Friday, August 30, 2013

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1985) - MST3K Review

In the not too distant future the giant company Novicorp dominates all of society. The huge Chairman (Donald Moore) controls all our lives, for profit. Most folks seem content with this, everyone except for Aram Fingal (Raul Julia). Fingal just wants to have some fun in his life. But even classic films like Casablanca are outlawed, and his days are spent in endless drudgery in a giant computer bank. Fingal eventually gets caught watching Casablanca at his workstation and this causes him to be flagged for a compulsory vacation.

This means that his consciousness will be placed into the body of baboon for some R&R. I’m not kidding. While this is happening a mishap causes Fingal’s body to be misplaced. The computech responsible for the safety of Fingal’s consciousness, Apollonia James (Linda Griffiths) does what she can to preserve his consciousness as the search for his body drags on. She ends up putting his consciousness into the Novicorp computer for safekeeping… and that is when Fingal starts to create his own reality. At first it’s all fun and games, including scenes inspired by his favorite classic films. But eventually Fingal figures that if he is in the main computer at Novicorp, why not make some changes. But the chairman isn’t going to take that lying down, and soon virtual Fingal is running for is virtual life, and Apollonia must decide if she wants to help the corporation or help the rebel.

Movie Review:
Great names in cyberpunk: Neo, Flynn, Kusanagi ...
and Fingle?
Based on a short story by John Varley, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank is like a prototype for The Matrix, but inspired by 1980s technology. It takes some of the concepts introduced in Tron but molds them into a science fiction dystopia environment. In fact it reminds me a bit of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but without the dark edge, and delving a bit more into the corporate world of bureaucracy and control (shades of Tron again).  And much like Tron I’m not sure if this film would appeal to anyone outside of the computer industry when it was released in the 1985.

While, Overdrawn at the Memory Bank is ahead of it’s time, it also has the sense of fun that seemed to be a requisite of 1980s science fiction adventures. There’s a lot of humor built into the story, especially dealing with Fingal’s increasingly frustrated attempts to fight the system from the outside and then his joy at discovering the freedom of creating his own world within the computer. The use of Casablanca seems contradictory to the futuristic setting, but it creates a fun disconnect. Then you have the whole concept that people’s minds being put into the bodies of animals as some kind of therapy is just so goofy it makes sense.

I'm still not sure how getting "doppled" into a drunk
baboon is supposed to help any body.
It is the inherent goofiness that makes the whole movie entertaining. Unfortunately there are a few things working against it. The movie was made for public television, and therefore didn’t have a very large budget. But I think a considerable amount of the budget did make it onto the screen. There are a lot of blue screen and computer image effects. Sure this was done in the 1985, so it looks pretty crude to modern eyes, but I think it adds a charm to the movie. Now this movie was all shot on 1980s video, so it has a look that has been known to cause blindness in hard-core film fans. But it gets the job done and the interesting futuristic costumes and props show up well enough.

Probably the most interesting performance in Overdrawn at the Memory Bank is by Raul Julia as Fingal. He gets to have some fun playing the frustrated computer programmer, a virtual reality rebel, and the suave Casablanca version of himself, Rick Blaine. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if Julia quite understood all the technical aspects of the story. He seems a bit lost at times and it causes his performance to be wooden. Other times, he’s completely into the part and brings a lot of energy to the table

Apollonia spends half the movie in this same pose.
The rest of the cast is pretty average all the way around. Griffiths plays the nerdy heroine Apollonia well. We get that she’s clever and resourceful, but also not keen to lose her job. Unfortunately she gets saddled with some really bad voice over and some painful exposition lines. Lots of her dialogue is filled with really silly “futuristic” sounding words. For any actor these would be difficult to spout out, but when you have a whole set of “techno-dopple the positronic helio-graphic interlocking thing-a-majiggy” well you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Some of the other cast members play things broadly, but in many cases it works out fine. Many of these are virtual characters, so they don’t behave in a realistic way anyway. It kind of reminded me of eXistenZ in that way.

Even the fun 80s synth music adds that extra special addition of cheesiness to the whole affair. Where things break down is in the script explanations near the end of the film. A bunch of stuff happens, and I’m still not sure how everything resolves itself. But by this point Overdrawn at the Memory Bank is chugging along with lots of odd visuals, hilarious dialogue and Raul Julia spinning in front of a computer animated background that could be cribbed from an Atari game. And while you’d have a good time riffing along with this one yourself, let Mike and bots lend a hand with one of the funniest episodes of the eighth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Episode Review:  
Julia seems to be having a good time playing this
duel role.
When it came time to wrap up the first season of episodes for the Sci-fi Channel, the crew decided to knock out a trilogy of 1980s science fiction films. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating, that may be my favorite genre for the crew to tackle. To follow the uproarious Space Mutiny and the silly chronologically impaired Time Chasers we get this virtual reality gem Overdrawn at the Memory Bank.

This is another case where it seems the film was created just for the MST3K treatment. It is filled with images, dialogue, performances and plot elements that just lend themselves to riffing. And the boys unleash with a steady stream of commentary that make the whole thing hilarious.

