Category: films

Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011)

To echo Perfect Answer’s opening recap, childhood friends Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) meet by chance, die in an accident and are resurrected by a mysterious black sphere known as Gantz to fight in a secret war against aliens hiding on Earth. Gantz awards its unwilling recruits points based on performance and those that survive to make 100 points can choose to be set free with their memories erased or to resurrect a deceased comrade. Thus when Kato dies in battle, Kurono vows to to bring him back.

Five months on and Kurono has become an alien killing machine close to reaching that 100 point score. He’s had to lie to both his girlfriend Tae Kojima (Yuriko Yoshitaka), and Kato’s younger brother Ayumu (Kensuke Chisaka), but that’s all going to change. For the worse. Former star Eriko Ayukawa (Ayumi Ito) is murdering human targets on the orders of a miniature Gantz ball, whilst a group of black-suited individuals are after that miniature ball as a means to get to Gantz itself. Meanwhile an unnamed detective (Yamada Takayuki) is investigating the scores of dead people whose bodies keep on vanishing and occasionally reappearing as if nothing had happened. All of these groups are on a collision course with Kurono and his buddies, with the fates of Kojima and Gantz hanging in the balance.

Perfect Answer is a prime example of the slow motion car crash that frequently occurs when a film attempts to adapt a manga that has either not yet concluded or one that is too complex to summarise easily. The filmmakers are forced to make things up to fill in the gap, often with appalling results. In this case, director Shinsuke Sato decides on a middle path that adds some new elements to the fray with a seemingly random mash-up of plot from the manga and the anime. What ensues can only be described as balls.

After a slow burn start that sets the principals in motion, the film peaks during an action set-piece in which all parties converge on an unsuspecting Kojima in a crowded subway train. The black-suited aliens gun down hapless civilian commuters before materialising swords from their hands and duelling with Kurono and company in the narrow confines of the train carriages. It’s a superbly handled scene that only serves to make the events that follow look weak by comparison.

The film’s one new contribution, the premise that Gantz is re-recruiting its most successful participants (those who reached 100 points and chose to be set free) by having them murdered is a sublime touch that is cast aside in favour of the black-suited alien revenge plot. Well, there’s also the sub-plot about Kato’s evil twin but that’s not worthy of discussion, since it’s painfully obvious to the audience that it’s not the real Kato and furthermore no attempt is made to explain why the alien leader takes his form nor why any of the other aliens don’t do the same. It’s as if the very thought of having a star of Matsuyama’s stature absent from the bulk of the film was inconceivable to its producers; casting taking precedence over story.

Perhaps the film’s greatest crime is that it lacks a suitable level of emotional depth. With the earlier film having done the dirty work of character building (it tried to at any rate), we come to care about Kurono and Kojima but everyone else gets short shrift, especially the new members of the team who are introduced briefly, thrown into the mix and then are killed off one by one. The intra-team disputes and self-sacrifices thus become meaningless in the face of banging out a protracted chase scene, a less well executed sword-fight and a senseless point-blank range shoot-out finale.

Scratch that. What is worse is that the film suffers from catastrophic imagination failure. Considering the first film ended with Kurono taking down a giant Buddha statue and the manga has featured everything from rampaging dinosaurs and a full-scale alien invasion to a character blacking up and going on a shooting spree in downtown Tokyo to rejoin the ranks of Gantz’s unwilling army, the lack of creativity in Perfect Answer is painful to behold.

There’s some dodgy CGI in the mix too, which is a shame when the first film did it so well, but by this point I was gaping more at how internal consistency goes flying out of the window leading up to and including the sickly sweet epilogue in which everyone but Kurono comes back to life, and Kurono’s reward is to wind up inside Gantz, leaving the stage open for further films.

In conclusion, both Gantz films have combined forces to form yet another manga adaptation that fails to pass muster. The source material may well be a sex-obsessed, long-winded (and as yet unfinished) gore-filled epic, but it’s still a damn sight better than both its anime and film versions.

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Robot Stories (2003)

Eschewing rampaging mechanoids and ninja assassins, writer/director Greg Pak’s debut feature length is a delightful film that uses robots to explore aspects of the human condition. Ranging across the four ages of man, Robot Stories delves into deep waters but ultimately it is all about love.

