Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Anime Juke Box - Metropolis - Metropolis

The late 90s and early 00s was a good time to be an anime fan. With the success of shows like Pokemon and the Toonami block on Cartoon Network, some anime films were actually getting a theatrical release in North America. The highlight was seeing Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away in theaters. But I also got to see a couple lesser known films including Escaflowne and this one Metropolis.

Based on one of the first manga series by the very famous manga creator Osamu Tezuka (creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion), Metropolis takes elements from the 1927 silent film, but adds that unique anime twist. The film is impressive in visual scope coming from Studio Madhouse. It includes some fun silent movie iris and wipe effects. The score by Toshiyuki Honda is a blast. It includes 20s style jazz, bombastic action music and even a torch song for the end credits. I don't see the film mentioned much any more, but the score is one of my favorites from the era. Here is the opening credits in all of it's jazzy glory. Enjoy!



Saturday, February 28, 2015

Rocket Attack U.S.A. (1961) – MST3K Review

Summary:
The episode kicks off with another chapter of the serial thriller, The Phantom Creeps. When we left our heroes they were plummeting in an airplane thanks to the cute spider bomb used by Dr. Zorka (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately the crash kills Zorka’s wife and this fans the flames of his rage to do evil deeds. His thuggish assistant Monk (Jack C. Smith) keeps putting the two of them in more peril and Zorka must use all his gadgets including his invisibly belt, walking bombs and his huge ugly robot to escape capture. The episode contains a shoot out and ends with a car containing the bland detective hurtling off a cliff thanks to Zorka’s ingenuity. Can the madman be stopped in time?

The feature films starts with the realization that Sputnik was just hurtled into space by those pesky Soviets. America is caught with its pants down. No working ICBMs, heck no working rockets at all! Much scrambling ensues to get something… anything up into the air. As our scientists flail around (and presumably The Right Stuff occurs off screen) a CIA agent is sent on a top-secret mission. His name is John White (John McKay) and his job is to sneak into Russia, contact an undercover cutie in Moscow named Tanya (Monica Davis). She’s “seeing” a Soviet general with information on the space program. White discovers that the Soviets are planning to launch a missile at New York! Now he must attempt to sabotage the missile and escape from Russia. But does he have a hope in hell of preventing Rocket Attack U.S.A.?

Movie Review:
No matter how hard you try Joel, you can't
climb out of the theater.
I covered the concept of the serial in my review of Jungle Goddess, which featured the first episode of The Phantom Creeps. Much like that episode this storyline seems thrown together. Lots of stuff happens, but the plot doesn’t really move forward. Everyone still think Zorka is crazy (gee I wonder why) and the cops are after him. We get lots of action in this episode. Planes explode, there is a shootout in Zorka’s mansion, and you even get a car crash. Lots of stuff happens, and it’s filmed in that speedy serial fashion, barely slowing down to let you take a breath.

Lugosi is hamming it up still, and it works great. His interaction with his assistant Monk is hilarious. Monk seems eager to help, but is just a bumbling guy. He nearly blows them all up. We also get to see the robot at work - because he opens a secret door and lumbers around some more. I was hoping to see him take out some of the cops, but not in this episode. You also learn that Monk can take seven or eight bullets, and he’s only stunned. And I thought the robot was tough!

As far as serials go, The Phantom Creeps continues to be breezy fun, with a lot of completely convenient and silly things happening to make the plot move forward, and Lugosi is around to keep it entertaining.

"The president called. He said you're the worst
scientist ever."
I’m just going to come out and say it; Rocket Attack U.S.A. is a very strange film, even for a cold war scare film. Because make no mistake about it, this movie is supposed to scare the crap out of you. Yeah it’s got a heroic spy, yeah it’s got sneaking behind enemy lines, and yeah it’s got a tepid romance. But what you really get from the film is the futility of everything. The U.S.A. is doomed in this film because the Soviets have better technology, and they don’t have a spy who is an ineffectual as Mr. White.

I’m afraid I have to go into spoiler territory here to really write about this film, so SPOILER ALERT!!!!!! The sabotage attempt fails spectacularly and the missile comes crashing down on New York. So at least you can say the film lives up to its title.

Joel tries to convince her to stop dancing.
What fascinates me about this movie is that is doesn’t take the patriotic “We can win no matter what!” mentality. It’s a pessimistic film, something you would not have seen ten years earlier. But by 1961 the film creators just weren’t seeing the rosy glow at the end of the fallout from WWIII. No, they wanted to scare viewers into taking some kind of action. I don’t know what that action could be, because based on what the film shows us, American scientists are morons and American spies are fools.

Rocket Attack U.S.A.  presents a government flailing around to get a working rocket into the air. They want to stall the Soviets into thinking we have some kind of ICBM ability. But time and again the tests fail. I was strongly reminded of the montage from The Right Stuff when the various test rockets fail in spectacular and silly ways. The budget to this film didn’t allow for that kind of visual, but lengthy dialogue scenes between scientists and government officials imply the failure.

Russian high command making a fateful decision.
Mirroring these sequences are similar scenes with Soviet high command talking about how they need to take the initiative and bomb the hell out of the Yanks! What is really interesting about these scenes is that they are performed in Russian. I was really surprised. This adds a layer of realism to the film, and was probably done to increase the scare factor. “Hear them talking folks? That is what it sounds like when they decide the fate of New York in Russian!” A voice over provides the translation and some color commentary to these scenes.