One of the biggest gifts comes with our protagonists name, Fingle. The boys go to town working Fingle’s name into all kinds of amusing word play. During a scene that is filmed in soft light, soft filter and has Fingle and Apollonia close together Crow says “This is filmed in soap opera vision”, to which Mike adds, “It’s Days of our Fingle”. During a scene where Apollonia spouts out a bunch of techno jargon involving the “doppling process”. Mike adds, “I don’t want to bungle or bobble the Fingle dopple.” But my favorite take on his name is when Tom speaks for Apollonia with the modified slogan, “I’ve got a fever for a flavor of a Fingle.”

"I'll see you on the dark side of Raul!"
They crew also used Raul Julia to their best advantage. Not only do they riff on his mixed performance here, but they make sure to reference his roles in The Adams Family as well a hilarious Kiss of the Spider Woman reference. One of my favorite bits is during the opening credits, where Julia’s face is superimposed over a spinning cube. Crow declares it a “Raul-bics cube.” Tom says, “Hey I thought he was Puerto Rican, I didn’t know he was…” Mike shouts, “Oh no, don’t go there.” But Tom finishes with “Cuban!” and bursts out laughing.

But Overdrawn at the Memory Bank has plenty of other oddities that provide fodder. Since Fingle is so hung up on Casablanca we keep seeing parts of the film as well as a virtual bar and characters from the film. Crow finally declares, “You know, never show a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie!” There is also an odd thing about people being threatened with being doppled into the body of an anteater. It comes up several times and the boys have a field day with it. Throwing in mock-repulsed lines about “filthy disgusting anteaters”.

The Fat Man and his huge huge face make for a lot
of the riffing.
And if you wanted to brush up on your fat jokes, this is the episode to watch. The character called “The Fat Man” provides the boys with ample opportunities to mock his weight, his out of breath wheezing and the fact that he looks a little bit like TV’s Frank! I think they get a bit too mean with these, but it’s par the course with an episode from this era.

There is one thing I’m not too fond of with this episode. The boys go on and on about how bad the movie is. But I think it is actually a pretty creative film, with a lot of interesting and fun concepts. Yeah it gets confusing, and I’m with them when they have no clue what is happening at the end with “I am interfaced!” But they get a little too angry at the film, and I think they may have been a bit too riled up at it.

The host segments are actually quite a bit of fun. The episode starts with Crow selling shirts for his catchphrase, “You know you want me, baby!”. Mike points out that Crow has never said that, and that selling shirts is kind of stupid. Crow offers Mike a catalogue filled with catchphrases that Mike can order shirts for. Mike is rather fond of “We’re all out of toner”. The bots aren’t impressed. The rich irony, you can still get shirts with Crow and his catchphrase on them (as well as your favorite MST3K riffs over at Satellite News). Pearl is inspired by the fact that Overdrawn at the Memory Bank  was made for public television. So she creates her own pledge drive, with Ortega from The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed up Zombies manning the phones. One of her featured shows is “The Nature of Bobo” where Brain Guy does a killer National Geographic voiceover as Bobo does what Bobo normally does.  Tom is so impressed he calls the telethon so he can receive his free tote bag. His declaration, “There’s so many things to tote!” is frequently quoted around my house.

"Your love gives me wings to fly." "I really do like pie."
At the first break, the robots were inspired by the baboon in the movie to order their own monkey from The monkey arrives instantly, and immediately hates Mike. At the next break Mike is still being tormented by the monkey, even excessive drooling won’t save him (don’t ask). Meanwhile the pledge drive is in full swing as Pearl stops for a touching musical number called, “When Loving Lovers Love”, a duet with Brain Guy. The lyrics are hilarious and it is one of my favorite songs during a host segment. Gotta give Mary Jo props for belting this sucker out. At the next break, Tom decides to use doppling technology to go down to the Nanites virtual world. It goes very badly for him. The next break features Bobo trying to talk the monkey down, but then he joins in tormenting Mike. When the movie ends, Mike takes tranquelizes Bobo and the monkey, and Pearl is counting her massive amount of cash from her pledge drive.

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank was a great way to end the inagural season of the show on the Sci Fi Channel. It’s got plenty of laughs, a very watchable movie and some of the best riffing the show has to offer.

I give it five flavo-fibes out of five.

If anything, this movie gives you a chance to throw
your arms to the side and yell, "I am interfaced!"

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 4.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Score Sample - Krull - James Horner

Thanks to my pal Jon Broxton over at Movie Music UK, I've been listening to the score to Krull a lot. I've heard this championed as one of James Horner's best scores from the early part of his career. And if you love his sweeping adventure style, with great themes, lush romance and creative action music... well it's hard to argue. 

I've been thinking a bit about this movie. I realized that if it was remade as a Japanese anime, they pretty much wouldn't have to change a thing and it would be a popular show. Hell they could flesh out some of the characters even more (with a 13 episode series) and give the whole thing a bit more intensity when you start losing characters. But they would have to keep Horner's score. Check out the Main Title track that includes the main theme for the film as well as score for the opening moments when the evil Slayers arrive on the planet (cued by their electronic howl).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Die Another Day (2002)

So the year 2002 marked the fortieth anniversary of James Bond. As such the creators decided that the film they delivered that year would be a celebration of all things 007. It would look back at the previous 19 films and point toward the future of the franchise. It would be the first James Bond film of the new millennium, and it would be one to remember. The thing is, most people remember this movie as one of the worst of the franchises long history. What happened?

