A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 459 – Escaflowne: The Movie

Escaflowne: The Movie – June 2nd, 2011

Back when I was in college we worked for a video store that had a rather decent collection of anime. I’m pretty sure we had some slightly gray market stuff, things not officially available for distribution in the US at the time, but the section was a popular one and something that distinguished us from our larger competitors. I was also friends with a couple of people who were a lot more into anime than I was and who had friends who were more into it than they were. Therefore I’m fairly certain that I’ve seen at least parts of the series this movie is based on/connected to. But I remember almost nothing about it aside from knowing that I’ve seen it.

Girl in a school uniform with an improbably short skirt gets transported off to a magical world? Yeah, you know what? Not exactly a unique hook for a story. Giant mech armor that holds the key to the world’s salvation or destruction? Seen it. As story elements go, they’re not bad but they’re also not revolutionary. This story is standard fare, really. Or at least it feels so to me. And in the movie treatment I admit there’s not a whole lot that distinguishes it as anything particularly special. It just manages to put a whole lot of familiar elements into a single story and then let them run their course.

I would have to say that while I have a very specific complaint about the end of the movie, my single biggest complaint is that the movie is so shallow. There’s the vast world of Gaea and its problems and it serves as the setting and impetus for the whole movie. And yet we really get very little in the way of worldbuilding. The movie offers some expositional dialogue and monologue about the Black Dragon Clan and its leadership and what the sinister Lord Folken has done to the various peoples and creatures native to the world (in short, Folken’s trying to usurp power from his younger brother, Prince Van, and has subjugated or wiped out various minor clans and villages and groups to do so). But none of it’s ever really shown. We know there’s a variety of beast-people who live on Gaea and they’ve all got reasons to dislike Folken, but we don’t see those reasons. There’s one in particular, a sort of felinoid with long hair, and he’s key to the climax! But what’s his specific problem? Why is he so damn important? I admit, I looked down a few times to deal with stuff on my computer, but looking down for a few seconds shouldn’t make me miss the entire purpose for a particular (eventually important) character’s beef with the baddie. And that’s pretty much how everything is. You meet someone, get a line or two from them or about them and that’s it. Same for the whole world. I found it very hard to care about the young woman Folken has with him and whatever her issues might be because the movie doesn’t seem to care about them. The movie doesn’t seem to care about much at all.

And the thing is, I’d like to know more about this supposedly epic conflict between Folken’s forces and Van’s. I’d like to know the background to the huge armor that Van recovers. There’s a lot I’d like to know and maybe if I went back and rewatched the series it would tell me more. But with only the movie to go on? Nope. It’s got way too much backstory and world to fit into just over an hour and a half, which is a pity. It’s left to rest everything on the well-worn tropes its built from. And that’s a very risky venture indeed. It would take some strong examples of those tropes to keep things steady and solid. Unfortunately for the movie, they’re not that strong here.

We meet our main character, Hitomi, while she’s still in the real world. She’s depressed and detached from the world, sleeping as much as she can and thinking idly about suicide which she knows she’ll never bring herself to commit. Before long she’s whisked away to Gaea, thanks to a mysterious man we later learn is Folken. She shows up inside a huge suit of armor that’s described as a mech but seems more organic than mechanical. Whatever. It’s not like it matters much here. The armor is on board a ship full of Prince Van’s people and Van himself. Hitomi emerges from the suit, finds herself proclaimed Wing Goddess, and then proceeds to stumble around somewhat cluelessly for the remainder of the movie. And I’m not exaggerating. Things happen around her and Hitomi has no clue whatsoever what’s going on. Kidnapping? Sure, but let’s not bother to tell Hitomi (or the audience) why the enemy’s sent agents to nab her. Fights and the like? Go for it, but Hitomi (and the audience) just get to sit on the sidelines and watch and wonder just who all these people are and what’s going on.

By the time the big climactic battle rolled around I was really and truly expecting Hitomi to summon the super special magic armor, climb on in and kick some ass. There’s another suit (which we don’t get much explanation for but why would we need it, right?) and clearly there’s going to be a mech fight over the city. Except when Hitomi summons the armor Van climbs on in and takes control. And what does Hitomi do? She stands on the sidelines (again) and hopes really hard that Van does the right thing. Yup. That’s her big key moment. Wing Goddess Hitomi! Summoned from Earth to help save or destroy Gaea! And she gets to hope and desire. So incredibly pathetic. There’s a bit in the end where Folken tries to get control of the armor from Hitomi, saying that his desire to destroy the world (and oh he is an angstmuffin about that) is clearly shared by her since she showed up in Gaea when he called to her. While she was depressed. Folken, by the way, is apparently super pissy because his little brother, Van, was chosen to lead the Black Dragon Clan instead of him. As motivation for destroying the world goes, that’s on the juvenile side. And by juvenile I mean toddler-like.

It just all seems so ridiculous and the movie doesn’t have nearly enough depth to it to make all of this angst as weighty as it wants to be. Its got this fantastic epic orchestral soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, whom we adore, but it can’t quite live up to it because none of the things that are scored in such a way that they must mean something actually have enough meaning to merit it. None of the characters are more than two-dimensional and I barely learned more names than I need one hand’s worth of fingers to count even though there are quite a few more characters with enough lines that I should have known who they were. And then when all is said and done and the incredibly anti-climactic ending happens, I figured well, the whole point of this was Hitomi, right? I mean, sure, huge battle between brothers, even though they never directly fight each other. And the salvation of a whole world and Hitomi being there because she was depressed. And that should matter, right? Because Van tells her they’ll be together until she’s summoned back to Earth and oh, how romantic and he’s made her life whole! And then she sprouts wings and disappears and the credits roll. Anti-climax on top of an anticlimax. Which, given how the rest of the movie went really shouldn’t have been a surprise.