Since I brought him up, I should tell you a bit more about the voice over. It is constant. The whole film is aided by this domineering voice telling us the background to the events and even commenting on the action. It’s like watching a Centron film about the start of WWIII. In a way I can see how this was done to give Rocket Attack U.S.A. a documentary feel. But at the same time it gets to be ridiculous. The voice won’t stop talking and pointing out things that the visuals clearly show.

The scene that inspired "The Spy Who Love Me"?
But for me the real reason this movie brings the chuckles is the espionage story. Agent White is pretty much useless. His story doesn’t have much tension in it, and he pretty much walks into Moscow without any issues at all. While the Soviet high command scenes play out in Russian, the rest of the story unfolds with everyone speaking English with American accents – even the British operative. I’m guessing that means he speaks Russian or all the Russians speak English… still haven’t sorted that out.

Anyway, he manages to get into the least heavily guarded site in the entire Soviet Union, even though a top-secret rocket is preparing for launch from there. He’s able to sneak right up to the missile and plant his explosives. But he ends up getting detected at the last minute, runs away and then gets himself shot. The explosives are removed and detonated by a loyal soviet soldier in a suicide run (quite literally). So mission fail, end of the movie, right?

Who the hell are these people? Dead meat!
Oh no my friends. Because Rocket Attack U.S.A. is trying to scare you, the film switches back to the states. Where we are introduced to a whole set of new characters: a truck driver, his wife, a radio news broadcaster, his wife, a businessman and his lackey. We watch these people engage in everyday activities. The truck driver buys a tie to impress his wife. The news broadcaster reports about Russia entering peace talks. The businessman talks about how he’s raking in the cash because of the paranoia. Well, the conspiracy theory becomes reality as the rocket launches! There’s a panic and a random blind man saying “Help me” and the reporter reports and the bomb hits and a burning tie and… the end.

So yeah, that happens.

Rocket Attack U.S.A. is certainly a movie of its time. But it is also an interesting attempt at honest to goodness fear mongering. It’s fascinating to watch how the film attempts to manipulate the viewer, and by doing so goes in unexpected directions. I’ve never seen a film of this era where the CIA and the power of science in the United States are so impotent. Having the Russian high command talk entirely in Russian is clever and surprising. Even the “we are all dead meat” characters at the end of the movie are simultaneously ridiculous and yet it almost works. It is a unique film in a lot of ways. But it really isn’t a good one. The low budget hampers many scenes, especially the ones that play out in Russia. The acting is uniformly weak (and downright bad at times). Much the dialogue and voice over is unintentionally funny. It’s got a lot of elements that make it perfect for Joel and the bots.

Episode Review:
That is a flaming tie. It took the crew at MST3K
three viewings to figure that out.
Even though this episode comes near the beginning of season two of Mystery Science Theater 3000 it really reminds me of something we’d end up seeing in season six. It’s got that black and white grim attitude that permeated the later season with films like High School Big Shot, The Violent Years or the Coleman Francis Trilogy. Is this something Joel and his more casual riffing style can handle?

Well things get started off well with The Phantom Creeps. Once again the boys have a blast with imitating Lugosi and providing extra dialogue for the befuddled henchman Monk. When Joel sees the opening title he asks the bots, “Now is Creeps being used as a noun or a verb?” Good question, and one that is never answered. Later when the grumpy robot is wandering around the lab, Crow comments that “for a robot he has a flat butt.” He is certainly not as curvy as Gypsy. I also got a chuckle out of a scene where the invisible Lugosi picks up a tree branch and sneaks up on the detective. Joel says, “Walk invisibly and carry a big stick!”

One of these three is not wearing pants. Guess who?
But we also get a funny running joke that would carry over through the Comedy Central years. Near the end of the film the detective comes across Lugosi’s abandoned car. As he sneaks forward a random bit of voice over (and obviously not the actor) says in a voice that sounds like Ronald Reagan with a head cold, “The driver is either hiding or he’s dead.” The boys get a kick out of that random moment. From that day on, variants of that line would come up whenever anyone mentioned Ronald Reagan during the riffing. Usually Crow would say the line and follow it with “next on Death Valley Days”.

So The Phantom Creeps gave us a durable callback riff, what does Rocket Attack U.S.A. give us? Well the movie itself doesn’t move very fast, and that slow pace contrasts with the speed of the serial. As is the case, the boys do a solid job, but I wish they pumped up the energy just a bit more in the riff.

One element gives them plenty to work with. The endless voice over commenting on the action is perfect for them to just add additional lines or riff right back at. Some of the funniest parts are little one-liners or words the boys add to the end of the narrator’s lines.

CIA operative is spotted in about 14 seconds.
It's a new record.
I think the spy storyline provides the best riffs of the episode. As Mr. White’s plane taxies into a field in Russia Joel quips, “The White zone is for loading and unloading of spies only. No parking.” Later on Crow (who seems to get all the good lines this time) observes that the Russian missile “must be a stealth missile. It doesn’t cast a shadow.” And he’s absolutely right! Mr. White makes a rendezvous with Tanya in front of a ruined little building, Crow says, “I’m standing in front of a shotgun shack in another part of the world.” Fans of Talking Heads will chuckle at that reference.  When Tanya shows up, Mr. White asks her if the British agent gave her the TNT. Crow answers for her, “Well, he gave me the T and the N, but forgot the other T. I brought the A.”