Britain’s best secret agent James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is sent on a dangerous mission to kill the unstable North Korean Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee). He succeeds, but only after blowing up half an airbase and then getting himself captured. 14 months later Bond is freed during a prisoner exchange, but he’s a little grumpy that his cover was blown in the first place. M (Judi Dench) revokes his license to kill, but that doesn’t stop Bond. He’s off and running on the trail of traitor.

The trail takes him to Cuba where he meets agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) who is tracking down the diabolical Zao (Rick Yune). The two agents tangle for a bit, but Zao gets away, but not before leaving a clue. Somehow, he is tied to the rising superstar of the industrial world Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). The more Bond and Jinx dig the more they discover that Graves hides a deadly secret, one that could threaten the world. It comes down to a car battle in an ice palace, a fencing battle from hell, a man with diamonds on his face, an invisible car and some of the worst sexual innuendo I’ve heard in a long time. Can James Bond survive this mess to Die Another Day?

Good Points:
  • The first half of the film works as a solid bit of entertainment
  • Rosamund Pike makes for an excellent femme fatale
  • David Arnold’s score is a fun mix of techno and orchestra

Bad Points:
  • The second half of the film spirals into a mess of excess
  • Halle Berry is lost without a map
  • Special effects take over the film, much to its detriment

The 20th James Bond film tries so hard to please. It attempts to be everything to all kinds of fans of the franchise. But it is such a tangled mess of conflicting styles, concepts, goals and execution that the final product is honestly a train wreck. It is never boring, but it never gels either. There is a bit of fun in playing the “spot the previous film reference” game, but this is easily the weakest film of the Brosnan era.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 2
Sound: 5
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 2
Total:  2

In Depth Review
Graves and Bond have their very own Duel of the Fates.
Expectations are really a killer when it comes to films. When audiences come to the theater expecting something and they don’t get it, well the negative word of mouth can really harm the film. You can end up with disillusioned fans and a franchise that starts looking too long in the tooth. Just ask George Lucas about The Phantom Menace. But James Bond has walked that road before. Usually he’s been able to shift with the times, and even when the films take a misstep, things get corrected (and sometimes overcorrected) for the next outing. It happened with Licence to Kill in 1989 and previously in 1969 with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond survived both times.

But Die Another Day may represent the first time that the expectations the studio put on itself ended up scuttling the film before it got a chance to evolve. First you had the 40th anniversary of the franchise looming. Next you had the fact that this was the first Bond film of the new millennium and the first post 9/11 Bond film. Then you had the fact that the previous Bond film, The World is Not Enough did not live up to audience expectations. Then you had the idea that the new Halle Berry character, Jinx, could be ripe for a spin off franchise. Add to this the fact that 2002 was a year packed with some serious box office power. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Star Trek: Nemesis were all fighting for the piece of the megaplex pie. Those three films were going to have huge special effects extravaganzas. And since The Phantom Menace and The Matrix had raised the bar for visual effects and action in 1999, the James Bond franchise didn’t want to look old.

The pre-credit hovercraft chase is one of the best action
scenes in the film.
All that was coming down on this one movie. There was probably no way this could end well.

I’m going to focus on the good points first, because the bad points are all tied to the fact that the expectations ended up forging the move in it’s bad direction. The good points managed to shine through, but just barely.

My highest score was for the sound, something that has been top notch in all the Brosnan films. With all the over the top visuals, explosions and gunfire, the sound crew had plenty to work with. The soundwork is exciting, supports the action perfectly and really rocks the subwoofer when it needs too.

Since Tomorrow Never Dies, David Arnold has been providing the James Bond film scores and he’s done a really solid job. His best scores tend to be the ones where he gets to work on the theme song and the incorporate them into the score, giving each film a unique musical identity. Both The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale are excellent scores because of the way he used the title songs as supporting themes. Unfortunately, Arnold had no input into the Madonna song for the film. He ended up crafting a nice love theme for Jinx, and used the James Bond theme in some creative ways (I love the Latin tinged adaptation of the Bond theme during the Cuba sequences). But the biggest element of the score is the fact that Arnold fused the techo/electronic sound he had been fleshing out in the previous two scores into the front of the mix. Nearly all the action scenes utilize electronics, stutter editing and synthetic warping of the orchestra. It is a fun experiment and one that I actually enjoy quite a bit. It took the Bond scores into a fresh and fun direction, very fitting the time. A lot of film music fans put this score near the bottom of Arnold’s output. I do have to say that of the five scores, this would rank as the fifth, it is still a really fun score. But do yourself a favor and seek out the extended version of the score that includes many excellent tracks that were left off the commercial release.

