For the last few years I have been writing reviews (mostly anime, some live-action) for U.K. print mag MYM Magzine. What follows is the text of the submitted draft for my third commission back in 2013, reviewing the Anime Limited U.K. blu-ray release of feature Perfect Blue. To read the final version as edited by David Axbey please buy back issue #19 of the magazine.
Title: Perfect Blue
Out: 30th September 2013
From: Anime Limited
On: Blu-ray/DVD combi pack, also DVD only
Price: £xx.xx (DVD £xx.xx)
Stars Out of Five: Five (Two if you think anime should only be kawaii TV series)
Standfirst: The late Satoshi Kon delivers a masterpiece as his feature debut.
It’s simple really. In the pantheon of truly great talents to have stridden across the anime world, Satoshi Kon was in there from the moment he made this highly-regarded feature debut, and only cemented his place with every subsequent project. The story of a J-Pop star leaving her singing trio to try other work, the film chronicles the breakdown of both her career and seemingly her mind. It has more in common with films by Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski than with the science-fiction anime features that were all the rage at the time, but marked a huge step up in international appreciation of the medium after Akira and Ghost in the Shell. This was a release international film festivals could programme, something film critics could get to grips with on their own terms, and marked a new appreciation for what could be done for adult viewers with anime.
Looking back on it now, the period quality of the animation makes no difference whatsoever to the way the film envelopes you in its world, playing with your assumptions, examining the nature of otaku, stalkers, and the careers of those they worship before turning up the tension for a classic thriller climax. This new remaster cleans up the colours, tightens up the balance, and makes full use of the new resolution available. It seems a little darker in places than one remembers, but comparisons with the DVD show that the film has always looked that way. The new DTS HD-MA 5.1 Japanese soundtrack is a definite step up, with the music and fx noticeably clearer and well-placed; there is also a Japanese LPCM 2.0 track.
For those requiring an English dub, the original is available in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1. There are options for full English subtitles, signs only, or none. The interview with the Japanese and English voice casts are retained, as well as the music recording sessions, but the jewel in the crown is still the interview with the late Kon himself. Recorded at his work cubicle, he talks at length in detail about the film that would place him on the global animation map and mark the minds of fans and film-makers alike – no-one who has seen Perfect Blue forgets the experience. (Darren Aronofsky bought the rights for a live-action remake, but seems to have poured its influences into Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan instead.)
If you do not already own a copy of Perfect Blue, then you’re highly unlikely to take the plunge now, but it is without doubt the best way to experience this classic psycho-thriller for the first time. If you own the Manga DVD, then you already have the extras in about the same quality, so the only question is how much do you want to own the film in high definition? Given the way Kon wielded his casts and crews like a great composer conducting the orchestra playing his own work, all his films should be available in the most film-like presentation, and this Blu-ray certainly provides that for his still-unnerving debut.
I’ve been fortunate to have become a regular columnist for new U.K. print mag Geeky Monkey, whose third issue is now on the shelves. What follows is the text of the submitted draft of the Retro Review column for second issue, about The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. To read the final version as edited by Miles Guttery please buy Issue 2 of the magazine.
If there was one major problem with most heroes Hollywood offered geeks in the eighties, it’s that too many of them were musclebound lunkheads full of brawn but no brains, only low animal cunning. Which is why when one came along who was everything we could possibly want to be, he quickly became one of THE geek icons of that decade, up there with Indiana Jones, Snake Plissken, Ripley and the Ghostbusters. That man was Buckaroo Banzai: scientist, test pilot, brain surgeon, rock star and samurai.
Banzai was the brainchild of writer Earl Mac Rauch, whose previous screenplays included Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and Sean “Friday the 13th” S. Cunningham’s Mary Higgins Clark adaptation A Stranger Is Watching. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eight Dimension was one of those unexpected true studio originals they no longer make, but in 1984 could still be produced and released thanks to old-school attitudes no longer in fashion. Screenwriter W.D. Richter, then best known for the excellent 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, here got his shot at directing, although he had to fight for his vision throughout the production (often with late MGM producer David Begelman) and didn’t always win (e.g. losing Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenwerth). Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, Clancy Brown, Christopher Lloyd, and Ellen Barkin had all yet to have the hits that would make them geek household names (respectively Robocop, The Fly, Highlander, Back to the Future and Sea of Love), while opposing aliens John Lithgow, Dan Hedaya and Carl Lumbly were recognisable character faces but by no means stars. In short, the film is a wonderful collection of talent exploding in all directions, as much an experimental rocket car as the one they actually built for the opening scenes (yes, those are real rockets you see firing off – how cool is that?!). It’s a true cult classic to this day.