The alien monolith observes the action.
The scene where White attempts to sabotage the missile provides a hilarious visual gag. There’s a block of concrete standing off to the side of the screen. The shot is lit with darkness surrounding the block and it appearing to loom over the other characters. It looks for all the world like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This causes Joel and the bots to start singing atonally, just like the music during the scenes featuring the monolith in the famous film. They would return to this joke in later episodes and it always cracks me up.

As the film heads into the third act the music becomes very bombastic. Tom observes, “The music implies something exciting is about to happen.” Crow replies with “The end of the movie?” And when it is all said and done Crow observes that “I had no idea the end of the world would be so boring.” Ah my metal friend, you haven’t seen Birdemic: Shock and Terror yet, have you?

The host segments for Rocket Attack U.S.A. are an odd bunch. Most of them have a funny core idea, but end up running way too long. This movie must be really short. The episode starts with Joel giving Tom Servo a haircut. Now his round clear dome is a narrow cylinder. This was done to respond to some viewer feedback that Tom’s rounder head obscured too much of the action on screen. Keep in mind this was only season two of the show, so they were willing to give things like this a try. Tom’s haircut only lasted a couple episodes before it returned to the round shape.

The tin foil fashions also protect from fallout. 
For the invention exchange Joel creates an adding machine that prints results using candy. Perfect for tax season! The Mads combine the foosball table and water polo to make a water-foosball hybrid. It looks messy but fun. Check out the little players on the table, they are dressed like Dr. Forrester and Frank! At the first break Joel explains the cold war to the bots, and discuss the horrible puppetry fear of the Charlie McCarthy trials. Lambchop named names and Davey and Goliath served time. For the next break Joel and the bots play Civil Defense Quiz Show. The questions and answers are silly and a little bit preachy. When they boys return from the theater the next time, they find a Russian cosmonaut (played by Mike) waiting to speak to them. He has robots of his own and makes really bad jokes. This skit gets so ironic it nearly folds into itself. When the film ends, Joel and the bots are filled with outrage by the depressing film and yell at the Mads. This only pleases the evil scientists more.

Monk and Zorka doubt the veracity of this movie.
For me, Rocket Attack U.S.A. is an average episode. The serial is fun, but really nonsensical. The movie is fascinating in its construction, but as a film it is pretty dull and not effective. It works more as a curiosity. The riffing for both of these is pretty good. But I think that Rocket Attack U.S.A. was made for the more energetic and snarky riffing style of Mike and the bots. If they had tackled this one in Seasons Six or Seven it would have been gold.

Still this movie did provide us with one important piece of Mystery Science Theater 3000 history. It contains the first stinger. The stinger was a short segment from the film that was shown right after the end credits of the episode rolled. It was usually a bizarre moment or dubious line read that isolated from the film is even funnier. MST3K turned stingers into a comedic art form and there were plenty of great ones through the years. This one features the random blind man saying “Help me.” The stinger would go on to inspire others. I’ve seen both the Nostalgia Critic and Obscuras Lupa add stingers to the end of their reviews for one more laugh.

"Help me."
But even with the addition of the stinger I can only give this episode three burning ties out of five.


This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume XXVII.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Introduction:
What happens when you take one of the most popular anime franchises of the time, and put a legendary animation director at the helm? You get a movie that is filled with action, adventure, humor and even a bit of pathos. But fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s other work may find only hints of the director’s voice in this film. After all this was his first crack at helming a feature film, and with a character as well established as Lupin III, his creativity was a bit limited. But sometimes boundaries make the final product even more impressive.

Summary:
Lupin III (Yasuo Yamada) and his partner in crime Jigen (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) pull off an amazing heist of a casino in Monte Carlo. After a crazy escape, the two realize that all the money they just stole is counterfeit. Lupin decides to use his unparalleled skills of thievery to hunt down the source of the bills and put a stop to operation. The thing is, Lupin tried this little gambit once before, and failed!

The counterfeit money comes from the independent kingdom of Cagliostro, where a mysterious Count (Taro Ishida) is currently ruling as a regent. When Lupin arrives in the kingdom, he happens across a car chase in which a lovely young woman, Lady Clarisse (Sumi Shimamoto) is being pursued by goons. Turns out she’s engaged to marry the sinister Count as part of mysterious dark ritual. Before you know it, Lupin is infatuated with Clarisse and is doing his best to thwart the Count and his plans. Of course all your favorite characters from Lupin III will make an appearance before the film ends. But do any of them have a chance of escaping the Castle of Cagliostro alive?

Good Points:
  • Some amazing animated action and settings
  • The story uses fairy tale tropes in some interesting ways
  • Moves along at a brisk pace keeping the viewer engaged in the fun

Bad Points:
  • Lupin and his pals have been mellowed a bit from their original versions
  • Some of the humor doesn’t quite click
  • The classic animation style may not be slick enough for some viewers

Overall:
If you are looking for a fun adventure flick, you can’t go wrong with this movie. Miyazaki focuses on keeping everything moving forward and keeping things light and humorous. Some fans of Lupin may find the whole thing being a bit too light, and the criminals to be less fearsome than their television versions. But Miyazaki is essentially telling a fairy tale with Lupin playing the dashing rogue and the Clarisse the trapped princess. In that vein, the film is a lot of fun, maybe too silly at times, but worth checking out.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review
Lupin. The helpful neighborhood thief. 
When I took a look at the work of Mamoru Oshii’s work in anime it was interesting to see that he got his first directorial film job tied to a major franchise: Urusei Yatsura. But after that film he branched out into his own stories or adapting stories that fit closer to his own worldview. Interestingly enough, Hayao Miyazaki followed a similar career path. His directorial debut for a film was tied to the incredibility popular franchise for Lupin III, but his true passions and storytelling would be unleashed in his following films. So how does Castle of Cagliostro fit into his filmography?