Not making Zao the main villain was a missed opportunity.
As for Madonna’s song, well I don’t hate it as much as most Bond fans and film music fans do. It’s a fun bit of pop music, but when you place it along side the surrounding James Bond theme songs it really stands out, and not in a good way. In the attempt to take the series in a more modern direction, this song ends up looking completely out of left field. The odd thing is, Madonna could have sung something perfect in the James Bond mold. By this time she had trained her voice and could really carry a full-blown tune. But to go with the techno-pop approach just doesn’t work. It’s a shame really.

It’s hard to talk about the acting, which has some good points, without touching on some of the less than stellar points of the film, so I might as well dive in. No one had a clue about the actual movie they wanted to make. This is one of the messiest James Bond films to actually hit theaters (and be from the “official” studio as well). That’s saying something, because Octopussy is still looming out there. But Die Another Day tries to do too much and just can’t manage any of it well.

Never argue with a woman wearing a tank top and
wielding a sword... just some good advice.
At some point it was decided that this film was going to be much more over the top and “fun” than the previous film. A lot of people were disappointed with how the plot between Elektra and Bond played out in The World is Not Enough, and found it too dark. On top of that, the shadow of 9/11 was still looming large over the film industry. The decision was made to indulge in fantasy instead of the grim reality around the audience. In this vein, the creators looked to the Bond films of the 1970s and how they transported the viewers away from the gas crisis, international terrorism and the general malaise of the Carter years. The biggest Bond film of the decade, money-wise, was Moonraker. So that was the type of fantastical direction the writers took, to create a Moonraker for the modern audience.

Right there, you’ll know where you stand, because Moonraker is certainly one of the most polarizing of the James Bond films. I think that if the film had been more focused on bringing on the large-scale amusements and humor, it might have worked, but things get muddled quickly. The first half of the film deals with Bond getting captured, tortured and then treated roughly by MI6 when they get him back. It’s a very dark turn for the series, and one that bothered a lot of viewers. I thought it was an interesting development and could have yielded something really interesting (like the similar sequence in Casino Royale), but Die Another Day glosses over the torture and soon heads into the fantastical with lasers blasting from satellites and enemies using gene therapy to change their entire bodies. This 180 creates a real disconnect and no matter how good the acting is, there is little that can be done to salvage the film.

Robinson Caruso... I mean James Bond confronts M.
Brosnan is pretty good here. The first half of the film offers the best material and he really runs with it. Brosnan had commented that he really wanted to dig deeper into the character of Bond, and I’m guessing that he wanted to make the most of these early scenes. His interaction with Berry in Cuba works well too, and those scenes are pretty much the last of the good moments in the film. After that Brosnan doesn’t do much but deliver some really bad sexual innuendo (some of the worst of the franchise, and that is saying something), and work in front of blue screen during the special effects scenes. As good as Brosnan is, his easy charm just can’t pull the movie out of the funk it gets into. But I don’t blame him too much; Moore had the same struggles with Live and Let Die and Octopussy.

Rick Yune is actually a really good villain, and he gives Zao a real sense of menace. Even when he’s covered in diamonds and pale with blue eyes, the actor is able to make the character work. The creators really missed the boat by not going with Zao as the main villain and have him battle against Bond at the end. But maybe having two bald main villains in back to back movies was too much to ask.

When your villain ends up in a dorky looking Power
Ranger suit, the movie may have gone awry.
Instead we get Toby Stephens as Graves. Stephens doesn’t show up until about halfway into Die Another Day, and he fits right into the over the top nature of that section. His best scenes are actually the fun sword duel sequence, but after that he just starts gnawing at the scenery. His final scenes are so grandiose and hilarious that you can’t help but laugh. I know he’s supposed to be unbalanced, but he’s so cheerful about it that he doesn’t come across as too much of a threat. I think he did the best he could with the part. Too bad it was such a cheesy role to begin with.

Faring a bit better is Rosamund Pike as the traitorous Miranda Frost. She makes for a solid femme fatale, and her interplay with Brosnan has some good moments. The script ends up failing her and creating a character that just doesn’t seem to fit in this movie. Her final duel with Jinx is pretty good, but I’m always disappointed when Frost dies. I really wanted her to bump off our leading lady.

Halle Berry does her best Ursula Andress.
That’s right, I’m not going to be too kind to Halle Berry. Now I think she would make a fine Bond girl. In the right role and right film, it all could have worked. In fact the idea of the character Jinx is a good one… but the execution here is just wrong. She really feels forced into the plot. Scenes showing off how tough she really is come across heavy-handed. Once you hear how the creators wanted to create a spin off with Jinx, you see all the tell tale flags trying to sell the viewers the character. All of this hurts the film in it’s pacing, its storytelling and in it’s entertainment. Berry also delivers some of the clumsiest lines in the film.  I know they wanted her to seem tough, but the lines just don’t sound natural. The worst being the “Read this.. bitch,” line when she kills Frost… just painful.

Speaking of ripe dialogue, Die Another Day is just swimming in bad puns, horrible innuendo and pathetic quips. I know the writers were going for their own version of Moonraker, but I’m not sure if they were making fun of the cheesy dialogue or just trying to come up with the worst of the worst. The line between witty and crass is crossed way too often. When I saw this movie in the theaters, I remember many audible groans as some of the lines were delivered.