Explaining the plot is a classic geek litmus test. Following an unsuccessful 1938 attempt at breaking into the 8th dimension using an oscillator overthruster by scientist Dr. Emilio Lizardo, he ends up fused with alien Lord John Whorfin from Planet 10 and stuck in an insane asylum for fifty years. In the present day, Buckaroo Banzai, whose Japanese father and American mother worked on similar experiments with Dr. Hikita from Lizardo’s team, finally makes a successful flight through a mountain and the 8th dimension. Whorfin breaks out and joins up with other members of his race, the Red Lectroids, to steal Banzai’s working oscillator overthruster for the spacecraft they have been building through their own company Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems (they’ve survived since 1938 by becoming defence contractors, their original arrival covered up by the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast!), in order to retake Planet 10 from the Black Lectroids. The latter come to Earth and blackmail Buckaroo Banzai and his team of scientists/engineers/bandmates The Hong Kong Cavaliers (by threatening to start World War III) into helping them defeat the Red Lectroids after giving Banzai the ability to see through the Lectroid disguises. Adventure ensues!
Throw in a blooming romance with the long-lost twin sister of Banzai’s dead wife, brain surgery, a nightclub gig, the coolest tour bus ever (it doubles as Mission Control!), arch wit, political satire, the ultimate “bunkhouse” (the home/lab/operations base every geek wishes they had) filled with the most loyal bunch of gun-toting rock-and-roll scientists and engineers you wish were your best friends, plus an ace score from Grammy-winner Michael Boddicker, and you have a recipe for big-screen craziness of the best kind. This is thirties’ pulp gussied up in eighties’ fashions, a hero in the Doc Savage mould but for the sixties counter-culture generation. Despite being a huge flop on release, home video made it the cult it is today (just like Richter’s next film as writer, the similarly-toned Big Trouble In Little China), with new comics keeping his adventures going. With the promised sequel still yet unmade we Banzai geeks at least have Arrow’s amazing 2015 blu-ray to enjoy; it’s the perfect 30th Anniversary Edition in all but name.
I've been fortunate to have become a regular columnist for new U.K. print mag Geeky Monkey, whose second issue has been on the shelves for a while and third is imminent. What follows is the text of the submitted draft of the Retro Review column for first issue, about The Last Starfighter. To read the final version as edited by Miles Guttery please buy Issue 1 of the magazine, which went on sale 24th September.
As the 21st century rolls on, aging nerds are finding their haze of nostalgia for some classics wiped away by high definition remastering and easy availability to the next few generations, with younger geeks turning their noses up at the primitive entertainment of their forebears when forced to sit through them. Thankfully, for every film that turns out to have always been utter rubbish, there are those whose strengths outshine any weaknesses due to being made in the time period they emerged in.
1984’s The Last Starfighter is one such beast. Director Nick Castle was hot off writing John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and directing TAG: The Assassination Game when he broke new ground by making an SF film using extensive computer-generated effects, rather than the small amounts used before then in films such as Westworld, the aforementioned Escape, and of course Tron. Reworking a screenplay from screenwriter Jonathan Betuel, what emerged was an Amblin-esque tale of ambitious trailer park kid Alex, who wants more from life than his fellow American rural youth, but his flights of fancy are limited to wanting to go out of town for college and playing cabinet arcade game Starfighter inbetween chores for his hardworking mum, the manager of the trailer park. When he finally beats the game, a mysterious old man in a suit and hat turns up in a DeLorean-esque “Star Car”, leaves behind a mysterious passenger whose handshake with Alex produces electrical sparks, and whisks Alex off into space. There it transpires the war seen in the game represents an actual interstellar conflict, and Alex has been headhunted and drafted into an elite unit of pilots to fight on one side.
If the effects - the work of the legendary Cray X-MP supercomputer and such movie legends as Ron Cobb and Jeffrey Okun - occasionally seem a tad clunky in their motion or how they are composited in, they actually hold up surprisingly well, at times even resembling computer games of the following decade. Of course it’s impossible for them to measure up to modern day graphics in films, let alone games, but who would expect that?
This has the same value now in terms of the history of SFX that Ray Harryhausen’s fine stop-motion work or Walter Day’s amazing matte painting work does, and needs to be appreciated as such. They effortlessly tell the story, make for some exciting sequences and every now and then offer ambitious detail in otherwise relatively smooth textures that resemble the model work of that and the preceding decade. Together with costumes and props that bear a pleasing familiarity to preceding SF films and TV, they combine with the live-action work, good acting, lovely location shooting and solid use of widescreen and smart editing to create an aesthetic all the film’s own, topped off by a rousing score from the experienced composer Craig Safan. Only the comedy sequences with Beta Alex don’t work as well with modern sensibilities.
