The Shack (2017)

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Today we’re going to be talking about what could arguably be 1 of the most polarising films to come out in a number of years.  We’ll mention first of all that it’s (technically) a Christian movie, then we’ll mention how Christians hate this movie – not necessarily because it was a bad movie in design, but because it’s difficult to decide if it fits into a particular theology and whether it leaves room for metaphor or artistic license.  In the process, I’ll be reviewing this in two ways – one as a movie goer, the other as a Christian.  Today, we’re talking about The Shack.

I’ll also add that I have not read the book, and I am unaware of the theology of the book’s author, Paul Young, outside of what some of his critics said after I watched the film.  So this will not compare the film with the book – but it will include some theological observation of the movie. So let’s continue.

Our story revolves around a man named Mackenzie “Mac” Phillips.  Mac had a rough childhood, as he was brought up by an abusive, alcoholic father who also had a significant position in their church.  After humiliating his father one Sunday morning by telling a church elder of the abuse, it gets worse from there.  So to stop his father from beating him and his mother, he went on to poisoned the booze in the house.  Whether or not Mac is charged with his father’s murder is never addressed.  But considering he was a boy and made the elder an audible witness, and it could be taken as self defence, perhaps he was relieved.  Who knows.

Fast forward about 30 years later, Mac is married and with three children, Kate, Josh and Missy.  While on a Camping trip, Kate and Josh accidentally tip their boat over in the lake, and after rescuing them; Mac notices that Missy has gone missing (no pun intended).  He then discovered that she had been murdered by a Serial killer and her body was found in a hut in the woods.

Months pass, it’s now winter.  The family was torn apart by the tragedy, with at least three family members blaming themselves for it.  After slipping on some ice, Mac notices an anonymous letter with no stamp or return address in his mail box, which was signed by “Papa”, his wife’s nickname for God.  The letter tells him to go to “The Shack”.  Mac then goes to the shack with a gun, and after meeting nobody there, was about to end it all…Soon, a man appears in the woods, and brings Mac to an area that was more Spring than winter – to a cosy looking house run by a familiar face – The African American woman who lived across the road from him when he was a kid, and who once gave him a slice of Pie to eat when he needed to get away from the house.  She reveals herself to be God The Father.  The man who Mac followed reveals himself to be Jesus.  While the young Japanese woman nearby is named Sarayu, and is the Holy Spirit.  Here, Mac asks the Trinity all of the questions he needs answers for…as a Man who lost his daughter, and is angry at God for it.

Now to discuss the details, both creation-wise and theology-wise:

We’ll start with the acting.  Here a lot of it is solid, with the main exception being Sam Worthington as Mac, who has a habit of going back and forth between Oregon, USA and Sydney, Australia within his accent.  He shows some range, but he didn’t convince me too much.  I remember him from James Cameron’s 2009 film ‘Avatar’, where he played Jake Sully, the main character…i.e. The worst main character in action and sci-fi film history.  Some could say my perception of him is tainted by Avatar, but nope, he’s just not very good – plus he has little to no screen presence.

The characters, as some of us know, are one thing that gives this film a lot of bad reviews.  You have God the father being presented as an African American Woman, Jesus being played by an Israeli man (For those who haven’t seen the 2004 film ‘Saved!’, there’s a dialogue exchange where 2 characters argue over whether Jesus was white.  It’s meant to be a joke aimed at some sections of the American Bible Belt, even though every Bible clearly states that Jesus is Jewish), and the Holy Spirit being played by a Japanese Woman and is named Sarayu.  The reason for “Papa” being an African American woman is because, according to her, Mac wasn’t ready to be presented with the image of a Father Figure, since his experience with a “father” is far from a pleasant one.  Jesus is presented as an Israeli, and believe it or not, this is the first time an Israeli has ever played Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush from Karmiel), and plays the role very well.  There’s a real friendliness to his interpretation.  Sayayu’s name comes from Sanskrit, a language that’s holy within Hinduism, and the name means “Wind”.  I assumed some Christians would complain about this – but they complained more about the fact that the Holy Spirit is presented as Female…even though the name of the Holy Spirit in both Hebrew and Aramaic is Ruach Ha Kodesh, which is female.