Even surrounded by murderous ninjas, Lupin isn't phased.
Miyazaki actually directed some episodes of the first couple seasons of Lupin III so the character and the world were not new to him. But with full creative control of the film he decided to take the series in a slightly different direction. He kept true to the basics, a caper film with a dash of humor and plenty of action. But he made Lupin and his pals less miscreants and more like chivalrous rogues out to right wrongs. He toned down Fujiko Mine’s (Eiko Masuyama) overt sexuality, but made sure she still kicked plenty of butt (strong female characters would become a Miyazaki standard). Finally he introduced a character embodying innocence and youth: Clarrise . This character is unique among the women Lupin normally encountered, and may be a sticking point for some viewers.

But when it comes to visuals Castle of Cagliostro has some really impressive moments. The action scenes are a real highlight, with Miyazaki letting things go a bit crazy with some physics defying fun. This isn’t new for the Lupin franchise, but may seem a bit unusual compared to Miyazaki’s more realistic bend in his later films.

An amazing visual climax within the clock tower.
Some fun moments include an opening car chase in which Lupin attempts to save Clarrise from goons. Lupin’s little yellow Fiat takes a beating and it reminds me strongly of the escape early in For Your Eyes Only, where Bond is reduced to driving a ridiculous little car to evade gun happy enemies. Later in the film Lupin and Jigen infiltrate the castle using the elaborate aqueducts. There’s some impressive animation as the two hurtle down tunnels and into a room full of cogs and mechanical devices. But the highlight is the final confrontation between Lupin and the Count in the clock tower of the Castle. Here Lupin imitates classic comedy moments from both Charlie Chaplin (in Modern Times) and Harold Lloyd (Safety Last). It is a dynamic sequence with some real visual flourishes and intensity. This sequence has gone on to inspire other animators such as the team behind The Great Mouse Detective and Batman: The Animated Series.

Gyrocopter out of control!
But perhaps the most Miyazaki inspired visuals of the film come from the flying sequences. His love of flight and aerial visuals takes root here. While I think he really nails it in his next film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, we see plenty of evidence for his skill here. A gyrocopter features in the plot. During Lupin’s first attempt to rescue Clarrise it hurtles all over the screen. Fujiko uses a hang glider to escape peril a little later, and then you have Lupin’s rooftop romps that both defy gravity and physics, but are so much fun to watch.

Nausicaa... I mean Clarrise encounters Lupin III.
For the character design, things stay pretty close to the established look of Lupin III. The biggest change is for the smoldering Fujiko, who is much more demure then normal. She doesn’t vamp it up or give any fan service, but she’s still tough and goes full Rambo on the bad guys in one great scene. But Fujiko just looks closer to Miyazaki’s character design for the “older sister” type characters we see in later films like Kiki’s Deliver Service or Spirited Away. Clarrise herself looks a lot like a Miyazaki heroine. In fact her resemblance to Nausicaa is uncanny. Her character is much more innocent than the princess of the later film, but they could be sisters.

Lupin and Jigen get their first look at the castle.
One last item to note about the animation of Castle of Cagliostro is the amazing attention to detail in the kingdom itself. Miyazaki loves old Europe, and here we get the first taste of visual elements we’ll see further developed in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle. You get a real sense of place in this film, with its gothic towers, bustling inn and Roman aqueduct. It is something that not all anime films get right, but can be very important and affecting for the viewer.

You know these two are listening to jazzy tunes.
Sound effects are handled well. There are a few moments where really cartoony sounds for jumping or falling are used. Once again, it fits the goofier feel of a more comedic Lupin III, but seems strange compared to the more realistic tone of later Miyazaki films. Music is composed by Yuji Ohno. He also composed the music for the second series of Lupin III, the one closest to the release of Castle of Cagliostro. As such, it sounds just like what you’ve heard from the previous series: jazzy, a bit silly, but energetic and even gothic when needed. Ohno’s music works well in the franchise scope, but Miyazaki would turn to a different composer for his next film.

The darkness and the light of Cagliostro.
I watched this in Japanese, and the cast does a fine job. Most of them were quite familiar with the roles having performed them on television.  Both Clarrise and the Count do a very good job with the good and evil in Cagliostro. While the acting is solid, some fans have complained about character changes. Lupin III is much less of a horn dog, and more suave. He also is less ruthless. Jigen is also toned down, coming across as a warmer cuddlier version (reminding me more of Jet Black from Cowboy Bebop). Even Goemon (Makio Inoue) seems to have a shimmering heart of gold when Clarisse appears. All these good friendly guys have caused some fans of classic Lupin III adventures a diabetic shock from all the sweetness. But Miyazaki is giving us a fairy tale adventure. For Clarisse the charming rogues are the heroes, and no shades of grey are really allowed. Lupin admires her purity, not her body, and that is how the story plays out.