June 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Escaflowne – The Movie

June 2, 2011

Escaflowne – The Movie

It has been many years since I last watched this movie, and even longer since I saw the anime series that preceded it. I do remember having some issues with the movie though. There are a couple anime movies I can think of off the top of my head that attempt to encompass larger series within the time restrains of a feature film. On the more successful end there’s the Macross Plus movie, which is actually better than the series it is derived from (we’ve reviewed that for the movie a day project already if you’re curious.) On the other end of the spectrum what leaps to mind for me is X (1999) which was a movie that attempted to cram so much back-story into such a short amount of space that it ended up simply not working at all. This movie is closer to X than to Macross Plus. It takes a twenty six episode series and tries to fit roughly the same plot into an hour and a half movie. The result doesn’t quite work.

My recollection (an again, it has been a long time since I watched the series) is that the movie version here is not simply an edited version of the entire series (which I think would be impossible) but is an entirely separate entity created from scratch but with many of the same characters and some of the same story beats.

As a series and as a movie Escaflowne is amusing in that it seems to encompass just about every anime trope in a single glorious hodgepodge. There’s a Japanese schoolgirl (complete with sailor uniform) transported to a magical world where she is welcomed as the “Wing Goddess”, a figure foretold in legend to be instrumental in an epic confrontation. There’s a savage young prince, last of the line of Dragon Kings who is fighting to re-gain his kingdom. There’s the angst-ridden brother of the prince who has userped his power and now heads the Black Dragon army which is laying waste to the previously peaceful world of Gaea. There’s a rag-tag band of unlikely rebels including a bishoujo swordsman, a sexed up princess of some sort, a cat girl, a buck-toothed red nosed monk, a cocky knife wielding rogue… you get the picture.

At the heart of the conflict between the dragon brothers is an ancient bio/steampunk mecha armor suit called Escaflowne that is destined to destroy the world. or maybe not. The gaunt and oh-so-emo Folken wants to use Escaflowne to end all suffering on Gaea by ending all life. To this end he summons a suicidally depressed schoolgirl named Hitomi from Earth so that she can awaken the armor. She ends up with the exiled prince Van instead though, an angry young man who the movie takes great pains to assure us is lonely and isolated. Van is travelling with a whole crew of dispossessed rebels who are trying to find a way to stop the Black Dragon armies. They think Hitomi is the key to their ambitions too.

The biggest problem this movie has is that its subject matter is so grand in scope and so melodramatic, with so many factions and characters involved, that it simply doesn’t work in the time frame available in a movie. Most of the characters in this movie have only a brief few lines to explain everything about themselves and then they’re swiftly forgotten in the headlong rush to get to the final confrontation. Particularly the rebel band that Van travels with – they each have only a couple seconds of screen time, then they’re gone. One of Folken’s generals has a trio of loyal compatriots who seems like nice enough folks except that only one of them ever speaks and he only has two lines. The movie is full of characters who have no purpose and simply muddy the storyline like that. I have to assume this is because they’re folks from the series who had entire plot arcs to themselves and are wedged into the movie as cameo appearances, but they do make the film feel crowded with non-essential characters.

The other problem the movie has, which is related to all the undeveloped minor characters, is that it ends up feeling rushed. There’s so much plot to cram in here that by the time we get to that epic confrontation with the entire world hanging in the balance, well, it simply lacks impact. You don’t know anybody well enough to be invested in any way with the world that is at risk. Sure you know who’s good and who’s evil, and there’s this fantastic stirring music, but I simply didn’t feel myself caring at all. Then another of those minor characters from earlier in the movie shows up and does something heroic and abruptly the movie is over. I know how it’s supposed to work, but the movie was in such a hurry to get to this point that it didn’t provide enough background to give it any impact.

The music, however, is great. In fact it’s the entire reason I bought this movie in the first place. I think I might have downloaded some of the soundtrack before I saw the movie even and bought the film to see what the music was intended to evoke. It’s because this score is by Yoko Kanno. This is the most large-scale and orchestral music I’ve heard from her to date, and I wanted to know what this grand music was attached to.

Sadly, a fantastic score is not enough to make a great movie. In general I’d say that virtually anything Yoko Kanno touches turns to gold, and I’ve not often been disappointed by anything that has her name attached to it, but this movie is the exception that proves that rule. I do enjoy the plot, filled with cliches though it may be, and I like the world and the epic struggle too. I think though that for any future return visits to Gaea I will stick to the full series. It might not have as much blood, the animation might not be as impressive, and it might not have Yoko Kanno doing the score, but it feels more epic and grand nonetheless.

June 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 446 – Dragon Princess

Dragon Princess – May 20th, 2011

Oh boy, this is going to be a short review. There’s not a heck of a lot to this movie and I’m afraid I’m going to end up focusing on its flaws instead of on its potential, but I guess that’s how it goes sometimes. This is yet another movie obtained from my coworker. We got it solely on the basis of Sonny Chiba’s involvement. Okay, Sonny Chiba and the promise of a kick-ass female protagonist getting revenge for her father’s sake. And well, Sonny Chiba is in it. And Yumi is pretty awesome and does kick a lot of ass. But the movie’s pretty lacking in almost every other area.