The Story of The Shack could be described by some as Unorthodox, and I’m not making reference to a denomination or suggesting it’s incomplete – I’m suggesting that it goes at a different pace.  A different kind of film.  In terms of a threat or a hero’s struggle – the film is gentle, and many will point out that there is no chase or thrill in the third act.  The most difficult things to watch take place before Mac arrives at The Shack for the first time, which is a bad idea when plotting a story, but we keep in mind, this is for an audience that is looking for spiritual edification rather than exciting twists and turns when they’re watching it.

The music features a number of Christian Artists such as Dan + Shay, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum, Hillsong UNITED (whose music is often covered in various Pentecostal churches) and Franesca Battistelli.  It’s all very nice, gentle and feel-good, and has its place.

The CGI was pretty good, and roughly on par, if not better, than plenty of CGI on TV shows edging towards the water mark.  It’s not (good) Marvel Cinematic Universe quality, but it’s pretty well done, and did a nice job creating this beautiful garden that appears out of winter.

The cinematography is strong, but not spectacular.  Everyone was framed well, the aerial shots are beautifully done, especially of the garden, and every key shot works as a great narrative-driven photograph.

The art style has very good presentation, very much like an advertisement of small town and rural America with great colours and locations.  Nature never goes out of style, so it’s a good aspect.

Would I recommend The Shack?…Yes, and probably a lot more than most, depending on who you are.  It’s seen as a film that only preaches to the choir, and could be the subject of debate to everyone who watches it for many more years to come.  But in terms of how to present the character of God to men – there are few that could match this in demonstration.  Are there flaws?  Absolutely.  Does it use creative license?  No doubt, and there’s a lot of it.  Is it correct in all aspects?  Nope!  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get something good out from it.  Asking God why he lets bad things happen is an excellent question that needs answers, and this film answers it better than most.

Acting: ***1/4 (*1/2 for Sam Worthington)

Characters: *** (**** for the Trinity)

Story: **1/2

Music: ***1/4

CGI: ***3/4

Art: ****

Cinematography: ***3/4

Overall: ***1/4

Firewatch (2016)

When a gamer’s evenings are overwhelmed with large, long games, from the Grand Theft Autos to the Assassins Creeds to the Final Fantasies, from time to time it’s good to take a step back and look at what else is out there – and that is 1 of the major blessings of Indie video games. Back then, smaller studios would be given the opportunity to experiment and create what can be seen as cult classics at this point and paved the way for others. Many of those studios are no longer around, however the technology is more readily available than ever before and a D.I.Y. gaming industry has risen from it for those who are ready to experience the steep learning curve. From this, a studio called Campo Santo came, and with the production of 1 painting by Olly Moss, we are led to a project that would bring them into the cult-forefront. That project was Firewatch.

Set in 1989 in Shoshone National Park in the State of Wyoming, USA, our story revolves around 2 characters; Henry and Delilah. We play as Henry, and he interacts with Delilah through a walkie-talkie as she gently educates him in the ways of the Fire Lookout. After Henry’s wife, Julia, was diagnosed with dementia and she was moved to live with her family in Australia, Henry took the job on a whim, and also as a way to escape from the ‘reality at home’. To clear his head. However as he finds out, there is more to his time in Shosane than meets the eye.

Now to talk about the different areas of this metaphorical park:

The Graphics and Art Style are not Triple-A game level, but where it lacks in detail it more than makes up for in stylisation. The colours are very vivid and we’re presented with an excellent balance; as the distance has a vector style while the mid ground reveals more details and the foreground more texture and colours (as this approach can be seen as a way to save space). When we are looking at how the people are meant to look in the photographs, I’m also reminded of the art books that Disney like to put out for their animated films. It’s a wonderful touch.

The Level Design and Gameplay, for me anyway, are the least impressive building-blocks. The level design is like a loose diary, some in-game days could last many dozens of minutes (depending on how well you follow the map and interact with stuff), while other days are just over within a minute (such as the 1 day when Henry goes to get supplies for the tower). At the same time, if you’re new to the game, you will need the map and compass to get around. Rather than have the map in the corner of the screen like a lot of games, Henry will actually have to hold the map out in front of him, as well as the compass, and read them both like a normal person. In the process, you’re constantly looking at them, and then putting them away as you try to navigate yourself around the park and coming across a lot more misleads and dead ends than you might realise, because the map actually blocks your view when it’s out. Also Henry can only climb what he can interact with. You will not rush up the mountainside – the game does not allow it. You can however eat granola bars and apple slices if Henry finds them. Yay…!