When writing "James Bond gets chased by a giant laser
to the edge of an ice cliff", you should realize the film has
gone awry.
One of the major problems with the film is the reliance on huge special effects. James Bond has always included some of this. Some of the movies like You Only Live Twice and Moonraker pushed things pretty far into science fiction territory. But one of the keys to any James Bond film is the stuntwork during the action scenes. You get the sense that these are real stuntmen and women doing dangerous and crazy things on the screen. But Die Another Day loses the focus and goes for spectacle too many times. The second half of the film is jam packed with blue screen effects, and computer generated images. Now, all the Brosnan era films had some of this, but Die Another Day just goes overboard. James Bond becomes a puppet on the screen, and the thrills vanish as we watch him surf a tsunami, drive in a melting ice palace and fight a man in a Power Ranger suit on board an exploding plane. I believe that Bond works best when the thrill are palpable, and there is little of that in the movie, and none to be found in the second half. It was a horrible misstep, and one that took away from the fun and turned the movie in a parody of itself (something even Moonraker avoided).

Director Lee Tamahori does some odd things with the movie. Part of it is due to the muddled mess of a screenplay he had to work with. So I can’t put all the blame on him. But his use of slow motion, stutter edits and strange zooms don’t pull you into the action or add to the thrills. They just call attention to themselves. There are also moments in the film that have no transitions. Done correctly, this can work in favor of the film, creating tension and moving the movie along at a faster pace. But in Die Another Day the lack of transitions creates confusion at best and raises questions at worst. You start questioning the reality of the movie and it pulls you right out. Since the movie isn’t working in the first place, it really doesn’t take much to break that forth wall.

But he does manage to capture some wonderful vistas, the early scenes are filmed well, and I like how he worked with light and shadow in the Cuba love scene between Jinx and Bond.

Q's laboratory is filled with references to the older
Bond films.
Die Another Day has elements from the previous 19 James Bond films worked into it as a kind of game. It’s fun to try and spot them all (and some films have more than one reference. Thunderball has the jetpack in Q’s lab, but the moment where Bond steals a grape while he’s in the clinic also come from the older film). That spirit of celebration does come through, and if you look at it in that light, the movie isn’t so bad. It is reveling in the decadence that is the James Bond franchise. It is nothing but pure entertainment, and at some base level it does that. The movie never bores me, like some of the early 70s films. It just seems gratuitous.

That may be the reason why it never clicks for me. It tries so hard to please that it just can’t manage anything well. It is the weakest film of the Brosnan era, and for many fans were left with a very bad taste in their mouths. The ended up dismissing all four films from that actor. It’s a shame too, because I don’t think Brosnan got the James Bond script that really let him shine. He could have been one of the best actors to play the role, but time and again the films just never get the mixture quite right. And once we saw the Daniel Craig films, it became really apparent; Brosnan was the Moore of his decade.

Moneypenny finally gets her kiss.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rogues' Gallery - Ninja Scroll

The 8 devils ride into the storm.
So, in my review of Ninja Scroll I spent a good deal of time writing about how great the villains were and I didn't include a single image of any of them. 

Ok, so there was a shot with the blind swordsman Mujuro in it. But that just isn't enough. It's just that Kaguro and Jubei are so darn cool that they hogged up all the images. 

So for those of you who wanted to see some of these baddies in action, I give you, the eight devils of Kimon.

First up is the hulking beast, Tessai. He can turn his skin into rock and wields an enormous double bladed weapon that he can hurl like boomerang. It makes a disturbing whistle as it cuts through just about everything it touches.

No blade can pierce Tessai's flesh.

Next is Yurimaru, the second in command. His ability is to electrocute anything he touches. In a cunning twist he often winds a thin wire around his prey and then fries them from a distance. Yurimaru is a very jealous soul and it ends up hurting the 8 devils in the end.

Yurimaru just fried someone, but was it friend or foe?

Benisato controls snakes. She is hypnotic often stunning her victim with her alluring tattoos. When things get too hot for her, she can escape from danger by shedding her skin. And don't get too close to her, snakes seem to be hiding in and around her body, in places you least expect.

If you are seeing this side of Benisato, then it's the
last thing you're going to see.

If you hate bugs then stay far away from Mushizo. He can control a whole hive of wasps. These are a special species of insect that live inside the huge hump on his back. This ugly little man is also fairly skilled with the spear.

Mushizo has a whole bunch of new friends for you to

One of the most deadly of the eight devils is Mujuro, the blind swordsman. He's able to hear your every move and can block and strike with his katana with lightning speed. Skill alone can't defeat him, it will take trickery.

Mujuro doesn't need to see you, to kill you.

Shijima strikes from the shadows, able to melt into them with ease. His favorite weapon is a long chain with dagger edged blades at the end. He also has the ability to control anyone he gets his hands on. They literally become his puppets and your friends turn into your foes.

Shijima is literally melting into the shadows, and can
reappear in any other shadow.

Zakuro is the resident bomb freak. This gal is no Minnie May from Gunsmith Cats. Her scarred body reveals her joy in cutting open captured enemies, stuffing them with gun powder and blowing them up in front of their comrades. Probably the craziest of the eight devils.