Lupin on fire. Goemon posing... typical day for these guys.
It is Miyazaki’s shift of focus that makes Castle of Cagliostro stand out from other adventures featuring Lupin III. The playful spirit has been amped up. The romance (tame and pure as it is) between Clarisse and Lupin is more of a focus. The perils are fun and over the top. The count himself, while a despicable man for sure, never feels like a real threat. You never doubt that Lupin and his pals will get the upper hand in the end. Even Inspector Zenigata (Goro Naya) feels more toothless than usual. Because of that, the thrills seem less potent than Miyzaki’s later works. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has some very powerful enemies featured, and Princess Mononoke is one of the least black and white entries in his entire filmography (and because of that, the danger always feels real).

Lupin sweeps Clarisse off her feet.
Also the over the top comedy and shenanigans are just going to rub some viewers the wrong way. While Miyazaki would often inject comedic moments in his later films, the humor was more organic and sweet. Here, things are more slapstick and farcical. It’s all in good fun, but it isn’t subtle and I know some people find it pulls them out of the more adventurous parts of the film.

But fun is the name of the game when it comes to Castle of Cagliostro, and that is what you get. It has some great characters, some amazing visuals and keeps you entertained throughout the run time. It is hardly the greatest of Miyzaki’s films, and may be least impressive. With that said, if Castle of Cagliostro is your least impressive film – well damn sir, you are well on the road to being a master. Hayao Miyazaki is a master.


A fairy tale ending.
And no I wasn't kidding. Fujiko goes John Matrix
on the Count's goons. Did I mention I love
Fujiko?


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Anime Archive – Lupin III

Introduction
Cover art based of the colorful
opening credits to the 1971 series.
So I have a review coming up for a popular character in the world of Japanese animation, and this film comes in the middle of a huge run for the character. As I started planning the review for Castle of Cagliostro I was spending way too much time covering the history of this character. The review was spiraling out of control. I had a similar issue when I tackled Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer and my solution then was to create a primer for the series. Made perfect sense that I do the same in this case.

So who the heck is Arsene Lupin III? Well he’s based on a fictional master thief created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905. Leblanc envisioned Lupin (the first at this point) as a gentleman rogue and master of disguise who found himself getting into and out of all kinds of adventures and scrapes.  Of course Lupin has a heart of gold, and often steals and confronts criminals much more dangerous and wicked then himself. Leblance wrote 20 novels and even more short stories in which Lupin pulled off a daring heist or two.

Lupin and detective Zenigata at it again!
While the novels and adventures of Arsene Lupin are not well known in the United States, he has inspired a number of other characters and similar story tropes – including Simon Templar aka The Saint made into a popular television series in the 1960s featuring Roger Moore. But more relevant to our discussion here is the creation of his grandson, the infamous Arsene Lupin III. This Japanese creation exploded in popularity and created an extremely long running franchise.

Created in 1967 by the uniquely named manga artist, Monkey Punch (whether this refers to a punch made from monkeys or a powerful blow from the fist of a simian is yet to be seen), Lupin the Third shares many of the same qualities of his grandfather. He’s a master thief, well versed in disguises, seems to have a knack for getting in and out of trouble and is a big hit with the ladies. Monkey Punch has admitted to being inspired by James Bond in the creation of his character, and a lot of similarities can be found. But he is also similar to the Italian comic character Diabolik, which was made into a film Danger: Diabolik in 1968 (and riffed on by MST3K in 1999, if you’re keeping score on that kind of thing).

Lupin on the run. No one can catch him, unless
he wants them to.
The primary tone for the manga (and the later anime series and movies that followed it) was comedic adventure. Plenty of capers and humor were added to the adventure and thrills and made for an entertaining mixture. Monkey Punch also added some regular characters that would help or hinder Lupin in his quest for riches and fame. The character interactions and outrageous heist schemes kept fans coming back for more.

The manga has been running off and on from 1967 up to 2010, with another series in the planning stages. The popularity of the manga lead to a television series that aired in 1971, and that spawned three follow up series with the latest one airing in 2012 (and another one in the works). Last but not least are the animated theatrical films featuring Lupin III.  The first was called The Mystery of Mamo and it hit the screens in 1978. It was followed by The Castle of Cagliostro in 1979 which was directed by animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Lupin films continued to arrive in theaters with the most recent on appearing in June of 2014.

Some advice: never trust any of these four.
So the comparisons with James Bond are apt. Lupin III has a legacy that spans decades, plenty of media (including video games, radio dramas and soundtracks) to flesh out his world and a huge marketing empire to boot. This is one popular character that never really seemed to take off in North America. An attempt was made in 2003 to release episodes from the second series of the anime (the one that was created in 1977) on Cartoon Network. It received a mixed reception from North American fans (I read a few reviews that found the old style anime disconcerting and hard to get into, crazy whipper snappers!).

Characters

So lets take a look at the main characters that populate the world of Lupin III. All these folks play a key role in the anime series and manga, but you’ll also find them in the films, like Castle of Cagliostro.

Lupin III
You want a dashing master thief with a heart of gold, then you don’t need to look any further than Lupin III. He’s sneaky, he’s daring, he’s rash, but in the end, he always seems to have enough skill and luck on his side to get out of the nastiest situation. He’s a master of disguise and managed to escape just about any kind of prison or jail you can think of. He’s an excellent shot, great behind the wheel of fast cars and has no fear. Of course he’s not without his faults. A pretty face and hot body will catch his attention and often cause Lupin to take chances he can often avoid. His love of the ladies gets him into as much trouble as his normal escapades. Funny thing is, Lupin fancies himself a ladies man, when more often than not the ladies are using him to get what they want.