The Story and characters are…wow, but particularly the characters. They are not only the best aspects of the game, but they are better than a lot of games already out there with bigger budgets. The interactions between Henry and Delilah are that of 2 people in their late 30s/early 40s being lovingly sarcastic and snarky towards each other…and I absolutely love that. It is all very funny and brings me back to TV shows that I grew up watching (and still enjoy). We see how these 2 characters get to know each other, and at the same time the story can be taken in so many different ways. By the end of the game, we’re still asking questions. Still pondering as to what really happened in that park. A mystery that can be taken at face value or explored with layers upon layers of backtracking and treasure hunting. In the end, our dialogue choices put us in the shoes of Henry, as he seems to know about as much of what’s going on as we do. He is the new fish in the pond, as are we.

The Music is minimal, but plays its role very well and comes in at the right time. It was made by Chris Remo, who is also 1 of the designers and writers of the game, and he also did the music for another little indie game called Gone Home. It’s very atmospheric, and it knows how to create tension, especially when the game kicks into thriller-mode (which was enough to keep me hungry to get to the end).

Would I recommend Firewatch? Yes I would, especially if you want a change of pace, enjoy well written characters and a great mystery story, and, if you like long games, don’t mind that this game can be completed is about 4 or 5 hours. This is a game that could be talked about over drinks or coffee, and I’m happy to have experienced it.

Graphics: ****

Art Style: ****1/2

Level Design: ***1/2

Gameplay: ***1/2

Characters: *****

Story: ****3/4

Music: ***3/4

Overall: ****1/4

My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler (2018)

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Well, this will be different.  Because if there’s 1 thing I haven’t covered on this site before, it’s wrestling movies.  I may have covered 1 Wrestlemania before, but that wasn’t a movie.  This on the other hand will be different, because it’s not WWE, but is following a formula that they’ve done as far back as the 1980s, which is to star their wrestlers in movies as a means to promote the company without actually being the company – in this case, it is New Japan Pro Wrestling presenting us with a story that’s set within an alternative universe version of itself.  As the title suggests, it is a kids movie that includes a pile of wrestlers who were working for New Japan (NJPW) at the time.  I didn’t know if I would ever see it.  But to my surprise, NJPW decided to release it internationally on their Subscription-based streaming service, NJPW World.  So here it is, the film that made Hiroshi Tanahashi lose his trademark hairstyle for a whole season.  This is My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler.

Set in an alternative reality where New Japan Pro Wrestling is called Lion Pro Wrestling and several stars of the 2017 NJPW product are wrestling under different names, wearing different outfits and playing different characters, our story revolves around Takashi Omura (played by NJPW legend Hiroshi Tanahashi) and his son Shota (played by child actor Kokoro Terada).  10 years before our story begins, we see Omura win “The Z-1 Climax” (based on the G1 Climax but structured as an elimination tournament rather than a round-robin style league), which was meant to propel him to superstardom…then he got injured.  Fast forward to the present day and Omura has been a joke ever since, as he now wrestles as the comical heel known as “Cockroach Mask” along with his tag team partner Blue Bottle Mask (played by former IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion Ryuichi Taguchi), and as you can guess, they’re wearing masks.  When Shota’s class is told to do a project on their Dads and what they do, Shota gave vague answers, as he didn’t know what his Dad actually did.  When the other kids suggested that his Dad is in the Yakuza, he decides to follow his Dad to work, which leads him to an Arena…which leads to him discovering that his Dad, who he looks up to, is actually a low level villain in Pro Wrestling.  Despite this, Cockroach Mask ends up being selected for the Z-1 Climax, and to Shota’s embarrassment, he leads everyone to believe that his Dad is Lion Pro Wrestling’s top guy, Dragon George (played by Kazuchika Okada).

Now to break down the joints and look at the details:

The acting is a mixed bag.  The kids very much act as you would expect from kids and are more like the children from Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo than Stephen King’s IT.  The wrestlers mostly played themselves I would say (within the context that Tanahashi himself is a Dad, and probably didn’t need to work too hard on his interactions with Shota).  Some of the adult characters (in particular Riisa Naka as Michiko Oba, the nerdy journalist who is a Cockroach Mask fan) were a little over the top, but that’s usually quite common in Japanese comedies.

