July 29, 2014

Kiki's Delivery Service: 25 years on

There are few films in the world more delightful to watch than Studio Ghibli films, and there are few Studio Ghibli films as delightful as Kiki's Delivery Service. I've heard it said that the first Hayao Miyazaki film you see will always be your favourite, and while I'm not entirely sure I could pick a favourite these days I can't deny I will always have the warmest of affections for Kiki.

Today it turns 25, since it was on 29 July 1989 that it premiered in Japanese cinemas. It remains one of my favourite films, so it seems appropriate to wish it a happy birthday.

It was a critical production for Studio Ghibli, since its preceding double-bill of My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies had failed to turn a profit, and the high cost of producing animation meant that the studio would close shop if Kiki wasn't a hit. Thankfully it turned a healthy profit, grossing almost three times its ¥800 million yen budget by the time it left cinemas.

July 28, 2014

PSX20 #9: Ridge Racer Type Four

PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily the best PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most.

Ridge Racer started life as a series of arcade titles, but like all mid-90s arcade games it rapidly found its way onto the PlayStation beginning in 1994. The original PSX Ridge Racer was one of the key early titles and went a long way towards selling the system in both Japan and overseas. Given its huge success it's no surprise that Namco followed it up with Ridge Racer Revolution in 1995 and Rage Racer in 1996. It was the fourth and final PSX Ridger Racer title, Ridge Racer Type Four (1998), that really grabbed my attention.

That's the thing with videogame sequels - they're almost the opposite of Hollywood, where the quality goes down with each instalment. Videogame quality tends to go up, as technology improves and designs refine. Type Four isn't just the best of the Ridge Racer games. It's my favourite racing videogame ever. I'm sure there are better titles out there, but for sheer nostalgia and the number of hours of entertainment found, Type Four is my sentimental favourite.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Move Along Home"

Deep Space Nine plays host to the first-ever delegation from the Gamma Quadrant - the myserious Wadi, whose interests seems less in diplomacy and more in the games at Quark's Bar. When they catch Quark cheating them out, they force him to play a game of their own - with the lives of Sisko, Dax, Bashir and Kira in the balance.

I'm not quite sure what to make of "Move Along Home". It's relatively awful - in fact I remember it being widely regarded as the worst episode of the season when it was first broadcast. At the same time there is a kernel of potential in what's presented. You can see a solid and inventive episode buried inside, but the episode as broadcast is basically an hour of silliness without a point to it. I despair that I will never see another decent episode this season.

July 27, 2014

The Pull List: 23 July 2014

Doctor Who has a long, rich history of being adapted into comic books. It is, in fact, the single longest-running comic book adaptation in television history. There's been a Doctor Who comic or comic strip running somewhere in the United Kingdom since 1964. In recent years the Americans have been in on the act as well, with IDW publishing several ongoings and miniseries. Some of those books were pretty decent. Some, like their 50th anniversary maxi-series Prisoners of Time, wound up being significantly less than decent. Obviously someone within the BBC wasn't happy, because IDW lost the license, and now an all-new range of Doctor Who comics are kicking off at British publisher Titan Comics.

Titan are simultaneously launching two Doctor Who monthly comics, both titled Doctor Who with the exact same logo. One features ongoing adventures for David Tennant's 10th Doctor and the other features ongoing adventures for Matt Smith's 11th Doctor. A 12th Doctor comic, featuring Peter Capaldi's interpretation of the character, has already been announced and will come along in a few months. This opens up a worrying possibility that we'll soon be seeing a monthly 9th Doctor comic, then an 8th Doctor comic, and before long we'll all be getting hit up for 12 monthly comics - one for each Doctor. Part of me would love to read a regular 2nd Doctor comic book. Another part of me screams for my bank balance.

Both books come with absolutely gorgeous painted covers by Alice X. Zhang. Really: they are the classiest comic book covers for Doctor Who since Ben Templesmith did some early ones for IDW. Absolutely stunning. Let's look at what's inside each one.

Under the cut: reviews of (deep breath) Doctor Who: The 10th Doctor, Doctor Who: The 11th Doctor, All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batman, Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Daredevil, The Flash, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Revival, Saga, Star Wars Legacy, Wild Blue Yonder and Wonder Woman.