The opening credits are conveyed by a short and quirky animation which sets the tone for the rest of the film, and then Robot Stories launches straight into the first of its four tales: “My Robot Baby”. A young couple, Marsha and Roy, plan to adopt a child and are given an egg-shaped robot to care for in order to judge their suitability. When Roy is called away on a business trip, Marsha tries to cheat her responsibilities and finds out that parenthood isnt as easy as she had expected.

“The Robot Fixer” tells of a mothers attempt to reconcile herself with her wayward son after a car accident leaves him in a coma. The only link to his past is his childhood collection of robot toys, and so she embarks on a quest to fix all of his robot toys in the hope that they will bring him back to her.

In “Machine Love”, the year is 2007 and intelligent androids are available for purchase as skilled workers. Archie is one such android, a Sprout G9 iPerson, and he can learn how to integrate himself into the workplace by observing the behaviour of his human colleagues. When his supervisor forgets to turn Archie off one evening, Archie explores the office and begins to question his purpose in life.

“Clay” is the final piece, and is set in 2027 when technological advances have led to the digitisation of human consciousness. When an elderly man is diagnosed with a terminal illness, an appointment is made for him to have his mind scanned and then uploaded into a virtual reality. However, despite the prospect of being reunited with his deceased wife, he is plagued with doubts about spending eternity in a state that he does not consider to be real.

Robot Stories stands out from the majority of its SF contemporaries because it doesn’t leave characterisation by the wayside in favour of jaw-dropping CGI or a complex plot. All of the lead actors give excellent performances, and this is complimented by a good balance between serious drama and moments of absolute hilarity.

“The Robot Fixer” is the most accomplished of the set; a poignant tragedy with a spot-on depiction of the dynamic between the first and second generations of Asian-Americans; closely followed by the touching “My Robot Baby”. Unfortunately, the second half of Robot Stories is noticeably weaker than the first, though for two different reasons: “Machine Love” is let down by a hollow execution, and “Clay” is over-ambitious. There is simply not enough time to convey a sense of the repercussions that would result from such a profound concept as digitised consciousness. When questioned about Robot Stories, Greg Pak has said that “Clay” is the one story that he would choose to expand into a full length film, as there were many ideas that he could not explore in the time available.

Despite these flaws, the format in which Robot Stories is presented creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and it is a whole that richly deserves attention.

This review first appeared on the Culture Data Repository (February 6th, 2004)

Hellboy (2004)

In the 1940s, the Nazis attempt a last-ditch attempt to change the course of WW2 by releasing the Seven Gods of Chaos from their ancient prison. The ritual is thwarted but not before something slips through the opened portal, a red baby demon that is nicknamed Hellboy. Sixty years later, Hellboy is a six and a half foot tall, virtually indestructible giant who works as an agent in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. When an old enemy returns to bring about the Apocalypse, Hellboy and his fellow agents in the BPRD must defeat the demons of the past, and the demons within.

Another month, another comic book adaptation, but this is one that is a little out of the ordinary. The original Hellboy comic was the brainchild of one Mike Mignola, a distinctive artist who mixed Nazi occultism, the mythos of HP Lovecraft, and folk myths and legends into his stories of the paranormal investigator with the giant stone right hand. The big-screen version comes courtesy of long-time fan Guillermo Del Toro, and is a dream come true for him; Del Toro has wanted to direct a Hellboy film for years, and passed on both Blade: Trinity (probably a good move in hindsight) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in order to do so.

Recent superhero films from the likes of Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi have reminded audiences that a superhero film doesn’t have to be of the completely brainless action variety, like the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Hellboy exists somewhere between the two, bereft of a big enough budget to effect any eye-popping action sequences, and lacking sufficiently developed characters to carry the film as a drama. The budgetary handicap was self-imposed by Del Toro, who had always wanted to cast Ron Perlman rather than an unknown and so made the necessary sacrifice. Mike Mignola had also advocated Perlman from the very start, and they made the right choice. Hellboy hinges on its central performance, and Perlman brings the character to life with a cocky attitude and irascible wit.