The characters were good but not great.  Many-a-times they were to advance the plot, and I get it – Shota’s quite a shy kid, and clearly the smallest boy in his class – it makes sense, he’s not going to show a huge range outside of embarrassment and apprehension.  Tanahashi did a very good “likeable but troubled dad” character.  He knows what he has and is content with it all, but he at the same time he loves his son to the point that he would aim for the top when he realises that his reveal as Cockroach Mask is making Shota’s life difficult.

Story-wise there are 2 intertwining tales; we’ll start with Takashi Omura’s story by letting everyone know that this film is more or less the opposite of Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler.  Because rather than seeing a failure who is unable to quit and has lost everything, we see a wrestler who, despite not being the top guy, has achieved the dream; wrestling 200 times a year, enjoying the work, making decent money, has a beautiful wife, a kid, and a home.  What’s interesting is how the character of Omura shows parallels with Tanahashi himself (and forgive me if I go full-on “Smart-Mark Wrestling Fan” in this 1).  For those who don’t know, Hiroshi Tanahashi ended up having an absolutely tremendous year in 2018, despite a history of neck injuries, knee injuries, being very literally stabbed in the back, and, at the time, a partially torn bicep.  At 42 and having nothing left to prove (he was NJPW’s top guy for 10 years), fans wondered if he was already past his prime, but then he ended up having some of the matches of his entire career.  Then you have Shota’s story, as he finds out the hard way that his Dad is a villain rather than a Hero, and ends up snowballing the lie that his Dad is actually Dragon George in order to impress the girl he likes (who is a fan of the Dragon).  What I like about this film is how it maintains the perfect balance between Kayfabe and reality – in other words, we are presented with the wrestlers playing characters similar to their own characters in NJPW, while at the same time it manages to respect the theatre side of pro wrestling by suggesting the importance of Villains in order to make Heroes interesting.  Yes, they pretend that the matches don’t have pre-determined endings, but that’s fine…because we’re watching it like a fan who is invested in what’s presented before them, and not a know-it-all…not a smart mark…However I also like how Riisa Naka’s character Michiko Oba is effectively a Smart Mark because she knows that Cockroach Mask and Takashi Omura are the same guy, and is a fan of his because of that.

The design direction is that of being set in real life, while alternating various aspects in order to get past any copyright violations.  The “Lion Pro Wrestling” logo may have had the same colour scheme as the NJPW logo, but it is different enough to be get by.  Everything else here is pure Japan so to speak.

The music was quite unremarkable, but not bad.  Scenes were set with it, but nothing really stood out about it for me.  Wrestling themes were obviously changed because the wrestlers were playing different characters, and for some scenes, it works, but perhaps wouldn’t survive as a stand alone item.

The special effects and cinematography were well done and can be compared to other wrestling movies as Fight With My Family and The Wrestler (it could be argued that there is a way to shoot wrestling in a movie).

Would I recommend My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler?  If you’re a wrestling fan, I say yes.  If you’re not a wrestling fan, but have children who don’t mind reading subtitles, it’s actually a good, light-hearted and cute little film.  It’s a lighter watch when compared to Fight With My Family, and it’s definitely lighter than The Wrestler.  For some, it might even be their introduction to pro wrestling, and as a fan of the sports-themed-theatre show that it is, I wouldn’t say that it’s a bad thing.

Acting: ***1/2

Characters: ***1/2

Story: ***3/4

Art/Design: ****

Music: ***

CGI/Special Effects: ***

Cinematography: ***1/2

Overall: ***1/2

 

Night On Earth (1991)

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As a Tom Waits fan and someone who liked Jim Jarmusch’s enjoyable avant garde western known as Dead Man (starring Johnny Depp), finding something like this film just feels like it’s up my street.  A few simple set-ups where the story is more or less the same, and yet it’s not.  Because characters, dialogue, music and settings are what make everything different every time.  A sameness that brings everybody together in the highs and lows of life, no matter the country, language or time difference.  This is Night On Earth.