One of the first things we discovered when we put the movie in was that it was dubbed. And this is the sort of horrible dubbing that’s been lampooned on every sketch comedy show ever, with the audio not even remotely synced with the video on multiple occasions. The aspect ratio shifts between the opening scene and the rest of the movie. The camera appears to be hand held and not very steadily so. There is panning and scanning but not nearly enough of either since the camera often seems to be looking at the empty space between the two characters in the scene being filmed, or on the spot a character was in and has moved from. And well, this is very obviously a low quality transfer from what was likely already a low quality copy of the original, leaving the visuals blurred more often than not.

The plot is pretty simple, or so it seems. The basic story is, anyhow. A man is attacked by several men and gravely wounded in front of his young daughter. He lives, only to devote his daughter’s childhood to the study of martial arts so she can be his instrument of revenge. She grows up and after he dies she seeks out the men who attacked him when she was little, eventually taking them all down. That’s not terribly complicated. And if the movie had kept it nice and simple like that, perhaps things would have gone better. But there’s a whole plot with a karate school and the scheming leader, Nikaido, who wants it to be the only school or a state sanctioned school or something like that. I couldn’t really figure out exactly what his incentive was but it definitely had something to do with being a karate teacher. And he’s also into extorting protection money from the locals around his school and sets up a big tournament that’s supposed to bring prestige to the school and the local government somehow and then he rigs it so his students will win. And then there are his men.

The Big Four, as they’re referred to in the movie, are four of Nikaido’s men. They were with him when he beat up on Yumi’s father and they act as his agents all over the place. And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to have picked up on anything other than that one of them, who has longish white hair, is more than a little high strung. The trouble here, and through the vast majority of the movie, is that while it attempts to have a plot and characters and dialogue, the scenes between fights are so poorly shot and edited together that they’re actually hard to pay attention to or make sense of. Which in turn makes the whole movie hard to pay attention to or make sense of. Why did that one student at Nikaido’s school decide to help Yumi? I have no idea. If he ever said anything about his reasons I admit I totally missed it and it’s not like the movie gave me much to go on. But help he does. After the tournament is announced the Big Four go out to kick the asses of anyone who might dare to try and compete. This takes us to such far flung locales as Cuba and South America and. Um. I think that’s it. Cuba and South America. Where we spend about five minutes of fighting before going back to Tokyo.

Yumi’s staying with her grandfather in the city, and you do get to hear some from him, but not enough to keep my interest. He tries to stop her but she goes to fight anyhow. She gets her arm fractured and is told if she fights more before it heals she’ll probably never use it again. You might think this would be the source of some emotional weight or conflict but no. She doesn’t really bat an eye. Not that I saw. There’s also a sort of side plot with a man who picks Yumi’s pocket when she arrives in Tokyo and apparently sells pornography from a stall near his home and whose mother pays protection money to Nikaido, but it’s never delved into. That would take time away from the fight scenes.

The thing is, with the shaky and poorly framed camera work here, all the fight scenes sort of muddle together into one. If I were to tune into this movie, even having seen it, I’d probably find it difficult to tell by a fight scene where the plot was at any given moment. When a movie has well choreographed fights that serve to enhance or propel the plot you can see how unique they are. These fight scenes are only usually unique due to whom, specifically, Yumi is fighting. And even then, the villains aren’t terribly distinguishable for me, aside from the one with the long hair and Nikaido himself. The other three? They aren’t even characters. They’re just henchmen.

And in the middle of all that mess is a totally unrelated sexy dancing scene that’s not really at all sexy. I think sex is supposed to have happened? I’m not sure. It’s strip disco, as Andy said. Between two characters who aren’t even in this movie. For no reason I can divine aside from someone deciding that the movie needed some bare breasts for American audiences. That, along with the ever-so-70s horn section soundtrack just makes this movie ridiculous and cheesy on top of messy. And you know, I really wish it was better. I would love to see a remake of this with decent production values. Heck, I’d even settle for halfway decent production values. Because I like the basic premise and I’ve got to say I did enjoy Etsuko Shihomi as Yumi and she did indeed kick a lot of ass. But I couldn’t really enjoy it as much as I wanted to, between the cropped and sloppy camera work and the horrible dubbing and the total lack of pacing and writing. If anyone knows of a remake or of something that takes the same premise and runs with it in a more coherent fashion, please let me know.

May 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dragon Princess

May 20, 2011

Dragon Princess

I have to admit that this movie is a bit of a mess. I’m not sure if it is a result of the dubbing, or of the poor pan & scan, or if it’s because I am so debilitatingly tired or if the movie itself is really as slapdash as I felt it was as I watched it this afternoon.

What we have here is a Sonny Chiba karate movie from the seventies. The thing is that a lot of the time I felt like I should have known what was going on because it is a movie firmly rooted in the tropes of its genre. It involves revenge and a team of evil weapons masters that need to be defeated and a mysterious young man whose motives are not immediately clear and… well… a lot of concepts I’ve seen before in many an anime or martial arts movie. There’s just some kind of disconnect in the way it is presented.

