November 24, 2014

The Pull List: 19 November 2014

For decades now there's been a simmering hatred between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. It all basically boils down to Moore firmly believing that Morrison keeps plagiarising his work and stealing his ideas, and Morrison basically wanting the angry old man of comic books to back off and leave him alone. One can only imagine the blind rage Moore will reach if he gets word of Pax Americana, the latest one-shot in Morrison's ambitious Multiversity maxi-series.

Each issue of Multiversity has focused on a different parallel DC Universe. This issue focuses on the Charlton Comics characters that DC purchased in 1983: the Question, the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and others. When DC originally picked up these characters, they hired Alan Moore to re-introduce them in a 12-issue comic series. As he developed it, however, DC elected to remove the Charlton identities and allow Moore to develop his own pastiche of them (Rorschach instead of the Question, Nite Owl instead of Blue Beetle, and so on). The result was Watchmen, pretty much the most widely acclaimed superhero comic of all time.

Multiversity is in itself a pastiche, and if Morrison is going to use the Charlton characters what better source text to reference and riff upon than Watchmen? It's a stunning post-modern piece of comics writing, and Frank Quitely illustrates it in his typically awesome style. At the same time I spent the whole book thinking "Moore's going to be so pissed". Like a lot of Morrison's work, each issue of Multiversity is leaving a lot of the narrative hanging. I'm assuming it's all going to tie together in the end - it usually does with Morrison. Even on its own, however, Pax Americana is a stunning and bold re-invention of past writers and characters. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Annihilator, Batman and Robin, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Daredevil, The Last Broadcast, Lumberjanes and Predator: Fire and Stone.

Survive Style 5+ (2004)

It’s always a bit of a struggle to fully comprehend Survive Style 5+. It’s a deliberately weird, off-kilter movie: the kind that you simply watch and enjoy on its own merits rather than waste time attempting to make sense of it all. And good luck defining its genre. It’s ostensibly a comedy, but it reaches that genre via action, horror, drama, and pretty much every other type of film you can think up.

Tadanobu Asano plays a man who keeps murdering his wife (Reika Hashimoto), and burying her in the woods nearby, only to come home and find her still alive and angrily waiting for him. A suburban father (Ittoku Kishibe) is hypnotised into thinking he is a bird, with frustrating consequences for his family. A trio of bored teenagers pass their time breaking into houses. An advertising executive (Kyoko Koizumi) struggles to think up the perfect advertising campaign.

So far, so good. What tips the movie over from generally weird to outright surreality is the addition of English footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones as a furiously angry professional killer, accompanied at all times by an incongruously polite Japanese translator (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa). ‘What is your function in life?’ screams Jones, in pretty much the only aspect of the film that actually unites these disparate storylines.

November 23, 2014

Stormy Night (2005)

Stormy Night (Arashi no Yoru Ni) is a Japanese animated feature based on a successful childrens book. A young goat named Mei takes shelter from a storm in a pitch-black barn, not realising that a wolf named Gabu is doing exactly the same thing. In the darkness, unable to see or smell each other, Mei and Gabu strike up an immediate friendship, and promise to meet up again for a picnic the next day. And, as they say, ‘hijinks ensue’.

It is usually really difficult to track down childrens-oriented anime outside of Japan, unless it is either produced by Studio Ghibli or is based on a successful toy or videogame. Even the latter is no guarantee – I am still waiting for an English subtitled edition of Animal Crossing to become available. I picked up Stormy Night in Hong Kong because it had English subtitles, without having heard of the film before or knowing anything beyond what was on the cover. I’m extremely glad I did. Stormy Night is a really distinctive and pleasant film.

The Omega Factor: "Visitations"

It's 20 June 1979, and time for BBC Scotland's The Omega Factor.

I reviewed the first episode of The Omega Factor about 18 months ago, but the recent announcement by Big Finish Productions of a sequel audio drama starring Louise Jameson led me to finally jump back and continue rewatching the series. This is one of my favourite BBC science fiction series: cleverly written, well acted and quite far ahead of its time. It follows journalist Tom Crane (James Hazeldine), a powerful latent psychic who is drawn into the affairs of Department 7, a government agency assigned to investigate the paranormal. He assists Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson), under the watch of her boss: psychiatrist Roy Martindale (John Carlyle). The series ran for 10 episodes before controversy and public complaints saw it summarily cancelled before a second season could be produced.

"Visitations" sees Crane continue to come to terms with his wife's death, and re-connecting with his brother - both of whom already seemed to have some contact, both personal and professional, with Department 7. He and Anne are dispatched to an old manor house when it shows signs of being haunted by spirits - or something even worse.

November 22, 2014

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

I think there’s an argument to be made that there are two types of samurai movie. There is the kind that is all about the samurai, ronin and various swordspeople slashing each other to death with swords. There is also the other kind, which is all about the moment of zen-like stillness before the samurai et al start slashing each other to death with swords.

The Tale of Zatoichi definitely falls into the latter category. This is a historically significant film, as it is the first in a long-running series of movie featuring Zatoichi, a master samurai turned blind masseuse. Played by Shintaro Katsu, the character featured in a run of twenty-six feature films and 100 television episodes between 1962 and 1989. He has subsequently been re-cast and re-made, notably by actor/director Takeshi Kitano in his internationally successful remake Zatoichi (2003). That was a great film; as is often the case, however, the original is better.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The House of Quark"

A drunk Klingon warrior assaults Quark in his bar, stumbles to the floor and accidentally impales himself on his own dagger. When Quark attempts to leverage the incident to improve his bar's popularity, he finds himself in the middle of a war between rival Klingon houses, married off to the dead warrior's widow, and face to face with the Chancellor of the Klingon Empire.

After the dramatic events of "The Search", it's actually a well-timed relief to see Deep Space Nine have some fun with a comedic episode. "The House of Quark" is a brilliant episode, combined well-timed humour with some genuinely strong character work. The Ferengi were previously treated as villains, and one-note comic stereotypes. With episodes like this they get fleshed out and redeemed as a species and a culture: they're still the same profit-oriented Ferengi, but they're written and performed in a much more realistic and more importantly sympathetic fashion.

November 21, 2014

Accident (2009)

The Brain (Louis Koo) is an anonymous assassin who leads a team of operatives. Together they develop and enact elaborate murder schemes for hire: schemes that are carefully constructed so as to appear like freakish but readily explained accidents. When one of the Brain’s team is unexpectedly killed, and the police begin investigating his apartment, he becomes paranoid that he has become a target for murder himself.

Accident is a short, sharp, and immensely stylish thriller. It is directed by Soi Cheang (Motorway) and produced by Johnnie To via the latter’s Milkyway Image production company. There is a particular aesthetic to Milkyway films. They have a certain stylistic sheen and slow, methodical pace. Accident is no different, and slots in seamlessly among To’s own directorial works.

Blackfish (2013)

Gabriela Cowperthwaite's 2013 documentary Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, a captive killer whale that lives in a Seaworld theme park in the USA. He's male, large, intelligent and emotional. He has also killed three people. His story is a window into two realisations: firstly, that killer whales are truly extraordinary animals; secondly, that in capturing them and forcing them to perform for our amusement in theme parks and water attractions, we are torturing and killing them. This is not an easy documentary to sit through. I cried several times. I'm almost profoundly grateful for having seen it.

The events that led to this documentary being produced - the violent death of a Seaworld trainer - could easily inspire something quite sensationalistic and tacky. It is testament to Cowperthwaite's skills as a filmmaker that it never takes this route. It is oftentimes confronting, and in some scenes quite violent and brutal, but it never loses sight of what it is aimed to do, and it succeeds admirably in its goals. This is not simply a worthwhile and informative documentary - it is a necessary one.