Set in the present day (1991), our movie is an anthology series that has been divided up into 5 separate stories.  All of the stories happen at roughly the same time, and follow the same formula; they are about a taxi driver picking up a passenger or passengers and then dropping them off at their destinations.  That’s it…and then we dress each story up based on the location, the drivers and the passengers.

Our first Story begins in Los Angeles, USA and stars a 20 year old Winona Ryder as the Taxi Driver, ‘Corky’, and Gena Rowlands as Victoria Snelling, her passenger and a Talent Agent.  Out of all of the tales, this is the weakest 1, not only in humour, characters and story but also acting.  While Corky is an interesting and lively character, I would consider this a lesser performance from Ryder, who had done Edward Scissorhands just the year before.  The story’s themes revolve around how a book shouldn’t be judged at first glance, as Corky’s dream is different to what might be expected of her.

The second Story is set in New York and stars Armin Mullier-Stahl as Helmut Grokenberger, the Taxi Driver, and Giancario Esposito as Yoyo, his passenger.  This chapter takes a different pace; our passenger, Yoyo, is a Latino-African-American man trying to get a taxi to Brooklyn.  For those wondering, there are several reasons for cabs refusing to go to Brooklyn from Manhattan; Cab drivers in Manhattan make less money if they go to Brooklyn, the neighbourhood wasn’t very safe in 1991 (Keeping in mind, this was the neighbourhood that shaped Mike Tyson before he got into boxing), and chances of not getting your fare were a possibility.  Racism would only be 1 possible reason to not take a black man to Brooklyn.  After several attempts, he is then picked up by the Cab driver named Helmut.  Helmut is from East Germany (1 year after the whole country was united again), is still learning english, and doesn’t know how to drive an automatic car.  Yoyo then volunteers to drive himself to his destination, while having an interesting conversation with Helmut…He then picks up his fiery sister-in-law Angela, which is where things really get noisy in the car.  It’s a very funny and very touching story about 2 very different men sharing a cab.  One knows all about where he’s from – while the other is still coming to terms with this new culture he has stepped into.

The Third Story is set in Paris, France and stars Isaach De Bankole as the unnamed Ivory Coast-born Taxi Driver, and Beatrice Dalle as the passenger, who happens to be a Blind Woman.  It could be seen as a step down from the New York 1, but at the same time it was still a fascinating and funny story.  One thing you notice at the beginning of this story is how much crap Africans can take from each other, let alone racists.  Much like how the English would have mocked the Irish (and vice vera), our Ivory Coast driver is being heckled by 2 men from Cameroon, who mock his nationality by making a french pun that I won’t spoil…then of course he picks up the blind woman after abruptly dropping the 2 men off…and forgetting to get his fare from them.  The Blind woman is incredibly bright, and refuses to be treated any differently from someone who can see.  Leading to an interesting journey that’s…very french.

The Fourth Story is set in Rome, Italy, and stars Life Is Beautiful actor Roberto Benigni as the unnamed driver, and Paolo Bonacelli as a priest who becomes his passenger.  It’s about 3 or 4 in the morning, and the driver finds out that his passenger is a priest, who he then teases with his car before picking him up.  Afterwards, he decides to smoke in the car (despite the sign) and then proceeds to use this trip to confess his sins to the priest.  It’s not as touching as the New York 1, but it is by far 1 of the funniest pieces of cinema I have ever witnessed!  Roberto was literally on fire in this role, and I couldn’t stop laughing!  You would think it was written by Martin McDonagh, it’s just so black humoured.

Finally, the Fifth Story is set in Helsinki, Finland and stars the late Finnish actor and musician Matti Pellonpaa as Mika the Taxi Driver, and here he has 3 very drunk men enter his cab at 4AM.  This 1 is by far the most serious and also the saddest story on the list with little hints of humour here and there – but very humane in tone.

The music is by Tom Waits, and it can be argued that I just witnessed a version of “Tom Waits: The Movie”.  Not so much on the man himself, but rather the people he writes about.  It brings an extra layer of depth, especially in any scenes where you aren’t listening to the characters talking, and are just watching the world go by from inside the cab.  There is almost like a time-capsule element to what was shown.  A familiar, yet unfamiliar world.  There today, but also gone yesterday.