July 25, 2014

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Passenger"

While en route to the station, Major Kira and Dr Bashir intercept a damaged Kobliad freighter. Onboard they find a security guard, Ty Kajada, and her dying prisoner, Rao Vantika. Despite Vantika's death, on arrival at Deep Space Nine Kajada insists her prisoner may still be alive. Has Vantika somehow faked his own death, and transferred his consciousness into someone else's body?

Here we go again: great concept, dreadful execution. This was originally a really cool concept for an episode of Star Trek, with a police officer trying to hunt down a vanished criminal only to learn that the criminal is actually hiding inside their own mind. It brings to mind all manner of Philip K. Dick novels and stories, and could have been a wonderfully twisted story rich with paranoia. The problem of course is that it would have been based around the guest star, with the regular cast relegated to supporting roles. That makes a certain amount of sense, and there's another good episode to be made here where we don't know which of the station command crew has been secretly possessed.

Except we do know, because for reasons known only to its creators "The Passenger" flat-out tells us within two minutes of the episode starting.

July 24, 2014

JSA: Joint Security Area (2000)

Park Chan-wook remains one of South Korea’s most acclaimed directors – and deservedly so. JSA: Joint Security Area would seem almost inarguably to be one of his best works.

A shooting has occurred across the demilitarised zone that separates North and South Korea. With both nations on high alert, an investigative team is dispatched on behalf of the United Nations. They are ordered to interview those soldiers involved and establish exactly what transpired that led to the fatal event. The diverging accounts, and the truth behind what happened at the titular “joint security area”, form the basis of this exceptional, unexpectedly human drama.

It is easy to fall into the assumption that there are two Koreas – the pro-US, democratic South and the anti-US, militaristic North. Korea is, culturally at least, still the one nation. Families and friends are separated across seemingly arbitrary border. The Korean War never actually ended – there was a cease-fire, but certainly no formal declarations or treaties exist. The demilitarised zone between the two Koreas remains a tense, rigorously monitored and patrolled border, and as such makes for a remarkable setting for a motion picture. It gives JSA an edge, as well as political machinations, the military and a constant sense of urgency.

The Equation of Love and Death (2008)

In the Chinese city of Kunming, a chain-smoking taxi driver named Li Mi (Zhou Xun) is obsessed with her mysteriously vanished fiancĂ©e. She questions her passengers about him one by one, runs strings of numbers in her head. Everything about him she keeps in a scrapbook on the passenger seat. When she unsuspectingly picks up an inept pair of drug dealers, her life is thrown further into disarray – and drawn face-to-face with a man who may or may not be the lover she lost so long ago.

Ignore the overly pretentious title – the Chinese title of the film translates as Li Mi’s Guesses – and believe me that this is an absolutely superb film. The Equation of Love and Death is a wonderfully off-kilter, quirky black comedy. While it does lose momentum during its second half there’s nonetheless enough here to keep you well entertained.

It is the second film by writer/director Cao Baoping, and follows his 2006 debut Trouble Makers. As far as I'm aware he hasn't made another film since.

July 23, 2014

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Dax"

A group of alien visitors attempt to violently seize Lieutenant Commander Dax and abduct her from the station. Once captured, they announce they are enacting a sanctioned extradition to take Dax back to their planet on a charge of murder. There's only one problem: the accused is former host Curzon Dax, and it is up to a Bajoran magistrate to decide whether one host can be tried for the crimes of another.

"Dax" (imaginative title there, guys) is one of those episodes where you can see the reasoning behind it, and you can see why the creatives thought it would make for an engaging hour of television, yet it's painfully obvious why it was never going to work. Jadzia Dax is a fascinating character with enormous scope for science fiction drama, and I imagine the writers were keen to start exploring her potential as soon as possible. At the same time a courtroom drama is an inexpensive format that could save money likely spent on the pilot, and can generate great character-based drama through dialogue and passioned debate. After all, this entire approach worked wonders for Commander Data in The Next Generation's "The Measure of a Man"; why not here as well?