Sadly beaten at the box-office by The Karate Kid and Purple Rain despite positive reviews, the film lived on through the burgeoning home video market, making it ripe for re-discovery. While it can still be bought on DVD and now blu-ray, the only spin-offs it spawned were a novelisation from the great Alan Dean Foster, a Marvel Comics adaptation and a musical (no surprise given director Castle on the disc commentary described the characters and film as “almost like a musical without the music”); Atari’s videogames were never released. A sequel has oft been mooted but has never come to pass, which is a shame, as these are decent characters it would be worth revisiting, along with the implications of Earth coming early into the war. It just goes to show that if you get the story and the rest of the filmcraft right, aging FX are no barrier to continued enjoyment.
With the final film in the adaptation of Suzanne Collins' excellent Hunger Games out in U.K. cinemas this weekend, here's the article I wrote for the Manga UK Blog ahead of the release of the first film in the series. It was commissioned under the heading "Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale", then published as "Battle Royale With Cheese", which seems to have disappeared from the current version visible online here. Follow the link to the final published version edited by Dr. Jonathan Clements, and compare to my submitted draft below.
U.S. Young Adult fiction phenomenon The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010) from TV scripter & novelist Suzanne Collins has come under fire from fans of manga and Asian cinema, who have taken online to dismissing her work and the Hollywood film adaptation looming on the theatrical release horizon as merely derivative of the late great Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku’s final film Battle Royale (2000). Rarely is Takami Kōshun’s 1999 source novel mentioned, nor the manga which he co-write, while few of these complainers seem even to have read Collin’s novels.
Both stories are SF, both popular with younger readers, but only the U.S. trilogy was written expressly with that audience in mind; the Japanese novel’s high levels of gore and political content show it was clearly intended for an older one. Takami’s work postulates a parallel universe where Japan’s history has diverged some 80 years in the past and is instead a larger fascist state. The military programme takes 50 third-year high school student classes from across the Republic of Greater East Asia once a year, places them in a local district area cleared to act as an arena, and commits them to a fight to the death, with only a single winner permitted, resulting in 1,950 students wiped out annually. The author follows one class to focus in on the political, cultural and moral issues he sees as significant in 90s Japan, and makes up for generic, underwritten characters with splatter detail coupled to vivid action movie stylings.
Fukasaku, a life-long rebel with an eye for coruscating on-screen violence and trenchant criticism of Japan’s society across his fiery oeuvre, made a powerful last statement of the film adaptation before cancer took him while directing the sequel. His own experience of his class being drafted at 15 to work on munitions at the end of World War 2 and coming under artillery fire underscores a reality for the film that production limitations could not. Also, the casting of legendary comedian, actor and writer-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano in the much-expanded role of the Programme Supervisor shifts the entire dramatic weight of the film, with one of the three clear villains of the book made sympathetic and as much a victim as the children. It does however add an effective touch of moral grey to a written work that is more black-and-white.
Collins’ trilogy looks at a future post-apocalyptic U.S. in which nuclear conflict has left the remaining habitable areas divided into 13 districts under the rule of one, with the titular games an annual event that helps prevent rebellion and further civil unrest after one district attempted such and was wiped out. Looking very seriously at modern U.S. issues such as resource scarcity, the 1% vs. 99%, reality TV, celebrity culture and other, more subtle cultural elements, Collins shows she is an experienced writer capable of placing teenage emotions in that mix, underpinned by her own experiences growing up with a father suffering post-traumatic stress from his military service. She also draws from the same well of potential influences as Takami, including George Orwell’s writings and the dystopian SF sports cinematic subgenre that includes Death Race 2000 (1975), Rollerball (1975) and The Running Man (1987), but is most clearly inspired by the horrific daily reality in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In this sense her work is much closer to the superb DC Vertigo comic series DMZ (2006-present) from Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli then it is to Battle Royale, transplanting the effects of U.S. military occupation back home. Most importantly, she has an entire trilogy to develop her story over, and the characters breathe and grow across the books; her grim final volume is both horrific and compassionate in sufficient measures as to demand her readers grow up with the series, rendering any petty arguments about the Hunger Games being Battle Royale with cheese utterly debased. Whether the upcoming film manages to do the book justice, however, remains to be seen.