The cinematography is excellent and likely done without a studio ($2 million budget in 1991).  Every scene was perfectly shot without being too over the top or silly.

The locations are beautifully chosen, providing a sight-seeing aspect that doesn’t get experienced too much in cinema.  It also provides us with the variety that the world offers, even at night time.  For instance; in 1991, Rome had hardly any street lamps, with the exception of some corners.  Helsinki on the other hand is lit up like a white christmas tree in the early hours of the morning.  It could be seen from a long way away if you were out of town, and maybe that’s the point…especially in winter.

Would I recommend Night On Earth?  Yes, if you’re at least 18 and looking to expand your outlook on both cinema and the world around you without moving too far from your chair.  Personally I love this movie and hope it gets more recognition as we enter the 30th year of its creation.

Acting: ***3/4 (Los Angeles) ****1/2 (New York) **** (Paris) ****3/4 (Rome) ***** (Helsinki) – Overall:

Characters: ***3/4 (Los Angeles) ***** (New York) ****1/2 (Paris) ***** (Rome) ***** (Helsinki) – Overall:

Music: *****

Story: ***1/4 (Los Angeles) ***** (New York) **** (Paris) ***** (Rome) ****3/4 (Helsinki) – Overall:

Cinematography: *****

Locations: *****

Overall/s:

Los Angeles: ****1/4

New York: *****

Paris: ****1/2

Rome: *****

Helsinki: *****

Overall: ****1/2

Man Of Medan (2019) Video Game Review

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Video Games and Movies go hand in hand.  On 1 side you have movies that are based on video games.  Many of them are terrible, but from time to time a good 1 will shine.  On the other hand, you have video games that try to capture the movie experience and turn it, effectively, into a movie you can interact with.  It’s nothing new, and is probably best known through David Cage with games such as Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit in the UK) and Heavy Rain.  However, when Beyond Two Souls proved to be a disappointment, it was considered that this genre of game might have been done.  Enter 2015’s Until Dawn by Supermassive games, which effectively created an interactive Teen Horror movie and created it beautifully.  With the success of that game, came the creation of “The Dark Pictures Anthology” series as a successor – 8 games, starting with this 1 – This is Man Of Medan.

Our story starts off in 1947 as we follow around 2 young American soldiers named Joe and Charlie who are stationed in French Polynesian Waters on the ship known as The Medan.  After having their fortunes told while at the Harbour, weird stuff starts to happen on board, which leads to the deaths of many soldiers and a plane crash.  Fast forward to the modern day (2019) in these same waters, our story, much like Until Dawn, revolves around a group of young characters; 21 year old Alex, his 18 year old brother Brad, Alex’s girlfriend Julia, Julia’s brother Conrad, and the captain of their boat, Fliss.  They start out having fun, but are then taken for a ride that they have neither control or plans to carry out.  When a trio of fishermen; Olson, Junior and Danny, decide to hijack their boat like Pirates, and hold everybody hostage, they decide to start searching for “Manchurian Gold” which is mentioned on a map in the boat, and they end up finding, and climbing onboard, what was, and probably still is, The Medan.

Now to sort out the highs and horrors:

The Graphics are absolutely incredible.  Near-photographic in quality with excellent lighting.  The animals aren’t quite as well presented as the humans and monster, and at times the frame rate can drop, and the editing can be a bit funny.  Or very simply – great art, but unfortunate animation.  Quite glitchy at times.  The characters walk like they’re half submerged in water, which…is the way.

The Art Style is very inspired and well done.  Despite being set away from the USA, the gothic and HP Lovecraft tones are wonderfully evident.  Excellently designed backgrounds, fantastic character models and monster designs, and a great presentation of mould, rust and decay throughout the levels.

The Level Design is solid, with no way of reversing any decisions you make at all…literally, the game autosaves with every decision.  It is all well and good.  It increases the tension while playing, and makes you careful with your decision making.  Is there a goal?  Yes, much like Until Dawn, your goal is to keep everybody alive, which leads to an achievement.  However there’s another achievement that Until Dawn also had, and it’s more fun – were you try to get everybody killed.  I decided to try and keep everyone alive in my first play through, and it wasn’t that easy and in the end only 3 of the 5 survived.