As is par for the course, character development elsewhere is rather patchy and only Hellboy and the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman are well-rounded enough to deserve any sympathy from the audience. The new boy, John Myers, is used as an effective means of introducing the various members of the BRPD, but Myers is a fairly limp character and does very little for the rest of the film other than to form part of an unconvincing love triangle between himself, Liz and Hellboy. Other notable contributions are those of David Hyde Pierce, who provides an excellent voice for (the mainly CG) Abe Sapien, and the perenially excellent John Hurt, who lends some gravitas to the affair as the head of the BRPD and Hellboy’s adoptive father, Professor Brumenholm. Sadly neither of them get as much screen-time as they deserved, and the film suffers as a result. On the side of evil, only the Nazi assassin Kroenen is worth mentioning, as both of his companions are as devoid of menace as the Seven Squids of Chaos.

So, on the Right Hand of Doom Hellboy has sharp dialogue, wry humour and an eclectic group of personalities. On the merely human left hand, it has a series of repetitive set-pieces, thin characters, a plot with a number of gaping holes, and an anti-climatic end. It’s probably just me, but the finale could have done with Hellboy taking on an army of Nazi zombies rather than another CG monster. Saying that, it beats its Resident Evil equivalent tentacles, ahem, hands down.

Though it doesn’t reach the heights of, say, Spiderman 2, Hellboy is a decent enough effort that entertains in a fairly mindless way. Hellboy 2 is already in pre-production, with Del Toro at the helm again, and with previously established characters and a bigger budget, the sequel has the potential to be the awesome film that Hellboy could have been.

This review first appeared on the Culture Data Repositiory (September 7th 2004)

Casshern (2004)

Kotaro Azuma (Akira Terao) is a scientist investigating the use of stem cells to grow replacement limbs and organs. Ostensibly he is searching for a way for humans to cope with the Earth’s poisonous level of industrial pollution, but in truth he is spurred on by his sick wife. No matter what he tries, Kotaro just can’t achieve the breakthrough he needs, but then a miraculous event occurs that combines his experimental organs and limbs into living, humanoid bodies. Most of these humanoids are subsequently slaughtered, but a trio manage to escape and vow to destroy humanity in revenge. The only man who can stop them is Azuma’s son, Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya), reborn as the white-armoured, super-powered Casshern.

Based on a 1973 anime, “Shinzou Ningen Casshan” (“Newly Made Human Casshan”), the film’s setting is supposedly familiar to Japanese people; Japan is under totalitarian rule, leading the Eastern Federation in a near-constant war with the forces of Europa. It’s an interesting background, but one that is sidelined in a film that is the epitome of the big-budget, special effects blockbuster. It has style written all over it, but it’s over-ambitious to a fault. Casshern is Kazuaki Kiriya’s first film and frankly it shows.

Full of almost hallucinogenic imagery and a prodigious amount of CGI, the visual aspect of the film overwhelms to the point where all other elements become superfluous. The level of incidental detail is incredible and may well set a new standard for SF films; it’s simply impossible to absorb all that is on display in a single viewing. Casshern is on a par with Spirited Away and the Metropolis anime in terms of the intricate work behind its densely layered backgrounds, steampunk mecha and retro styling. The sensation of watching an anime is emphasised by the choppy, kinetic action sequences, which employ all manner of anime and manga tricks, such as speed lines, and moving surrounding objects around a stationary character.

The acting is decent enough, and it’s good to see some moral ambiguity in the mix, but the inter-personal relationships are weak and the characters never really grow. Any moments of contemplation or drama are submerged by the constant optical barrage, and partly by the intrusive and annoyingly grandiose soundtrack. For all its emphasis on the visual, the slightly odd thing about Casshern is that its plot cannot be accused of being vacuous. With ruminations on environmentalism, scientific ethics, the atrocity of war and the nature of human existence, the film considers some heavy-weight topics, but unfortunately a few too many for a single film, and the subsequent lack of coherency is crippling. But nevermind all that. Just switch off and gorge on the pretty eye-candy.

In spite of its narrative flaws, Casshern is an audacious feast for the eyes that has to be experienced in a proper cinema. This is the real deal, a live-action anime that is capable of competing with the visual splendour of a Miyazaki, Otomo or Oshii film, and one that suggests that the forthcoming live-action version of Neon Genesis Evangelion won’t be an unmitigated disaster. If Kiriya tones it down a little for his next film then he could have an absolute cracker on his hands, but for now, just go and watch Casshern, a film that really does have to be seen to be believed.

This review first appeared on the Culture Data Repository (September 2004)

The Purifiers (2004)

Glasgow in the near future: five gangs have effective rule over the city, and each one protects the inhabitants within their own territory whilst punishing those who invade from outside. When Moses, the leader of the most powerful gang, calls a meeting to suggest a truce between the warring gangs, not all of them agree with his plan to take full control of the city. However, in spurning his offer, the Purifiers find themselves at odds with the other gangs and have to fight them all in order to return home.