Zakuro deploys her ignition powder, and then laughs
like a lunatic when she smells burning flesh.

Finally there is the leader, Lord Gemma. The scar across his neck is from the time Jubei beheaded him. Killed him dead right there... or at least that's what Jubei thought. Turns out, it is really hard to kill Gemma. Again, the standard rules of combat aren't going to work, it's going to take smarts and trickery to best this beast.

Gemma is unarmed. But it doesn't phase him a bit.

So there you have it, 8 of the most colorful and dangerous villains of 1990s anime. And now that I've given them their own picture on my blog, hopefully they won't try to blow me up, sting me with wasps or just dump a load of snakes on my head. 

But for good measure I'll throw in a couple more pics of our heros. 

Jubei and Kagero have a nice little "discussion".

Old Man Dakuan doubts the veracity of this blog.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ninja Scroll (1993)

For a certain segment of the population, if you include the word “scroll” in the title of your movie, they will rush to see it. Maybe that is why this film was re-titled from Jubei Ninpucho (literally Jubei the Wind Ninja) to its more famous name. Sorry to disappoint you, but there is not one single scroll to be found in the whole film. And that is why we were all here, to see hot scroll writing action!

Jubei (Kouichi Yamadera) is a wandering samurai for hire. He’s a master swordsman and has an unusual technique that allows his blade to send a deadly blast of wind at his enemies. This will come in handy when comes face to face with the supernatural ninjas known as the 8 Devils of Kimon.

The Devils are up to something, creating a plague that wipes out villages and terrifies the populous. The local lord sends his ninja team to investigate, but the Devils make short work of them. The only survivor is the lovely Kagero (Emi Shinohara), a ninja whose lips or embrace will poison anyone. Kagero and Jubei team up with a shady little old man named Dakuan (Takeshi Aono), who is investigating the incident on behalf of the Shogun. These three will battle the devils who have powers as varied as controlling snakes, having rock skin, literally melting into shadows and turning people into exploding zombies. Leading these creatures is the mysterious Lord Genma (Daisuke Gouri). The thing is, Jubei already killed Genma once before. But you can’t keep a good devil down.

Good Points: 
  • The animation is beautiful, macabre and disgusting
  • The 8 Devils have some creative and disturbing powers
  • Jubei and Kagero make one hell of a cool ninja duo
Bad Points:
  • The older dub has some real weak spots in it
  • Violence, gore and rape will offend some viewers
  • Plot and characters are unsurprising and predictable

Ninja Scroll is a solid blast of action/horror fun. It’s 90 minutes of cool characters fighting impressive villains in creative settings. The battles are unique and exciting. The violence is over the top, and the gore is excessive, but there is a visual poetry to the whole thing that just works. This is very much a guy’s movie, with the tough talking hero, sexy female ninja who ends up completely or nearly nude several times and the explosive battles. But for all that, it’s just a solid ninja-tastic adventure.

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

In Depth Review
Kagero shows why you never sneak up on a ninja.
I’ve mentioned it before, but I think it’s important to set the background of this movie a bit. Back in the 1990s, Japanese animation had a reputation in North America for being ultra-violent, overly sexual and just plain disturbing. But as I’ve also mentioned, this came about because a lot of the material being released in North America at the time fit that description and was popular. So more anime was created to fill that niche and push the envelope further. This is the environment that spawned Ninja Scroll and why it was one of the most popular anime in the mid and late 90s.

Yoshiaki Kawajiri created this film. He has a very particular formula for movies and OAVs he worked on.  Starting with his 1987 film Wicked City most of his films follow the same structure. You get a loner hero who has a unique skill. He meets a dangerous and sexy woman who reluctantly joins forces with him. Along the way a crazy old coot will appear to help or hinder our duo. Against them is a group of super powerful beings with unique powers. All hell breaks loose. Blood is spilt. Skin is exposed. But in the end our hero kills the bad guy, beds the girl and saves the day. The patterns clicked along for the most part up to Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust in 2000. Ninja Scroll falls right in the middle of that ride.

With all the death in the film it literally rains blood.
Kawajiri wrote, directed and came up with the character design for the film, so in essence, we are seeing his complete vision here. Visually it’s got a lot going for it. His character design is fairly detailed with some exaggerations to add to the fantasy. You’ll see some long noses, huge chins and giant muscles in this film. But the faces are fully detailed and fairly realistic, which adds to the horror element of the film. Going along with this are the various costumes that allow each character to stand out and give us a bit about their personality. Jubei is dressed pretty simply, looking like a cross between Toshiro Mifune from Seven Samurai and Spike from Cowboy Bebop. Kagero is dressed in a colorful kimono, but she is like a poisonous flower you want to resist touching.

But the best character designs go to the 8 devils. Each is dressed in a way that suits their unique ability, and their character designs follow suit.   For example Benisato (Gara Takashima) has snake like abilities. So her neck is long, she moves in a fluid fashion, and her tattooed body has snakes and scale imagery in it.  The controlling Yurimaru has the ability to electrocute anyone he touches. But he is also very vain. His outfit is clean, but ornate with whites and blues. It becomes a game, as the devils appear to see if you can figure out their power before they use it. Many of them are surprising and unique. I’ve never seen the wasp ability duplicated in any other anime. For a rogues gallery this is one of Kawajiri’s best, and he’s created some doozies.