For the most part this is the story of a young woman named Yumi. In the pre-credit sequence her father is brutally beaten by an evil quintet of backstabbing martial artists. (According to the dubbed dialog it is because he is up for a job as a karate instructor and the leader of the five meanies wants the job instead. I think it must have lost something in translation.) Anyhow, Yumi’s father is defeated and barely left alive. During the opening credit montage he trains his daughter relentlessly to be the greatest fighter of all time. Eventually (after many years) he dies – it is implied from the injuries he sustained at the start of the movie – and implores that Yumi avenge him.

All this is pretty standard and it’s no particular mystery where this movie is headed. Next we get to see what the evil master is up to now in Tokyo. He’s got his own dojo where he trains a big group of students by beating the crap out of them. One new student is able to hold his own against the master, and you know he’ll be back later. The dubbed dialog informs us that there’s a martial arts competition coming up and the evil Nakaido has his heart set on winning. So much so that he dispatches his four underlings to every corner of the Earth to kill the other masters signed up for the competition. (The movie begins to feel a little samey here as each rival master in turn is assassinated in a fight scene very reminiscent of the opening scene of the movie.)

There’s also a street gang that is extorting protection money from some local merchants (including our comic relief, a brightly dressed pickpocket and porn merchant.) Yumi, who has come to Tokyo to live with her grandfather, beats up the gang and attracts the attention of Nakaido, who is in cahoots with a corrupt politician and somehow involved with the gang as well. It’s unclear to me exactly what the connection is. Anyhow, the gist is that Nakaido sends his promising new pupil Masahiko to kill Yumi.

Instead Masahiko teams up with Yumi after revealing that he’s the son of a murdered police officer. They fight the five evil masters and although they survive Yumi is gravely wounded, losing the use of her left arm. She is determined to hunt down Nakaido even if it means she’ll die in the process. There’s a long scene where her grandfather begs her not to throw her life away, but pretty much tells her to go after Nakaido anyhow. Then there’s the climactic fight scene where Yumi and Masahiko confront Nakaido and his entire student body as well as his weapons masters in an overgrown field. There’s a lot of fighting and then the movie abruptly ends.

I really had trouble keeping up with this movie tonight. The fight scenes are frenetic and hand held and the cropping down of the frame to fit the movie to full screen means that a lot of action takes place off the sides of the picture, so I never really had a feel for what was going on. The movie has all the individual parts of a classic revenge action movie but for some reason they never really fit together. The strange translation and abrupt editing don’t help. (We were particularly amused by the non-sensical sex scene which appears to have been edited into the middle of the film from some other movie.)

I simply didn’t enjoy this as much as I would have liked. I can see that there is a cool movie buried in here, but it isn’t allowed to really come out to play. The end result is amusingly cheesy and more than a little bit cheap feeling. It’s so clearly not the movie it wants to be. I have to say I liked the concept more than the execution. I’d be very curious to see how different the movie is in the original Japanese and in wide screen.

May 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Appleseed: Ex Machina

April 9, 2011

Appleseed: Ex Machina

This movie addresses just about every problem I had with the first one. It doesn’t have to do any of the world building, so it isn’t packed with exposition. The story isn’t particularly revolutionary (I commented to Amanda as we watched it that I had just watched a Doctor Who episode with almost exactly the same plot.) It doesn’t try to be anything except a fun futuristic action story, and it’s kind of a relief.

The biggest improvement this movie makes on the one we watched yesterday is that it feels so much less ambitious. It might seem counter-intuitive that a simpler film would be more enjoyable but it’s almost relaxing to be able to simply take in the visual spectacle and not have to use my brain at all. Instead of trying to encompass the entire world of Appleseed in a single film this movie has the feeling of being simply an episode in the lives of Deunan and Briareos. Since Appleseed as a manga has a very episodic feel to it this ends up feeling quite appropriate.

At the start of this movie Deunan and Briareos are still working for eSWAT – the paramilitary police force that defends the peace of the Utopian city state of Olympus. They and their elite squad have been dealing with a recent surge in terrorist attacks which appear to be perpetrated almost exclusively by cyborgs. During the opening action scene Briareos is injured and so Duenan is assigned a new partner. This partner, Tereus is a bioroid engineered primarily from Briareos’ DNA, which means he’s a dead ringer for Briareos before he lost his original body. This is upsetting and confusing to Deunan; it’s like a ghost from her past.

Of course the whole Deunan/Briareos/Tereus triangle is just a distraction from the main plot. The central plot revolves around a scheme to use the unified satellites of all the remaining countries on Earth to turn the populace of the world into mindless zombies. It starts with just taking over cyborgs (which is a concern to Briareos since he’s having a lot of insecurity about his cyborg state) but soon it spreads to the general populace by means of little PDA earbuds.

I don’t think there’s an original idea in this entire movie, and do you know what? I don’t care. It’s full of gorgeous animation, cool action and involves Deunan being a hot-headed and unstoppable kickass killing machine. It’s just great fun watching here and Briareos working together against all odds. The world of Appleseed, even when simplified for the cinema, is such a rich and cool one that it’s just fun to visit it again. I love the futuristic tech. The landmate walking armor. The big hulking cyborgs. All the floating cars and hovering personnel carriers. It’s a world that seems designed to capture the imagination of the fifteen-year-old kid inside of me, and it works. This movie is exactly the stupid light-weight explody action movie I needed tonight.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 404 – Appleseed (2004)

Appleseed (2004) – April 8th, 2011

For some reason or another, while I’ve read Ghost in the Shell and seen the movies and certainly the show, I’d never really gotten into Appleseed. I’m not sure why, since it’s got a bunch of tropes I enjoy, but I never did. So tonight was my introduction to it and I’ve got to say, it’s not the best introduction one could hope for. It’s an uneven movie with a lot of potential, so I’m not writing it off. But it also won’t be high on my repeat viewing list.

