With a title like SARS Wars: Bangkok Zombie Crisis, how can you possibly go wrong? Imagine, if you can, a Thai spoof of action/horror films in the same vein as Scary Movie and you’ve sort of got the template for this nutty bit of genre-splicing and shotgun-spray parody, garnished liberally with cartoon sound effects. In the first ten minutes alone I ticked off potshots at Blade, Kill Bill, 28 Days Later, Shaun / Dawn of the Dead, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon — oh, and there’s an animated credit sequence that plays like a genre spoof unto itself. Why pay for only one parody when you can get ten of them wholesale?
SW:BZC played to sold-out audiences at various film festivals last year, including Otakon 2005 (where it apparently was so popular they slotted in a second screening of it to accommodate an overflow audience). It’s easy to see why: it’s dumb, obvious, crass, juvenile, politically incorrect (how about a plot thread about a guy losing his virginity to a transsexual?) and very funny — a guaranteed crowd-pleaser even for audiences who’ve never seen a Thai movie before. Not that SW:BZC has much to do with the rest of the Thai filmmaking scene out there right now (at least, not at first glance), but it’s not as if it needs to be. Too bad so many moviegoers seem to have an automatic aversion to subtitles, since SW:BZC is at least as funny as any of the English-language so-called comedies they’ve paid to see in theaters. Read more
Raiser of Gales, the second of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s Vampire Hunter D novels, did two things that impressed me: It kept and renewed my interest in the series, and presented me with a story and a set of characters that are that markedly more absorbing than the original installment. In fact, I somewhat regret this not being the first book: it’s, all around, a better story than the series-opener. If it weren’t for the fact that the first book sets up most everything we need to know — everything from the idiosyncrasies of D’s livelihood to the weird being that seems to live symbiotically inside his hand — I’d recommend that people skip directly to Gales. It’s a more rewarding read, even for people who open the D books not expecting anything more than a thrill ride.Read more
The most disconcerting thing about the Ghost in the Shell mythology is something that, oddly enough, parallels Star Wars. The further the material has been taken from its creator (manga artist Masamune Shirow), the more interesting it has become — which implies that Shirow was most interested in the things about it that were least interesting to everyone else. That or he simply hadn’t found a way to make those things interesting to us. George Lucas may have been deeply enamored of the relationship between Amidala and Anakin, but we saw no evidence onscreen of what was so interesting to him.
Masamune Shirow is a fantastically creative visual artist, one of the best in the business. He is not, however, a very engaging storyteller, and almost every time he’s sat down to cull together a story out of his torrent of wild images, the results have been disappointing. Orion, for instance, was essentially one giant shaggy-dog joke — a flood of terminology and ideas and metaphors and references used to support a plot that wouldn’t otherwise have deserved a ten-page short. Appleseed was probably his best moment, but it ultimately worked better as an animated feature (two of them, in fact) than it did on paper.Read more
Shadowless Sword is an okay movie that’s forever just on the threshold of becoming a far better one, but don’t let that keep you from seeing it. According to a formula that critic Pauline Kael once laid down, the movies are so rarely ever good art that if you can’t appreciate good entertainment when it does come, you’re fighting a losing battle. This applies universally, regardless of genre, language or country of origin, and I’ve seen plenty of movies from abroad that fulfill this dictum. Shadowless Sword may not be art, but it does what it does well enough that grousing about it not shooting high or far enough may be misplaced.
Like Japan and the samurai genre, Korea has become a font of movies that draw on its own violent and colorful past. Sword is set in the 7th century, one of Korea’s more divisive and turbulent eras, during which kingdoms routinely invaded each other, leaders were assassinated and (according to this film, anyway) sword-wielding heroes routinely defied the laws of physics to defend their comrades and their honor. The film opens with one such assassination / flaunting of gravity, the death of the Balhae clan leader at the hands of the Dongranguk’s brute squad, the appropriately-named “Killer Blade Army”. Their freakish looks and outlandish weapons steal every scene they have, and made me reflect on how a good adventure is often only as interesting as its villain (if only because they’re the ones who force the heroes to be heroes). Read more
Tie-ins, or novels that are created to cash in on a particular franchise — like a movie or TV show — are one of my guilty pleasures. Sometimes they’re interesting in a forensic way, because the novels are often prepared from early shooting drafts of the script and cranked out hurriedly to hit the streets just before the film itself appears; as a result, you can sometimes discover things that were dropped from the movie before it hit the screen — something that happened with Alan Dean Foster’s Alien and Jack Martin’s Videodrome tie-ins. Sometimes they’re just pleasant time-wasters, and aren’t meant to be anything more than that. And sometimes, very rarely, they are something like art: Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss wasn’t just a cash-in, but a real novel about real people, and Card went so far as to get James Cameron’s blessing for the end result.Read more
Strange how a movie that is built out of the simplest and most unpretentious elements can take on the weight of an epic tragedy when mounted and executed just the right way. Brothers has one of the least complicated plots imaginable, but it has been invested with a kind of thought and detail that makes this most basic of stories into something true and real. A lesser movie would have ended up like a TV special (and the fact that Brothers was shot on video might only reinforce that), but Brothers avoids that trap and becomes not just a good movie but a great one, an example of how a movie at its best can be as absorbing as any novel written.