One of the many visually striking battle scenes.
But there are a couple things that just stand out from a visual stand point in this film. The first is the use of color and light. Kawajiri’s work always excels in this area, and Ninja Scroll is filled with some of his best work. The primary background color in the film is black, fitting with its horror-like imagery and feel. But on top of the darkness are a vast array of startling colors, from flaming orange during a sunset battle with the shadow devil, to the dark greens and blues of a rotting temple where Jubei faces the snake woman. The vibrant colors add to the dreamlike feel of the work and create some startling images. It also makes each battle scene feel unique and stick in the mind. Jubei’s battle against the blind swordsman in the bamboo forest is a blaze of while light, flashing blades and vibrant green. That image always sticks in my mind when I think of the film.

But the color that permeates the film is red, because let me tell you, gallons of blood are spilled in this movie.  It is all done in a stylistic way, with every character seeming to have extremely high blood pressure, when they are cut and fountains of gore erupt forth. During the slaughter of a team of ninja, it latterly rains blood, creating a dynamic image of cool blues of night, with bright red splashing down. For the most part all the violence is fully animated with very little cheating. The action is the focus and there’s plenty of it. But the film is not for the squeamish, because just about any way you wanted to see someone sliced and diced will be explored in this film.

Jubei is cool, even while snacking.
To go along with all the creative supernatural attacks and effects you have to have some creative sound. For the most part you get some really interesting stuff. One of my favorites is the spinning blade weapon used by the hulking Tessai (Ryuzaburo Otomo). This huge blade makes a distinctive whistle that just sends shivers down your spine. When you hear it, you know someone’s going to get mutilated. There’s a fair bit of explosions and fire, thanks to one of the devils who loves stuffing still living bodies with TNT and then blowing them up. Yeah, she’s a bit of a nut. The explosions pack a punch. The final battle takes place in a burning ship, and the fire blazes and crackles all around.

The music by Kaoru Wada is pretty good. The main theme is intense and strident, fitting the film perfectly. Unfortunately, it appears to be one of about five pieces written for the film. It is so distinctive that you recognize it immediately. So after the fifth or sixth time you hear it in the film, it has worn out its welcome. Unfortunately you get to hear it about six more times after that. A little more variety could have helped the film a bit. The end J-pop song is forgettable.

Kagero doesn't trust anyone, which may be a problem.
Now this was an early dub release for an anime, and that means you get a real mix of acting. Some of the performances in Ninja Scroll are pretty good, especially veteran Wendee Lee as Kagero. But some of the supporting cast goes over the top. Besides this is a samurai era flick, you should watch it in Japanese. I really like Kouichi Yamadera as Jubei, he has that perfect devil may care attitude in his voice that matches the character. The only one that seemed a bit off was Daisuke Gouri as Genma. His voice seemed too sonorous for the character.

For a film like this, you don’t need a complicated script. You pretty much need a solid storyline to set up the fight scenes and deliver a couple twists along the way. Nothing terribly complicated. We do get some well-written characters with some unique character flaws and backstory.  Jubei is very much in the Sanjuro vein of wandering warrior. He’s a bit on the rough side, but he’s got a heart of gold. He helps people in need, but also knows when to run away when things get too dangerous. But he’s also one tough customer who manages to stay level headed even when he’s getting the crap beat out of him. Then you’ve got Kagero who is cold, deadly and yet fragile in her own way. The fact that she can’t experience a simple touch without killing has made her shun any kind of relationship. There is a lot of pain in the character and it works well in the story and the way she ends up connecting with Jubei. It is that relationship that provides an interesting twist that I didn’t see coming during my first viewing.

Jubei faces his nemesis in the fiery finale.
But let’s face it; Ninja Scroll is an action adventure film and that is what we are here to see. Kawajiri does an excellent job balancing all the elements of his movie perfectly. The action scenes are exciting; they were spaced throughout the film. The story itself isn’t complicated, but the interesting characters help drive the whole thing forward. The final battle is brutal and climactic and feels like a fitting conclusion to the movie. It’s the perfect length and doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. All in all, it’s gory but solid entertainment. So if you are looking for some supernatural sword and sorcery samurai anime style, check this one out.

Want to learn more about the villains in Ninja Scroll, check out my Rogues' Gallery.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Anime Juke Box - Hiru no Tsuki - Outlaw Star

For this tune from the anime juke box I picked one of my favorite vocalists, Akino Arai. She seemed to pop up in some of my favorite anime of the 1990s. She has a lovely voice, and usually performs a love theme, or ballad for the show. I first encountered her in the OAV series Macross Plus as the singer of the love theme "Voices". But one of my favorite pieces is the end credits to the space opera adventure series Outlaw Star. She performed two different end title songs, and both are great. Here is the one used for the first half, "Hiru no Tsuki". Enjoy!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Streets of Fire (1984)

This is one of those movies that pops up when anyone mentions the words “cheesy” and “eighties” in the same sentence. Because of my love for both of those words, I decided the time was right to check this flick out. Little did I know that that what I encountered was going to be a film at war with itself, a movie that tried to do so much and yet accomplished so little. Little did I know that I was going to see Willem Defoe in an outfit that would scar me for life.