The first seven minutes of this movie are action. Not a complaint from me, I assure you. Just stating it. Not a single word is spoken for over seven minutes and I looked at Andy and said “This does have lines, right?” and then someone spoke and we realized we hadn’t turned the subtitles on. It was a little strange, but at the time I thought hey, cool, this is mostly going to be mindless and pretty action scenes. Oh, was I wrong. I should have kept my mouth shut. Because there is far more talking in this movie than action. It is a movie that will talk your ear off. Both ears, in fact. It is the talkiest action movie I have ever encountered.

Of course, some of the reason for all that talking is that the world it’s set in is fairly vast and there’s a lot of background to cover. Enter the car trip of exposition. Two of our main characters, Hitomi and Deunan, get in a spiffy hover car and drive through the utopian city of Olympus. Deunan’s new to the city, having been brought in from the ruins of the world outside the city (where a huge war has been waged for years) because of her fighting skills. Hitomi is one of an engineered race called Bioroids. And while Hitmoi’s got Deunan as a trapped audience, she tells her (and us) all about everything. It goes on and on and on and on and on and on. The thing is, while I’m sure it was all vital background information about the world and the conflicts at hand and so on and so forth, it’s so very static that I sort of zoned out during it. Shot of Deunan, shot of Hitomi, shot of the car, shot of the city, lather, rinse, repeat. For about ten minutes. And this sort of thing happens throughout the movie. There’ll be a tiny bit of action, then more talking. Then the characters will go somewhere else, engage in a little action, then more talking. Or maybe the talking will happen first and then a little action. You know, to keep things interesting.

What’s frustrating is that I can see the potential in all of it. There’s a whole plot going on with the Bioroids being unable to reproduce on their own and they’ve got muted emotions and were designed to protect humankind. And lots of humans don’t like them for one reason or another and want to overthrow them. Olympus is supposed to be a utopia but there are hints that some people don’t find it so perfect. There’s a coup staged by the human army, and a terrorist plot to destroy the Bioroids, and there are betrayals and double agents. Characters have names like Athena and Hades and General Uranus and the main computer is Gaia and you know, I am certain there’s symbolism in there. Then too, there’s background for Deunan and her old boyfriend, Briareos, who’s a cyborg now. And Deunan’s parents were heavily involved in the development of the Bioroids in the first place. So it all figures in. Oh, and Deunan gets a mech suit that can fly. But it’s all tossed in there with long stretches of very unengaging speech-making. Makes it tough to actually care about any of the emotional developments in the movie.

Again, it’s frustrating. I want to like Deunan. She’s super kick-ass and when there is action she gets to do some pretty awesome stuff. And that’s cool. But as a fleshed out character? By halfway through the movie there’s a big revelation about her mother and, well, I found it hard to care to the extent I think I was supposed to. Same for her relationship with Briareos, who is also pretty damn cool but we get so little for him to work with and so little for them as a couple, so their struggle to reconnect now that he’s been given the Robocop treatment doesn’t really have much impact.

I’ll give the movie this much: It’s pretty. It’s a bizarre combination of animation effects, with some of what looks like traditional 2D stuff and some slightly plastic-looking 3D stuff for the people and then some very detailed 3D backgrounds and textures. But I ended up liking it overall. And I like its concept and I like what I saw of the characters. All in all, though, I think it bit off way more than it could chew and ended up spending so much time on the history that the actual movie didn’t happen as it should have. I wanted to care when the giant mobile fortresses started moving, but I couldn’t. All I could do was think of how much better Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex did similar scenes. Maybe that’s why I got into that and not this. Or maybe it was just luck. I don’t know. I’ll have to check out the books and see if they’re as painfully wordy as this was. I sure hope not.

April 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Appleseed (2004)

April 8, 2011

Appleseed (2004)

Here we go again. Another attempt to distill the rambling and convoluted worlds of Masamune Shirow to film. This time it’s his epic work Appleseed, which is more a nebulous achievement in world building than a single coherent work. As near as I can tell Shirow has been writing Appleseed pretty much continuously since the early eighties. You can’t expect something created on that scale and over that amount of time to provide a simple enough plot line for a single movie to work as an adaptation, so there are a few obstacles to overcome in this movie.

It starts off well. There’s a good solid ten minutes or so at the start of this movie that’s just solid action. We get introduced to our heroine Deunan as she is hunted through the decimated streets of a post apocalyptic city by creepy cyborgs. It shows off both her abilities as a super warrior and this movie’s cool all-CGI aesthetic. We were kind of shocked when, after about ten minutes, the first dialog in the movie starts. (This is when we realized that we had unintentionally left the English dub on, so I had to quickly pop into the DVD menu to turn on subtitling and the Japanese soundtrack.)

Once the characters start talking, though, they don’t stop. I understand why – it’s because volumes upon volumes of material have to be communicated to the viewer in a relatively short time – but it certainly does bog the movie down an awful lot. First Deunan has to be introduced to Olympus, the futuristic utopian island of peace in the vast desolate war-torn expanse that is the world of the future. Here she catches up with her old friend and companion Briareos, who is now a buff rabbit-faced cyborg. She also befriends the frighteningly perky Hitomi, who explains to her all about Olympus and the delicate balance of power there.