The concept of The Purifiers is more than a little dubious, but if the Germans can manage a comedy (Goodbye Lenin!), then perhaps the Scots can make a martial arts film. Or perhaps not. Having seen the film, I can say that at least I was only misguided in my optimism. The Sci-Fi London website’s statement that this is “…a rapid-fire, action-packed thriller that reclaims the visual flair and kinetic thrills of Hong Kong chop-socky flicks, for these sceptr’d isles” seems to display a remarkably weak grasp on reality.

With this film, it’s not so much a case of picking holes in it as finding a way across the gaping abyss that looms at its heart. If you can get past the idea that five gangs, comprised of about five members each, can run riot over an entire city, without guns, then you’ll probably have no issues with the rather feeble attempts to make Glasgow look futuristic by giving underground stations such great names as BLUE ZONE 2, and by making the lead character’s car sound like it is powered by a jet engine. In fact, if this is the case, then you’ll be able to forgive the blatant theft homage to Walter Hill’s The Warriors, the abject lack of Scottish accents, and perhaps even the use of London’s Chinatown for a scene that had more in common with a slapstick food fight than choreographed action between proper martial artists.

That’s right. The Purifiers features a cast almost exclusively comprised of trained martial artists (the exceptions evidently being Kevin McKidd, Dominic Monaghan and Rachel Grant) and a fight choreographer with less talent than Yuen Woo Ping’s left thumb. The result is a series of boring and occasionally ridiculous fights, not helped in the slightest by excessive slo-mo and sound effects that are more akin to a bitch-slap than a solid punch to the head. The silliness peaks with the scrap between the hero and two of the villain’s minions, involving blue glow-in-the-dark sticks and no lighting.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical. After all, it is a low-budget flick and may even be destined for the kind of cult status reserved for awe-inspiringly dreadful films. In the end, I suspect that the only people that will watch this film are those who are fans of Kevin McKidd and/or Dominic Monaghan, and those with more curiousity than sense. You have been warned.

This review was originally published in Matrix #152 (March/April 2005)

Gantz (2011)

Getting run over by an express train probably counts a rubbish way to start your day but for Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) his day is about to get even worse. He finds himself being recruited by a mysterious black sphere called Gantz into a covert war against aliens hiding on Earth. Teamed up with other equally clueless people, including his childhood friend Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), Gantz provides the group with powered suits, weapons and a mission briefing before sending them out onto the streets of Tokyo. Like a surreal real-life video game, successful completion of each mission is rewarded by points based on their performance. Night after night they have to kill or be killed, only this time death will be permanent.

This isn’t the first time that a long-running manga has been adapted for the big-screen in Japan. Death Note (2006), 20th Century Boys (2008,2009) and many others have preceded it and the successful ones often made necessary changes that reflect the difference in pace between a two hour film and a serialised comic. Gantz, on the other hand, fails because it makes both too many changes and too few.

At its heart, Hiroya Oku’s ultraviolent manga is a male wet dream about guns, tits and gore with some bonus satirical commentary on modern Japanese society. The film adaptation strips out all of that and comes across like a Hollywood friendly version that bears only a passing resemblance to the source material. At the same time, the episodic nature of the story is left untouched so we get treated to battle after battle without any character development during each downtime. Such development was always going to take a kicking due to running time considerations but, with a second film right around the corner, a better foundation should have been laid down.

To account for the ages of the two main actors, Kurono is shifted from high-school to university student, an understandable decision, but not so for the shift in his actual character. In the manga, he is believable because he is a selfish and sex-obsessed brat whose forced draft into Gantz’s bug-hunts empowers him such that he can a) get laid b) become a (better) man and c) get a girlfriend. Skipping a) and b) is missing the point somewhat and though Kurono appears to get a girlfriend the relationship is completely platonic. Kato doesn’t come off much better, reduced to worrying about his younger brother and looking pained the whole time. The childhood relationship of Kuruno and Kato is central to the manga and could have been used as an anchor for the film yet here is virtually non-existent.

What Gantz does get absolutely spot-on is the visual design. The black sphere, suits, weapons and sets are all true to the manga without going down the route of reproducing individual panels a la 300 and Watchmen. This is helped by well integrated CGI and quality cinematography, neither of which is often a hallmark of Japanese films.