In the not to distant future, in a post apocalyptic world, Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is a super popular rock artist in her little sector of the unnamed city. As she’s rocking out for a huge crowd, the evil and well coiffed Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe) abducts her to take back to his sector for some fun and games.

Luckily her ex-boyfriend Tom Cody (Michael Pare) arrives in town shortly afterward. Cody is a rough and tumble type who is willing to find Ellen deep in enemy territory… for a price. Ellen’s current boyfriend and manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) is willing to pay. So, along with the smart talking McCoy (Amy Madigan) the three journey into the danger zone. But even if they succeed, will Raven let them go? Or will the city burn with Streets of Fire?

Good Points:
  • If you love cheesy 80s rock, then this movie is for you
  • If you love ripe dialogue, then this movie is for you
  • If you love saying, “Oh my god are they in this movie too?” then this movie is for you

Bad Points:
  • The movie does not have a constant sense of production design
  • Seems to be flailing around looking for a plot or a point
  • Willem Defoe’s leather overalls or whatever they are supposed to be… put on shirt man!

This movie is a glorious mess. It seems to have no idea what it’s doing or why it’s doing it. A mix of visual styles from the 40s, 50s and 80s merge with stereotype characters and dialogue that will make you groan. The songs are either a gift from the gods of cheese, or the kind of thing that makes you scream for mercy. It’s at once Escape from New York and West Side Story and yet, that can’t even describe it. Very entertaining, but not for the reasons it was intended to.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  3

In Depth Review
I wonder if there was a point in the film where director Walter Hill looked at what was going on in front of him and said, “Oh, this isn’t going to work… is it?” But by that point it was too late, the film was well underway, Willem Dafoe was in his leather overalls and you just had to roll with it – and hope for the best.

I wonder if this was as cynical an exercise as it feels. It really feels like someone decided to make a film based solely off of what “kids these days” like. And by “these days” I mean 1984. It’s got the Jim Steinman penned songs (and if you are familiar with “Making Love out of nothing at all” or “Total Eclipse of the Heart” or most of the songs by Meatloaf, then you know Steinman). It’s got the retro 50s look and songs that groups like The Stray Cats made popular. It had the gangs running the city that we saw in Escape from New York. Our hero was more like Indiana Jones than anything else. But there were plenty of explosions to make the film live up to the title Streets of Fire. Take all these elements then stir them up with a whole case of familiar faces including Bill Paxton, Lee Ving, Ed Begley Jr. Elizabeth Dailey, Rick Rossavich and plenty of others you’ll recognize by sight if not by name. The result has to stick in some way.

Yes, it does stick. The whole thing can only be viewed as a cinematic mess of slop, or it’s just an entertaining movie because it is so wonderfully messy. Now usually a movie as cynical as this (if it was in fact as calculated as I think it was) ends up feeling soulless. See the latest version of Clash of the Titans for proof of that. But I get the feeling that most of the folks on the screen decided to just go for it and have a good time. So the movie ends up being ridiculous and yet not completely aware of the joke. Oh there are times where a wink is given at the audience, but most of the time it’s played very serious – and it’s better for it.

The odd thing is that our two main characters Tom Cody and Ellen Aim are the least interesting folks of the bunch. This doesn’t reflect on the acting by Pare or Lane. It’s just that the characters are written pretty blandly. Cody is a typical tough guy of the 40s mold, with a heart of gold, of course. Aim is just a typical rocker seeking fame and fortune that’s always had a soft spot for Cody. That’s all these characters ever really are.

Compared to the other bizarre, over the top and more interesting characters in Streets of Fire, they don’t stand a chance. My favorite was McCoy, the tough talking spitfire portrayed by Amy Madigan. She nails the role, playing it a bit broad, but feeling right at home in the overstated production around her. On top of that, her character seems to have a back-story and personality that could support a whole film. She should have been our hero!

As outrageous as Dafoe is, he fits perfectly in the role of Raven. His natural presence combined with the makeup, hair and wardrobe make him a scary villain. No sane person would dare be seeing in public like that, especially in front of a mess of evil bikers in black leather. And when your gang contains Mr. Body from Clue you know you’re in for some danger.

But then there are all kinds of odd characters thrown in here. Moranis’ Fish is a loud mouth trash-talking snob… with a heart of gold? Bill Paxton plays Clyde the Bartender, an idiot with a blacked out tooth and … a heart of gold? Then there’s Elizabeth Daily who plays Baby Doll. This little groupie shows up for no reason, stays around for no reason and really has no reason to be in the movie other than to wear hot pink and… you guessed it, have a heart of gold.

I could keep going, but I think you really need to check out Streets of Fire to truly experience it.

I have to say it was worth seeing. I spent the entire movie just wondering how the movie got made, how they people who made it feel about it and how the hell I missed this. It’s a wonderful slice of 1980s cheese that I would place up there with Lou Ferrigno’s Hercules and Megaforce. If that sounds good to you, definitely check it out!