Half of the population of Olympus is not actually human. They’re manufactured clones made from artificial genetic stock called Bioroids. They’re kind of like all the best aspects of humans, without all the baggage of emotions and such to drive them to passionate acts of violence. They help to keep the city running and safe for all to live in. Many humans fear that the Bioroids will ultimately replace them as the dominant species on the planet – which is why the Bioroids have been engineered with no reproductive drive. There are a number of factions involved in running the city. There are the army, who are of necessity mostly human since fighting is not inherint to Bioroid nature. There is a human splinter group of terrorists bent on destroying the Bioroids. There’s a bunch of elderly humans on floating orbs who act as a wise council and help govern the city. There’s a nebulous A.I. that inhabits the ‘net in the city called Gaia who represents the Bioroid viewpoint in the council. There’s Athena, one of the first Bioroids, who acts as a kind of senior administrator, keeping the city running. And there’s the local police force, eSWAT, who seem to be mostly pro-Bioroid, are commanded by Athena (I think,) and maintain law and order.

All of that is explained in a single lengthy speech by Hitomi. And I’ve given you the condensed version. If it seems a bit ponderous than you might be getting some notion of just how dense this movie really is. I was not in the mood for dense tonight. I was in the mood for pretty action. I remembered there being some really great action scenes in this movie, and there are, but somehow I had glossed over the interminable plot exposition that makes up the vast majority of the movie.

Here’s how it goes: There’s the opening action scene. Then there’s the orientation course from Hitomi. Then there are some cool whip-wielding cyborgs who try to kill Deunan. Then there’s some exposition about what the various rival groups in Olympia want and what the Bioroids are. Then there’s an attack on the Bioroid breeding facility by the terrorist splinter group. Then there’s more plot exposition. Then the movie fakes you out by having Deunan sent on a mission to retrieve some essential data needed to save Hitomi and the other Bioroids. You might expect some action here, but you’d be wrong. There’s a flash back, a bunch of people pull out guns, and then they talk at each other for about ten or fifteen minutes. Exposition, exposition, exposition. A couple people get shot. Then before we can finally get to the (admittedly very cool but somewhat contrived) final action scene there’s… yes… more exposition as the masterminds behind the whole plot of the movie and their nefarious plan are revealed.

I was somewhat tired before this movie started. I am utterly exhausted now, and I have to admit that at times my mind wandered as I was watching. It’s a pitty too, because I really like the two main characters of the Appleseed universe. Deunan is a kickass female warrior and Briareos is an affable and indomitable lug. The two of them in the manga are a fantastic couple always flirting with each other and saving each other’s hides in the constant battles they find themselves thrust into. I don’t particularly like where this movie takes Briareos as a character, and I miss some of their closeness which is hinted at in the movie but not really shown. (In the manga they have a much more domestic feel to them. Perhaps because we first meet them as they gather food together in the wasteland, living alone with only themselves for company.)

I also really like the aesthetic of this movie. It is entirely computer animated but it uses a cell-shaded approach for the characters which makes them look somewhat hand-drawn. It’s a striking look and very cool. It manages to look more anime than the average CGI animated film, while at the same time having a distinctly 3-D look to it. (Come to think of it, I wonder if anybody has floated the idea of re-rendering it into stereoscopic 3-D. I wonder how many of the original data files it was rendered from are still available.) Anyhow, it is a very pretty movie with some slick action scenes and the cool tech that Shirow is known for, but it drives me to distraction with all the scenes of characters explaining at length to each other what is going on.

With apologies to Yahtzee I’d like to quote Elvis: “A little less conversation – a little more action!”

April 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

March 6, 2011

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

Back when we were reviewing the Star Trek movies we talked about a couple of them being little more than big budget feature length episodes of the television show. This is very much that sort of movie. It is, however, a very good episode of a wonderfully fun and delightful show. Seeing as how the original run of Cowboy Bebop ended in 1998 it was delightful to be able to revisit all our favorite characters in this “lost episode” three years later.

This movie clearly takes place somewhere in the center of the television show’s run. The whole team is together aboard the Bebop so it’s after they have picked up Ed but before the last three episodes when the team began to go their separate ways. For those unfamiliar with the anime this movie is part of it is the story of a group of starving bounty hunters sometime in the future who operate out of the starship Bebop. It’s a kind of space comedy western, not unlike Firefly, but with a slightly sillier feel a lot of the time. Our cast include the ultra cool ex-gangster Spike Spiegal, the ex-cop Jet Black, the compulsive gambler and loner Faye Valentine, the prepubescent genius hacker Ed and her best friend Einstein – a super intelligent corgi dog. Together they are trying on the fringes of outlaw society around Mars, to make a living. Most of the time they are barely scraping by. (It is implied that any bounties they actually collect are mostly spent on repairs for their spacecraft; they tend to get into firefights and break a lot of stuff.)

The series ended on a very sad note. You need to understand this to appreciate why this movie is such fun. This is one of those series where it comes to a very definite conclusion and there’s not really any way that the story could be continued. It’s a brave, touching, poignant, and unforgettable ending. As such there was no real hope once the series was over for any more Beebop. This was disappointing because these characters were so much fun to watch in action. The series was full of great action, silly humor, and fantastic animation. But it was over.

