Then she starts to hallucinate a mysterious masked man. When Dr Bashir is unable to provide any answers he and Commander Sisko use the Defiant to take Jadzia back to the Trill homeworld and to the facility where Jadzia and the Dax symbiont were first joined.

The Trill homeworld: I love it. Sometimes Star Trek gets so creatively lazy that they can't even be bothered naming a planet. This is an odd episode really. It only exists because one of the executive producers saw a stage magician do a neat trick with face masks, and so ordered the writing room to come up with an episode that was based around it. It does give the series the opportunity to visit Dax's home planet for the first time and showcase the Trill a little more, but it by-and-large squanders that opportunity. Despite all of that it's still rather watchable, because Deep Space Nine has an advantage that other Star Trek series lack: it has depth of character.

The Blade of the Rose (2004)

Released in English language markets as The Twins Effect 2, Blade of the Rose seems an odd sequel in that - cast aside - it has no relation to the original film whatsoever. The original was produced to cash in on the popularity of singers Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung, who performed as "The Twins". The Twins Effect was a fairly mediocre sort of action comedy involving vampires. The Blade of the Rose is instead a fairly mediocre sort of action comedy involving the creaky old cliché of an female empire where men are enslaved.

It’s a messy film. For the most part it acts like a sort of gregarious high school production – everyone has this sort of amiable “let’s put on the show ourselves” vibe to them. It feels less like a Hong Kong fantasy film so much as a student film made by fans of Hong Kong fantasy. Amateurish to be certain, but also very high on charm and enthusiasm. It’s deliberately silly and over-the-top, as Hong Kong comedies are often wont to be. The costumes and sets are colourful enough to potentially induce seizures.

November 25, 2014

Following Desire (1972)

Following Desire. That's a fairly unassuming, generic sort of a title, you think. It suggests all manner of films. Then you pass your eye over it's lengthy list of alternative English language titles. Drenched Passion. Sayuri Ichijo: Wet Lust. Ichijo's Wet Desire. Ichijo's Wet Lust. What the hell movie are you watching? It is a proper movie at all? Is it porn?

Well, yes and no. Mainly yes to both. When Japanese audiences migrated en masse from cinemas to television sets, the film industry was left with a near-insurmountable crisis. It's a crisis that film studios endured across the world, of course, with different countries' studios developing different responses. In the USA the main response was to make films bigger and more expansive than what could be seen on television: grand visual spectacle, shot in Cinemascope, with an impact you could only get by sitting in a movie theatre. In Japan it was not that easy. For one thing, the overwhelming majority of Japanese films had been shot in Cinemascope (or, at least, one of its handy local equivalents) since the early 1950s. At the same time budgets were never really big enough for a Japanese studio to afford grand visual spectacle. The giant monster action Toho could produce for cinema was not that far removed, as far as audiences were concerned, from the stuff Toei was making for television.

So what do you make that people can't see at home? In the days before home video, the answer for Japan's studios was obvious: you made sex and violence.

Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

Tekkonkinkreet is a marvellously executed anime, full of unique character designs and innovative animation. Based on the three-volume manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, it tells the story of White and Black, two young brothers living in a run-down inner-city suburb of Treasure Town that comes under threat of the Yakuza – and something more dangerous, and seemingly unnatural. The film won the 2008 Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year – and deservedly so. The film tells an odd story, one that initially seems easy to get a handle on but rapidly spirals into something nearly inexplicable. Elements that at first seem to be suggestive of the supernatural wind up seeming directly unearthy and alien.

It begins with the Yakuza making a move on the run-down suburb of Treasure Town, but about 30 minutes in their plans are transformed by Snake – a pointy-haired pale-skinned stranger who dresses in red and has a trio of blue-skinned 14 foot tall bodyguards backing him up. Snake’s plan is to construct a Yakuza-backed amusement park at the centre of Treasure Town, for reasons while are never made clear. At no point does the film explicitly tell us he’s the devil, but they certainly indicate very closely in that direction.

November 24, 2014

The Pull List: 19 November 2014

For decades now there's been a simmering hatred between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. It all basically boils down to Moore firmly believing that Morrison keeps plagiarising his work and stealing his ideas, and Morrison basically wanting the angry old man of comic books to back off and leave him alone. One can only imagine the blind rage Moore will reach if he gets word of Pax Americana, the latest one-shot in Morrison's ambitious Multiversity maxi-series.

Each issue of Multiversity has focused on a different parallel DC Universe. This issue focuses on the Charlton Comics characters that DC purchased in 1983: the Question, the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and others. When DC originally picked up these characters, they hired Alan Moore to re-introduce them in a 12-issue comic series. As he developed it, however, DC elected to remove the Charlton identities and allow Moore to develop his own pastiche of them (Rorschach instead of the Question, Nite Owl instead of Blue Beetle, and so on). The result was Watchmen, pretty much the most widely acclaimed superhero comic of all time.

Multiversity is in itself a pastiche, and if Morrison is going to use the Charlton characters what better source text to reference and riff upon than Watchmen? It's a stunning post-modern piece of comics writing, and Frank Quitely illustrates it in his typically awesome style. At the same time I spent the whole book thinking "Moore's going to be so pissed". Like a lot of Morrison's work, each issue of Multiversity is leaving a lot of the narrative hanging. I'm assuming it's all going to tie together in the end - it usually does with Morrison. Even on its own, however, Pax Americana is a stunning and bold re-invention of past writers and characters. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Annihilator, Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Daredevil, The Last Broadcast, Lumberjanes and Predator: Fire and Stone.