The brothers in question are Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), fresh out of prison for having committed an armed robbery. He was not just greedy but careless and stupid, and hurt a woman in the process. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is the older brother, more “responsible” — he has a wife and children, and is a soldier for the Danish army — but seems compelled to impose his sense of responsibility on others even when it is not really wanted, or appropriate. When he picks up Jannik at the prison gates, he demands that the other man go to the woman he wronged and apologize. He may have served time for the robbery, but the assault still remains unresolved. Jannik’s response to this is to bail out of the car and sulk. Read more
The hilarious and outlandish Cromartie High has now gone through three mutations of form: it was originally a manga, then later an animated TV show, and now it has been (one might say it was inevitable) adapted into a live-action movie. It says something about either the strength of the source material or the people doing the adaptation that it has remained consistently funny and fresh in all three of its incarnations. The live-action movie version of this sort of material is the one iteration that usually falls flat on its face, and so I went into Cromartie High: The Movie with limited expectations. But it works, and I guess it’s a sign of success on the part of the movie to say that at more than one point I laughed hard enough to gag on my own uvula.
How exactly do you convert material like this into a movie, anyway? The original comic worked as a series of four- and eight-page shorts — they set up a situation, rang a couple of changes on them, and then ended with a punchline that was like a door being slammed. The TV series mimicked that feel by using a short 15-minute-per-episode format — also just long enough to set up a situation and get laughs out of it without beating it to death. For that reason they got away with jokes that would have turned stale in a 30-minute show, and I was grateful. But a feature-length movie, even a relatively short one (Cromartie only runs about 90 minutes, tops) is a different proposition, and so they’ve tread a fine line between being quick and being skimpy. Read more
The opening scenes of Neighbor #13 show us a young man whose traumas have given him an alter ego — but it’s shown in a way that is fresh and powerful enough to make us forget how this plot usually becomes a dead end in most movies that employ it. The rest of the film, courtesy of first-time director Yasuo Inoue, is equally engaging, too, thankfully. #13 approaches its story with a straight face, even when it contains elements of coincidence or happenstance that would sink a lesser film. It becomes both eerie and compelling as a result, and the end result is not even something you could call a horror story. It’s more akin to one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s better movies, where human psychology is like a defective machine that kills and maims others in defiance of its operator’s intentions.
#13 opens with Murasaki’s bullying — a fellow student burned his face with acid, among other things — and uses a clever visual metaphor to show how the young man has harbored a smoldering resentment of his tormentor ever since. Now a silent and reserved twenty-ish man, he gets a job at a construction company, and discovers that not only is his new boss his former tormentor, but they’ve moved into the empty apartment directly upstairs from his. And now, with no preamble or forewarning, Murasaki discovers he has a nascent alter ego — “Neighbor #13”, a bug-eyed thug with a scarred face — who emerges and “takes care” of things when Murasaki cannot. “#13” breaks into the other man’s apartment, wires the place for sound, and uses Murasaki’s own unassuming nature as a way to trap others. Read more
Here we have what ought to have been a very good movie trapped inside a rather mediocre one. The good movie is intelligent and more than a little disturbing; the mediocre movie is made out of shoestring production values and some poor directorial and editing decisions. If you are patient and attentive you’ll probably see more of the good movie here, but most folks will probably not see Ki-re-i? as anything other than an overlong Twilight Zone / Night Gallery-style excursion done J-horror style.
Ki-re-i? deals with a plastic surgeon, a woman of striking natural beauty who charges exorbitant amounts of money for the work she does, which is conveniently not covered by insurance. Yoko has no real moral qualms about any this: people are paying, she’s doing good work, and after all, she has a mortgage to pay off. One night a potential client, Yoshie, shows up after hours without an appointment — an ugly young woman with a crippling stammer and the stunned expression of an animal caught in a car’s headlights. She begs the doctor to work on her, but only after hours — when no one else can find out — and is willing to pay piles of money for the privilege of having this done to her. “I want to be just like you,” she gushes, before disappearing back out into the night. Read more
After the high that was Raiser of Gales, the Vampire Hunter D series plunges to a rather dreary and functional low with Demon Deathchase. This is easily the weakest book in the series so far, not just because it’s a blatant and depressing retread of the basic elements of the D stories but because it has been assembled with such indifference to the possibilities the series brings up. The title fits nicely: it’s a chase, no more and no less, and after the chase is over the story ends like a door being slammed in our faces. The previous two books, even when they were at the most shameless in their determination to entertain, weren’t this callous to the reader.Read more