Until it was announced that there was going to be a new movie based on the series. A movie that plays out as though it were an episode somewhere in the middle of the series that just didn’t get released until a few years later.

The plot here will be familiar to anybody who has seen the show before. The crew are sick of instant noodles but that’s all they can afford on the little bounties they’re collecting on. When Faye is tracking down a small time hacker she happens upon a much bigger operation – what appears to be a terrorist attack on Mars using unknown biological agents. There’s a colossal bounty on the heads of those responsible and so our friends get caught up in a twisted plot that involves corruption, cover ups, unsactioned military experiments, and a terrifying super-soldier with no memory who wants to wipe out the entire population of mars. Just another day in the life of the Bebop crew, really.

Everybody gets their moment to shine. Spike kicks a lot of ass, Jet leverages his ties in the police department, Faye goes out on her own as always and risks her life for a lead, even Ed and Ein get to do some investigating. It’s like all the best bits from all the best episodes strung together into a single hour and a half.

The animation is astonishing. There are a lot of fantastic fight scenes, chases, even a space battle, and everything is full of this fluid, gorgeous animation. A lot of it is probably rotoscoped from live action footage, but there’s also a sort of heightened reality to some of it. Spike’s smooth fighting moves put me in the mind of action greats like Jackie Chan and Jet Lee. And of course there are the bizarre contortions of Ed, which are hilarious as always. (At one point Jet mentions they could probably sell her to the circus for a tidy sum.) The space battle reminds me a lot of the fantastic firefights at the conclusion of Macross Plus (with good reason since both are directed by Shinichiro Watanabe.)

As usual with Cowboy Bebop (an Macross Plus as well for that matter) the soul of the movie is the astonishing music of Yoko Kanno. Her hip, jazzy score brings everything to life and ties the movie together. I very much miss the iconic “tank” which was used for the opening theme song in the original show, but what this music lacks in familiarity it more than makes up for in vibrancy.

What can I say? I love Cowboy Bebop. I love the music and the animation and the characters and the humor and the entire strangely anachronistic future world of it. This may not be my favorite episode of the entire series (that would be Toys in the Attic) but it’s close. Top five at the very least. Once again I’m glad of our movie project because I hadn’t seen this in a couple years and it’s nice to have an excuse to watch it again.

March 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 348 – Ranma 1/2 The Movie 2: Nihao My Concubine

Ranma ½ The Movie 2: Nihao My Concubine – February 11th, 2011

Tonight we watch the shortest movie we own. Really, according to the rules of the project, it doesn’t quite qualify, clocking in at one hour, but since the first one did qualify, and it’s labeled as a movie, we figured we’d include it. And I’m glad we did. This evening we had places to go and people to see (a very nice birthday party for a friend of ours, where we met many people and talked movies) and knew we wouldn’t get home until late. It seemed like a good plan to set this as today’s movie to save us from something that would run past midnight. As it is, we cut it a little close. But that’s how it goes and we’d seen this before anyhow.

Now, watching it tonight, I realized there were things I remembered quite well (the competitive flower arrangement with an overgrown Audry II and Nabiki being super awesome) and others I’d blocked out (like the prince telling his guards to go ahead and take the girls he’d rejected for themselves – ew). But well, the things I blocked out were things that bother me, so that would be why. And it’s too bad that the whole kidnapping-and-forced-marriage thing is again the plot, not just because it’s pretty gross but because it’s tired. They just did it! I’m sure there are other plots to play with, right? It makes me wonder just what I’ve forgotten about the series in the past ten or so years.

The thing is, the series revolves around a large number of unrequited romantic interests. Ranma and Akane are engaged, thanks to their fathers, but each has a suitor or two after them (Ranma gets one for his girl persona too – and Kuno never seems to twig that the ‘pigtailed girl’ and Ranma are one and the same) and then those suitors have suitors of their own who see Ranma and Akane as opposition, despite Ranma and Akane being thoroughly uninterested in anyone else. Hell, they won’t even admit they’re interested in each other most of the time. So I get that when making movies the plot will likely involve a romantic interest and said romantic interest will be unwanted and cause a chain reaction of jealousy. That’s pretty much par for the course. But come on. Forced marriage? Twice?

One reason why this movie isn’t as long as last night’s is that it doesn’t go to any great lengths to introduce anyone. Not that last night’s gave anyone much of an introduction, but there was that huge chase scene that sort of gave a snapshot of the entire cast. Here? Not so much. It’s a slightly smaller group and their introductions are worked into the story instead of getting their own scene. One of the group has a boat and they all end up out sailing when a storm comes up and suddenly they’re washed up on a deserted island. One by one the girls all disappear and it turns out they’re being kidnapped by the assistant to a prince who’s trying to find a bride. He’s been kidnapping girls from all over and keeping them in his palace, wining and dining them, but then presenting them with a bill for it all if they refuse to take part in the contest to be his wife.

