Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Japan-uary Quick Picks and Pans

Fish Story (2009) This lively and inventive comedy weaves its convoluted plot through four decades.  You might feel a bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, after watching this movie as it jumps around from 1974, to 1982, to 1999, to 2009 and into the (relative to the film’s present) near future of 2012.  A series of coincidences (Or are they?) follow the recording of a punk rock album by a Japanese band that predated the Sex Pistols.  One of the joys of director Yoshihiro Nakamura’s (with a screenplay by Tamio Hayashi) film is watching how a bizarre chain of events plays out.  It all somehow leads up to a climactic struggle in 2012 to stop a comet that’s on a collision course with Earth.  Fish Story is funny and captivating to the very end, with an infectious title song to boot.  Can an obscure punk rock single from 1974 really save the world?  Watch and find out!

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Redline (2009) There was a great deal of buzz generated about Redline over the past year, which prompted me to bump this sci-fi/action anime flick to the top of my Netflix queue.   I don’t think it quite lived up to the hype, but it’s still a heck of a lot of fun.  The film’s hyper-kinetic style (thanks to director Takeshi Koike) is visually stunning, providing more information than you can take in with one viewing.  It’s worth pointing out that Redline consists entirely of hand-drawn cell animation (CGI need not apply), representing the culmination of seven years of work. 

It’s a shame that the breathtaking imagery is complimented by paper-thin characterizations that do little service to the story.  The film’s central character is JP (sporting a foot-long pompadour), who participates in no-holds-barred, and illegal, interplanetary car races for big money and bigger stakes.  He faces several human and alien opponents who are introduced with all the depth of a typical video game.  It might seem odd making this observation in a racing-oriented movie, but I wish the film had taken the time to slow down once in a while, to allow the audience to get more acquainted with the characters and situations.  The virtually non-stop bombardment of the senses with eye candy gets a little tiring after a while, but it’s still worth watching.  I just wished it had tried to reach a little further.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sky Crawlers (2008) A pervasive sense of fatalism hangs over Mamoru Oshii’s aviation-themed film, set on an alternate reality Earth where corporations stage aerial battles.  We follow a squadron of young pilots, the latest in a long line of individuals used as cannon fodder in a pointless, interminable war engineered to keep the world’s populace entertained.  This brooding, melancholy film employs an uneasy mixture of cel animation and CGI resulting in inconsistent visuals that range from great to mediocre.  The computer-rendered dogfights are full of energy, capturing the perils and excitement of air-to-air combat.  In contrast to the dynamic aerial scenes, the conventionally animated characters seem almost expressionless.  Most of them are shallow and unsympathetic, content to wallow in their own misery.  The basset hound (Oshii’s trademark that serves as the air base mascot displays more genuine emotion.  Sky Crawlers is mostly good to look at, but the whole exercise seems to be missing something vital. 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix Streaming.

Warning from Space (1956) This Daiei production plays like a cross between The Day The Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide.  Starfish-shaped aliens called Pairans (Okay, I’m not gonna lie – goofy looking starfish-shaped aliens) visit Earth.  People flee in terror from them until the aliens decide to change strategies and come disguised in human form.  Eminent Japanese scientist Dr. Kamura has discovered a formula for a force that’s more destructive than any existing terrestrial weapon.  The alien emissary attempts to convince the scientist that his discovery could be a threat to everyone’s existence.  There’s an even more imminent threat, Planet R, which is hurtling through space and about to crash into Earth.  The two species must work together to confront this threat.  Outside of the ridiculous alien costumes, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, but it’s still refreshing to see a science fiction movie from the 50s where an alien species wants to cooperate with, instead of conquer, humankind.  Warning from Space has the distinction of being the first Japanese color science fiction production, but that attribute was difficult to appreciate with the scratchy, washed-out print that was used for the DVD transfer.  It might be worth a look if you’re a tokusatsu completist or just have a soft spot for very unconvincing creature effects.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

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