Diasuke Jigen
Lupin’s parter in crime, literally. He’s the back up man, the wheelman, the guy you want in your corner when things get hot. He’s the cautious one, the man with the plan, and the one who looks out for Lupin’s back when the master thief is too busy chasing tail to notice the trouble he’s in. Jigen is a master marksman, and wicked fast with the quick draw. He is familiar with just about any kind of firearm you could wish for. We should introduce him to Rally Vincent from Gunsmith Cats. And while it isn’t specifically said, you get the feeling that Jigen is the older of the two and the more world wise. Faithful to a fault, Jigen may not be as smooth or flashy as Lupin, but he’s a vital part of the team.

Goemon Ishikawa XIII
Japan isn’t without its famous outlaws, and Goemon Ishikawa was one of them. Part legend, part actual thief, imagine a samurai version of Robin Hood back in the second half of the 1500s. Well his descendent is also a highly skilled thief, who tends to dress in traditional Japanese clothing. Goemon favors using his katana to cut down enemies. He doesn’t speak much and keeps his past to himself, but when he joins forces with Lupin and Jigen he’s a force to be reckoned with. While he doesn’t care for Lupin’s womanizing ways, he’s good friends with Jigen, who is much more serious and focused on getting the job done – something Goemon can relate to.

Fujiko Mine
If you look up Femme Fatale in the anime encyclopedia, you’ll see a picture of Fujiko Mine. She’s a professional thief (just like everyone else in this show) and often finds herself working with Lupin and his crew to obtain some kind of riches. Of course, she’ll turn right around and steal it form Lupin, but her betrayals never seem to faze him. Lupin is hopelessly in love/lust with Fujiko (and who can blame him – yowza!) But Jigen never trusts her and is always waiting for the other shoe to drop when she’s around. As far as Fujiko’s feelings for Lupin, well, she certainly loves messing with him, and she’s pretty free with her affections. Fujiko isn’t shy about using her body or her seductive skills to get what she wants. But make no mistake, this steamy gal is all about the thrill of the hunt, no matter what side she’s playing on.

Koichi Zenigata
Every famous criminal needs to have an equally relentless lawman on his trail. Zenigata is that detective. He’s always one step behind Lupin, but never lets it stop him. Time and again he gets close to catching his target, only to have it slip through his grasp. The detective is focused and knows Lupin pretty well, but that doesn’t keep Lupin from outwitting him with a clever disguise or off the wall action. Zenigata is a pretty good shot and also skilled in hand-to-hand combat. One of the few times Zenigata actually caught Lupin, he actually seemed depressed that the chase was over. These two were made for each other.

Conclusion

So there you have the main characters that populate this very popular franchise. If this mix of characters seems familiar, that may be because it inspired the main trio of protagonists for Cowboy Bebop. So Lupin III is far from forgotten, in both his original form, and as an inspiration to other animators.

Jet, Spike and Faye are distant relations to Jigen, Lupin and Fujiko.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Introduction:
So after I relived my trauma of The Planet of the Apes last year, I also gave the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes a spin. And I enjoyed it quite a bit (to my surprise).  The way the 2011 film ended left me very curious to see where the next film would go. So I eventually broke down and picked it up on DVD during my latest swing through target. Will this film develop the premise further, or will cause me to throw unmentionable material at the screen?

Summary:
Ten years have passed since Caesar (Andy Serkis) led his ape rebellion and took over the woods to the north of San Francisco. In that time the “Simian Plague” has wiped out most of the human population on the earth. Caesar and his people have created a civilization for themselves, believing their troubles with humans are far behind them. Well since we see Gary Oldman in the trailers, we know that can’t be the case.

Soon enough an expedition of humans lead by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) is searching the woods for access the local damn. Survivors of the plague and violence that followed have turned San Francisco into a colony of sorts. But they are running out of fuel, and the dam will allow them to restore power. Unfortunately the humans and apes make first contact rather violently. Suddenly both sides are readying for a larger conflict. On the apes side Koba (Toby Kebbell) is pressuring Caesar to strike first and strike hard. On the human side Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) sees the apes as nothing more than animals threatening human survival. Calmer heads attempt to find a middle ground with Malcom and Elllie (Keri Russell) providing alternatives. But events are set in motion and as the hopes for humankind dwindle, we are witness to the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Good Points:
  • Amazing visual effects bring the apes and their world to life
  • A well written and tension filled story is brought to a nerve wracking boil
  • Some impressive battle sequences for the action hounds out there

Bad Points:
  • May move too slowly in the first half for the action hounds
  • The apes and horses look so real the violence will disturb animal lovers
  • If you are looking for an uplifting ending for humans… look elsewhere

Overall:

After the solid reviews for this film, I was expecting something good, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes delivered. I was pulled right into the story of Caesar and Malcolm. I was disturbed by the events and personalities that strove against each other and toward an ending that was hardly in doubt. But the fact that I cared for the apes as well as the human was the real triumph of this film. Next to the original 1968 film, this may be the best Apes movie of the series. Stellar acting and plot execution make this one a must see for dystopian science fiction fans.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 5
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Score Sample: Arsene Lupin

Film composers tend to be male, but every once in a while a talented woman breaks into the boys club and shows them how to make some great music. I'm already written a bit about Yoko Kanno, one of my favorite composers who tackles films, television and video games with a great deal of skill. But I haven't written about Debbie Wiseman, a British composer who is fairly well known in Europe, but hasn't had a chance to really break out in Hollywood.

But seriously, after listening to the score to Arsene Lupin I'm not sure what the hell Hollywood is waiting for. This score has it all including a wonderfully urbane and yet dangerous main theme. Perfect for a main character who is a gentleman thief. It's got thunderous action music, gothic choirs and a touch of romance. It is an amazing adventure score that was in the top 10 lists of many film score fans back in 2004 Between this score and the over the top gothic horror of Lesbian Vampire Killers Debbie Wiseman proves she has the chops to deliver a hell of film score. Someone hire this woman to tackle the next big space opera or fantasy adventure!

Here is a nifty suite from Arsene Lupin showing off this entertaining score.




Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Corpse Vanishes (1942) - MST3K Review

Summary:
Time for another dose of Commander Cody (George Wallace) and his battle against The Radar Men from the Moon. When we last left Cody and his buddies they were on the moon and in some serious peril as molten rock oozed toward them. Luckily the heroes are able to escape to their rocket and return to earth. Once there Cody and his pals put their heads together to determine how to stop the radar men from completing their earthbound plans. This all climaxes to a scene where Cody drives his car over a booby-trapped bridge that explodes under him. Hence the title of this episode – The Bridge of Death.

In the feature film, Doctor George Lorenz is evil because he is portrayed by Bela Lugosi. He lives in a isolated house with a group of demented henchman (including a dwarf!). He and his wife, the Countess (Elizabeth Russell) sleep in coffins. See, it doesn’t get any more evil than that. Well actually it does.

Nosy reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) is looking into a series of dead brides who all collapse at the alter. She is convinced that it is not a coincidence. She starts to put together the pieces and they point to Dr. Lorenz and his laboratory. With some pointless help from the Countess’ medical doctor, Foster (Tristram Coffin) Patricia finds herself about to crack the biggest new story of her carrier. But can she be certain that the next corpse that vanishes won’t be her own?

Movie Review:
Pumpkin boy and lantern head in peril!
So Radar Men from the Moon hurtles forward with more crazy escapes, fisticuffs and gangsters working with moon men in a secret cave. In this episode the lunar action only takes up about the first third. The rest of the story takes place on earth, so some of the creativity we got from the previous episodes drops a bit. The gangsters take center stage and their explosive plan reminded me of something you’d see in the old Superman series from the 1950s. Which isn’t too far from the fact since this was created in 1952.

As far as serials go, this one has some entertaining moments, some silly moments and all in all meets the basic entertainment needs. The reused footage of Cody flying around in his rocket suit is good for some chuckles, and I love some of the oh-so-ripe dialogue that permeates the series. This also contains the scene which had to inspire the rant about serials in the film and book Misery. When I saw the car fall off the cliff I had to mumble, “He didn’t get out of the caca-doody car!”  The Bridge of Death episode isn’t something special, but it makes for a good appetizer for the film to follow.

Bela looms alarmingly.
I’ve got to be honest and say most of my exposure to Bela Lugosi is limited to his work with infamous director Ed Wood Jr. You know films like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster. I have seen Dracula but found it very dull and slow moving (especially compared to Frankenstein and The Mummy from the same era). But Lugosi did a lot of work in 30s and 40s that folks seem to like, so I’m willing to ignore stuff like ThePhantom Creeps (although he wasn’t bad in that serial). Truth be told, Lugosi may be playing the same sinister role in The Corpse Vanishes but he does it pretty well.

I think the thing that works with this film is that the character of Dr. Lorenz is driven by his love for his wife, the Countess. From the start of the film, it is pretty darn obvious he is at the heart of the plot to kill young women and abduct them. His goal is to suck the vitality from their body and place it into his ill wife. The treatment works of course, and both become driven to keep her young and alive. The Countess is a shrill disturbing woman, but we can sympathize a bit with Lorenz. A good deal of that comes from Lugosi’s performance.

Wait, what am I doing in this movie again?
In an interesting twist, our hero is the dogged reporter Patricia Hunter. Luana Walters takes the stereotype of the cub reporter and makes it work. She’s clever enough that you hope she puts the pieces together. But she’s also annoying enough that you kinda hope Lorenz scares her pretty good.

Of course The Corpse Vanishes was made in the 1940s, so you can’t have a female lead get in and out of peril on her own. Enter Dr. Foster played by Tris Coffin. The part is underwritten, and really feels like it was added at the last minute because someone realized they needed a man to save Patricia. Coffin does what he can with the flat character, but he doesn’t seem too invested in the role (can’t say I blame him). There isn’t much chemistry between the two. So when the two start spouting lines about how deeply in love they are and how they can’t wait for their marriage in the last 10 minutes of the film… well you’ll do a spit take if you’re drinking anything. You have been warned. Don’t blame me for wet floors on this one.

The cub reporter and the grumpy editor? Two
more cliches checked off the list.
Atmosphere and pacing are the name of the game here. For the most part the film moves along pretty well. The creepy mansion where Lorenz lives is filled with shadowy hallways and macabre lighting. His minions are sufficiently odd and disturbing. I especially like his unsettling housekeeper played by Minerva Urecal. Her anger bubbles up higher and higher and drives her to commit the final act murder. Also worth noting is the ranting and raving newspaper editor Keenan played with gusto by Kenneth Harlan. I’m telling you now that this performance inspired John Mahoney to rant and rave in his role as editor and Chief in The Hudsucker Proxy. Hell, Patricia Hunter could have been the inspiration for Amy Archer in that film as well.

But if you want to see a film that really took inspiration from The Corpse Vanishes then you really don’t need to look any further than the Ed Wood masterpiece Bride of the Monster. No, seriously they are almost the same film, but with a different driving force behind them. Ed Wood had Lugosi’s mad man attempting to “create a race of atomic supermen who would conquer the world”, instead of attempting to keep his wife alive. But the story beats are the same. Mysterious events lead a cub reporter to a creepy mansion. She meets Lugosi and interviews him. She’s convinced he is involved but has no proof. So she joins forces with a dull man, and together they kinda sorta put it all together.

At least he isn't welcoming you to Fantasy
Island
, right?
The later film has that outrageous Ed Wood touch that can’t be beat when it comes to bad movies. I think Bride of the Monster is one of his most entertaining films (not a good film by any means, but entertaining as hell). The Corpse Vanishes is less crazy, but I liked the angle of using the orchid to knock out the brides. And director Wallace Fox does a better job of creating some building dread in his film. So for creepy value The Corpse Vanishes wins. Not to say it’s a scary movie, it’s not. But spooky atmosphere was never something Wood really got right.

Eventually Joel and bots would come face to face with Wood’s opus. But before that, they would face Lugosi in their first season with The Corpse Vanishes.

Episode Review:
He's only mostly dead.
So we are, still in the early portion of the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and it kinda shows. It was going to take another couple episodes for the crew to really hit their Season One stride. So what you get with The Corpse Vanishes is an episode with some laughs, but not nearly as many as what you’ll find next season, or hell even in any episode from Robot Monster forward.

But lets take a look at what we do have. First up is part three of Radar Men from the Moon. Joel and the bots are still having a bit of fun with the serial (although the writing crew admitted that the whole thing was starting to wear thin for them at this point). But the level of energy in the riffing of this serial is still pretty high, and it gives some of the best riffing the episode.

Would you take orders from a guy dressed like that?
Some of funniest riffs occur when Cody and his pals make their escape from the moon and head toward earth. Crow asks them to “mind the space cushion” as the rocket hurtles into the void. Tom is puzzled by the remark and Crow replies, “It’s what they are sitting on.” In a later shot Tom wants to know why earth has a shadow and Crow is concerned that there are clouds just floating around in space. But I also like when Crow and Tom give a full fashion commentary of Commando Cody’s outfit. And when Joel asks if Cody ever lands on his head, to which Tom replies, “He’d stick like a lawn dart!”

As is typical of Season One episodes, the riffing during The Corpse Vanishes is laid back and meandering. There are a lot of quiet moments where the boys just watch the film and maybe chuckle a bit at what is going on. But there are some funny quips to enjoy.

Essence of bride... with a twist of lime.
When a concerned father of the bride is confiding in his fears to the newspaper editor, he says, “My daughter needs protection.” To which Tom replies, “Shouldn’t you have discussed that before the wedding?” Later when Bela is extracting the vital essence of the girl in his laboratory, Joel says in his best Lugosi imitation, “Now we can have the rich taste of bride any time we need it.” To which Crow adds, “It’s not just for breakfast any more.”

Most of the funnier moments in The Corpse Vanishes occur in the spooky mansion. A “secret” door allows the mad doctor’s hearse to enter undetected. This door is opened by the hunchback servant, who the boys dub Stanley after the garage door opener. Another secret door in a closet allows Bela to sneak into a bedroom and stare menacingly at Luana. Tom tries his Lugosi accent and says, “This is much better than my old door in the sock drawer.”

One thing the boys avoid here is any jokes based on Lugosi's drug problems. They do hammer on those a bit in their riff of Bride of the Monster, and the gents at Rifftrax go even further in their riff on Plan 9 From Outer Space. It is rare that I feel they go too far, but Lugosi's drug issues were tragic and to use them in the riffing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially after seeing Ed Wood and how Tim Burton handled the issue. Anyway...

As the movie wraps with our two protagonists tying the knot without a fear of mad doctors, Joel tells the bots “Don’t cry guys, its not a real wedding. “ Crow replies with “It’s the script that is upsetting us.”

Sorry Joel, but I wouldn't trust Crow with sharp
objects.
Like most of the early host segments you get some funny moments and some just plain oddball ones. The invention exchange starts with Joel showing off his chiro-gyro, a device to twist your head around for some at home chiropractic action. The mad scientists show off their flame thrower boutonniere. The first break has the bots chatting about the latest issue of the magazine Tigerbot, which features a full schematic of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The next break has Joel and the bots playing tag. It’s pretty silly. When we next join them, Joel is letting Crow give him a haircut, while Tom peruses Tigerbot some more. Crow’s banter gets stranger and stranger, ending up with a clown car crash. When the movie ends, Joel challenges the bots to think of one good thing and one bad thing from the movie. Tom tries to think of one good thing… but his head explodes (and not for the last time).

All in all, The Corpse Vanishes isn’t a horrible film, and it offers enough for the boys to riff on. But the slow pace of the riffing is the detriment here. The frantic pacing of Radar Men From the Moon helps the riffing there move a lot faster. As a result the episode starts out fairly strong, but peters out before the end. Like all my season one reviews, I’ll rate this as compared to other episodes this season, but I’d deduct one point when compared to any other episode from season 2 forward.

Either he's been stabbed or just heard he's playing
Karloff's sidekick.

I give it 3 poisonous orchids out of five.


This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XVI.