Of course Akane, her sisters, Shampoo and Ukyo all get kidnapped! And of course it’s up to the guys to rescue them. And of course there are guards, all of whom have specialties and face off with the would-be rescue party members. And of course Akane wins the heart of the prince without meaning to and of course she ends up being sympathetic to him even though he totally kidnapped her and is trying to force her to marry him and gave her sisters and tons of other girls away to guards as party favors. And really, ick. I cannot describe how ooky that makes me feel. Now, Nabiki, Akane’s savvy financial genius of a sister manages to kick a lot of ass and deal with her guard. And the guard to makes off with Akane’s oldest sister, Kasume, ends up seeming more interested in her cooking than anything else, and Shampoo helps kick her guard’s butt. But I can’t help obsessing a little over the rest of the women,

Aside from that, however – and seriously, no more forced marriage movies – it’s fun. Ranma and three others who change shape with cold water find out that there’s a magical spring on the island that will turn anyone it touches into a man forever. They’d kind of like that. So Ranma dresses up like a girl, changes shape and goes looking for it. Meanwhile Akane has totally forgotten why she doesn’t want to be there (creepy kidnapper!) and seems kind of sweet on the prince, until he does something dickish and she remembers why. Because he’s a dick. But the whole bit with the bridal competition? And Akane’s father totally losing his coherence when Kasume disappears is fun. If you’re fond of perky breasts jiggling in skimpy bathing suits then this is the anime movie for you. There’s a lot of fun in here, I swear. It’s just filtering through some seriously irritating crap. But if you ignore the unfortunate implications near the end, it’s really just a long episode.

February 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ranma ½ The Movie 2: Nihao My Concubine

February 11, 2011

Ranma ½ The Movie 2: Nihao My Concubine

Oh, amime and your fan service. I’m almost ashamed to admit how much cheesy anime I’ve watched over the years and in that time I’ve come to recognise certain inevitable truths about these series. If you’re watching a harem style comedy like, say, Ranma, there may be an episode at a hot spring. There may be an episode in a school setting or in a hospital. And there will always ALWAYS be an episode that takes place at a beach resort where all the girls wear skimpy bikinis. I did wonder as I watched this if this trope was as true back in the early nineties when Ranma was on the air in Japan. Who knows – this movie could have been the prototype for innumerable fan service beach episodes to come. Or it could have been a cliche already when it was first produced, I’m just not sure. Suffice to say that this movie is the beach vacation adventure for the Ranma universe.

When Kuno invites Akane and Ranma out for a jaunt on his new yacht pretty much all the main characters of the series invite themselves along. Of course they are caught in a storm and the boat ends up washed ashore on a deserted island. As this movie begins everybody is lounging around in bikinis and enjoying their time away from the pressures of modern life and the repressive modesty of Japan. (Well except for Shampoo and her grandmother who appear to have constructed a raman shop from bamboo and coconuts.) Soon, however this idyllic paradise is marred by the disappearance of all the female cast members. One by one they are kidnapped by a mysterious shadow.

It turns out that a nearby island has no women on it and must kidnap brides for its inhabitants. Young prince Toma is seeking a wife and apparently wants a vast pool from which to select her. Unsurprisingly, if you are familiar at all with the ways of Ranma, he chooses Akane. So it is up to Mousse, Kuno, Genma, Happosai, Soun, Ryoga and Ranma to invade the floating island and rescue the girls. The added twist here is that there is a spring on Toma’s island the water of which can turn any creature into a man. (This is the reason there are no women there to act as brides apparently.) Many of the inhabitants of the island are clearly creatures converted by the spring water. There’s a monkey, a dog, a bird and such. Since Ranma, Genma, Mousse and Ryoga are all cursed to change form whenever doused with cold water they instantly crave this spring water as a potential cure for their state.

This movie is the shortest one in our entire collection. At just sixty minutes it is almost too short to really qualify as a movie, but it’s not really jsut an episode of the television series either. Part of what makes it so short is that it doesn’t bother to try and introduce all these characters. If you read that last paragraph and felt lost because there’s a whole bunch of names you don’t recognise in it then this movie is not intended for you. This movie pre-supposes that you are familiar with the characters and world of Ranma and just jumps right in – as if it really were an episode.

You have to wonder how Ranma lasted do long when it is so formulaic. In just about every episode somebody will declare their love either for Ranma or for Akane (or in the confused case of Kuno for both of them.) Ranma will use his martial arts prowess to defend himself or Akana from unwanted suitors while all the time stressing how very much he does NOT love Akane. He’s just her fiance. As the show progressed through its six seasons the sheer number of jilted suitors was daunting. And there was never any real sense of resolution. You can kind of see how some of the suitors are destined to be with each other (Nabiki and Kuno or Shampoo and Mousse) and of course Ranma and Akane were continually on the verge of admitting their love for each other for many, many years. I’d say that the series didn’t even bother trying to keep fresh. It continually re-hashed the same territory to such a degree that it became well-worn and familiar. As such, this movie is the perfect embodiment of Ranma. There’s martial arts fights. There’s the potential for a cure for Ranma. There’s scenes of people almost able to admit that they care for each other. And ultimately nothing is changed and we’re left with our characters in the eternal limbo necessary to continue to milk the franchise. It’s the same story but with different costumes.

Different, very skimpy, costumes.

For a show that has a main character who is about half the time a kick-ass girl this was sure a misogynistic creation. Akane might once in a while slap somebody who is getting out of line, but most of the time she’s content to wait to be rescued by Ranma. Again. Every girl in this movie is objectified to the nth degree. They are prizes to be won. They are potential wives. And of course they are alluringly costumed in such a way as to accentuate their desirable figures.

I’ll admit that I found myself distracted at times by the giggling. Which makes me feel slightly guilty. Tomorrow we’ll have to watch something a little more sober and less juvenile.

February 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment