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?

PSX20 #10: Soul Edge

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.

Soul Edge if you're in Japan, Soul Blade if you're in English language territories. Either way, this was a tremendously addictive and enjoyable fighting game that had me sitting in front of the television, PSX controller in hand, for months on end.

Namco's sword-wielding brawler originated in arcades, but by the end of 1995 it had been transported to the PlayStation in an expanded and considerably improved form, so much so that I'd argue it's the home console version and not the arcade original that's the definitive version. While weapon-based fighting games had been made before (the Samurai Shodown franchise being an obvious example), Soul Edge was the first game of its type among the PSX generation polygon-based titles. It took an awful lot from Namco's Tekken games, but managed to introduce enough fresh ideas and game mechanics to feel very much like its own game.

July 22, 2014

Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (2009)

Kaiji Ito (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a listless 30 year-old compulsive gambler. When a friend whose loan Kaiji promised to guarantee skips his payments, Kaiji finds himself confronted by a local loan shark and given two choices: pay up the millions of yen in debt and interest, or take his chances on a high stakes card game on a cruise liner. When that escapade fails Kaiji finds himself forced into indentured service building a vast underground city - with only one chance to make it out.

Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler is one of a wide array of live-action adaptations of popular manga. In this case it adapts Fukumoto Nobuyuki's Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, a long-running serial that's been published off and on since 1996. It joins other live-action films of recent years including Bunny Drop, Rurouni Kenshin, Death Note (which shares much of this film's cast) and several others. I think it's important to remember that the film is adapted from a manga, because taken on its own merits it's ridiculously unbelievable, emotionally over-the-top and utterly silly.

The Pull List: 16 July 2014

Rat Queens is a feral, foul-mouthed, inappropriate, hilariously funny Dungeons & Dragons riff featuring a cast of characters so distinctive and entertaining that the book actually transcends its pulp sources and really becomes its own thing. I was sucked in by the first trade paperback, and picked up the next monthly issue in June. Now I'm back reading issue #7 and it continues to be one of the best comics on the market.

This isn't a book that will please everyone. For one thing its lead cast tend to drink, swear and sleep around quite a lot. On the other their responses to their monster-fighting high fantasy life are so bluntly realistic that they make the whole book feel like a breath of fresh air. This issue develops the latest threat to the frontier city of Palisades - giant demonic tentacles are involved, as is a god called N'Rygoth - but also manages to give the characters some unexpected depth and nuance. Whereas they started back in issue #1 as cyphers for jokes, they're now becoming fully-developed and three-dimensional people. That's taking the book up a notch from hilarious pastiche to something altogether better.

Kurtis J. Weibe is just getting better and better as a writer. I adored his earlier miniseries Debris (with Riley Rossmo) but this is a leap even better. Roc Upchurch's artwork is fabulous and filled with personality and emotion. If you've ever wanted Princess Leia to punch Darth Vader in the face and tell him to stick his Death Star up his ass, or for Frodo to proclaim 'fuck this shit' and make a beeline for the nearest pub, this is your comic book. (5/5)

Under the cut: reviews of Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Eye of Newt, The Last Broadcast, Robin Rises: Omega, She-Hulk, Silver Surfer, Umbral and The Wicked + The Divine.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: 60 years on

Nostalgia-fests for this blog have covered The Lion King and The Shadow's 20th anniversaries and The Muppets Take Manhattan's 30th. Today I want to jump back even further, because today is the 60th anniversary of Stanley Donen's 1954 musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

We tend not to talk about Seven Brides too much these days, probably because it's based on a fairly repellent premise: a farmer comes down from the mountain into town and finds himself a wife. His six brothers then kidnap another six women and hold them hostage over winter until Stockholm syndrome runs in course and all the women fall hopelessly in love. On the other hand the film's got a nice line in hummable songs and at least one stand-out dance sequence. What's a musical lover to do?

As always the key to enjoying Seven Brides is context: its premise is unsettling to us today, but in 1954 it was considered harmless fun. The film was a big hit for MGM at the time, far more so than their intended prestige musical for that year - Vincente Minnelli's comparatively sterile Brigadoon. Seven Brides even lost some of its budget to Brigadoon mid-shoot, so it must have been satisfying for Stanley Donen and his crew to see Seven Brides become one of the year's biggest hits and win an Oscar while Brigadoon lost a truckload of money.