As a final blow, Gantz is hamstrung by an atrocious dubbing effort. The dialogue has been badly translated and the voice actors are wooden and lacking emotion, with the result that key scenes induce winces and laughs galore at wholly inappropriate times. It also makes it impossible to judge the acting. Watch a sub-titled version, if possible, or just go and watch the superior Death Note instead.

This review was originally published in Vector 267.

30 Days of Night: Dark Days (2010)

The original 30 Days Of Night (2007) was an intriguing spin on vampire films, taking many cues from the survival horror of a zombie apocalypse coupled with fearfully animalistic vampires, all black-irised, sharp teethed predators. As an added bonus, Josh Hartnett was surprisingly not shit as sheriff Ebon Oleson, and Melissa George as his wife and fellow sheriff Stella got to kick more than the average amount of arse whilst not looking stupidly glamorous. Naturally the sequel doesn’t feature any of these positives and is a poor follow-up. Quelle surprise.

Set a year after the events of the first film, in which the inhabitants of Barrow, Alaska are trapped and then gradually slaughtered by a group of vampires during a month-long period of night, sole survivor Stella Oleson (played by Kiele Sanchez because Melissa George was smart enough to avoid this travesty) is still plagued with nightmares about her ordeal and the loss of Ebon. The government has covered up the deaths under the guise of a tragic fire, so Stella travels around the country giving talks about what really happened but of course no one is willing to believe that bloodsucking fiends could be responsible. Even when she fries two vampires in her LA audience with industrial-strength UV lamps, a corrupt FBI agent spins the whole thing as a hoax. Enter Paul (Rhys Coiro), Todd (Harold Perrineau) and Amber (Diora Baird), a trio of vampire hunters in contact with Stella’s mysterious informant Angel Dane, the vampire with a soul. They’re on the hunt for the vampire queen Lilith (Mia Kirshner), and Dane thinks that Stella can help. Cliched bollocks ensues.

For what turned out to be a straight-to-video (showing my age there) straight-to-DVD release, Dark Days initially shows a lot of promise. The opening of the film evokes the tone of the original and Stella’s UV trap is nicely done. The low budget only becomes apparent during the action set-pieces, but it’s when the Scooby Gang other survivors show up that all of the faintly original stuff is brushed aside along with any semblance of character development or sensible plotting.

For a group of experienced vampire hunters the gang are comically inept, failing to to cover their rear or bring enough ammunition, leading to a member getting bitten on their first incursion into LA’s sewers. Vampirism in this world comes on fast, another trope borrowed from zombie films, so we have the group sobbing over having to put the bitten guy (whoops spoiler – oh well, it’s the black guy who gets it) out of his misery and so Stella gets to beat his head in with a breeze block. It’s a shockingly brutal method of dispatch and would have been so much more effective if Stella had done it without prompting – certainly we could have done without Paul geting angst-ridden about having to do the deed like in every damn zombie film/book ever. After Todd’s dead, the group’s master plan involves locking themselves in a room and waiting until nightfall so the vampires go and feed elsewhere. It works but damn if that wasn’t the dumbest plan I’d ever heard for escaping vampires.

In between hunts, Paul and Stella talk about his dead daughter and estranged wife to justify him sexing up Stella later on but sadly it doesn’t actually make him any more interesting. Todd is of course dead at this point and a chance to let Amber feel some guilt over getting him killed fails to materialise. Angel Dane gets a brief bio when he meets Stella and that’s his lot before getting shot through the spyhole in his door, which is not so much foreshadowed as neon light signposted about an hour before it happens.

In short, the premise of a month-long night and properly scary vampires were the first film’s main strengths and Dark Days doesn’t capitalise on them in the slightest. The vampires in this film come across as cannon fodder and LA really isn’t the same as Alaska, especially when the director insists on filming scenes during the day. The paper-thin characterisation and shit plot are just the icing on the cake.

I’m not quite sure what is more aggravating. The fact that Steve Niles co-wrote the screenplay based on his comic and so should have known better, or that other reviews on the internet have suggested that this film has redeeming qualities. It really doesn’t and there is the possibility of another film judging from the ending and the fact that there are more comics out there. Here’s hoping we get something more akin to the original that isn’t a complete retread. I wish.