The Gameplay is, in my opinion, a lot less polished compared to Until Dawn, and due to the fact that I wasn’t used to the controls, I found the Quick-Time-Events to be particularly challenging.  Especially if your goal is to keep everybody alive by the end.  Unlike Until Dawn, Man Of Medan has a 2 player feature…or more specifically you and a friend on another console can take part in the same game at the same time and play different roles with 1 player occasionally making the decisions for both parties – and speaking of parties, there is also the Party Mode, which allows players to play specifically as 1 of the 5 characters in the game and try to get everybody across the finishing line.  I have only played this in 1 player mode though.

The Story is okay, like a straight-forward teen horror movie in which the characters aren’t too hated or likeable, but play their parts.  In terms of the horror, it chooses to be a bit…gimmicky.  Relying on jump-scares and gross visuals to the point that after the first jump scare, you’re prepared for them for the rest of the game.  One thing that can be said is that there are plenty of plot-holes – For instance…This is a rusty ship full of rats and is damp.  Floors are rusty.  Holes are everywhere.  Spikes stick out.  Germs and Disease Galore…so why do about half of the characters walk around in their bare feet?!  I have not played this game in 2 player (which apparently adds more to the story) and there is the Curator’s Cut (which is unlocked after playing the Theatrical Cut), but you need to really enjoy the story and characters before doing them I say…I don’t know if I’ll be doing that too much though.

The Music by Jason Graves is good – an aspired combination that’s part Danny Elfman (doing Batman scores), part Hans Zimmer (with no brown notes), and part Phillip Glass.  It follows on from the style that Until Dawn had (I know, we’re making lot of comparisons here), but in terms of being ‘scary music’ it’s not in league with games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill or Project Zero in this case.  It’s more like a gothic-scary movie rather than 1 that exudes genuine terror in the player.

Would I recommend Man Of Medan?  Yes, but don’t pay full price for it.  No more than £10 in my opinion.  I have played episodic indie games before that might not look as good as this, but have been executed better and for less money.  A play-through only lasts about 5 hours when experienced at a leisurely pace and while the amount of endings in this game will keep you going back to try and get them all if you found yourself really enjoying it – The plot holes can make it all a lot less connected than previously hoped, and the gameplay can at times be a little infuriating if you’re looking to get something new or better.  Compared to this instalment – Until Dawn is the superior experience, and I might even suggest waiting until they bring out the other 7 games in this series and perhaps getting them all as a big bundle for the PS5.  As a standalone, it’s fine.  But also save your money.

Graphics: ****1/2 (loses half of a star due to editing and frame-rate)

Art Style: *****

Level Design: ***1/2

Gameplay: ***

Story: ***1/2

Music: ****

Overall: ***1/4

 

Persona Trinity Soul (2008) Anime Review

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I had known about this program for well over a decade, but didn’t get to watch it until recently – and even now it’s a hard 1 to find.  It received a limited release in the west, and at this point we can argue that this is a show lost in the shuffles of time, as it isn’t given the same platform as the video game in which it spun-off from.  But no matter, we’ll still talk about it with as few spoilers as possible.  This is Persona Trinity Soul.

So what’s the show about?  Okay…I’ll start by explaining, very briefly what ‘Persona’ is…it is a mask that a person wears in order to overcome hardship, and in these stories they are presented as spiritual entities that fight each other or against ‘shadows’.  They aren’t like Pokemon, and yet they are like Pokemon.  Anyway, with that out of way here goes;  Our story is set about 10 years after the events of the Playstation 2 video game Persona 3, and revolves around the 3 Kanzato brothers; Shin, the middle brother, is the lead protagonist, and is a 17 year old 2nd year in High School.  His older brother Ryō is, at 28, the youngest superintendent in the Police, and then there’s Jun, the youngest brother at 14, and a 2nd year in Middle School.  When our story begins, we experience 1 of the most apathetic family reunions you’ll ever see, as both Shin and Jun return to their childhood home, which was being lived in by Ryō after their parents died in an accident.  Meanwhile, the police are investigating some strange cases; people being turned inside out, and there appears to be a return of Apathy Syndrome – a condition that was part of Persona 3’s backdrop.  Is this a series of straight-forward murders (obviously not)?  Or are Persona Users causing crimes?  The kind of crimes that can only be counterattacked by…other persona users?  Either way it’s enough to bring Persona 3’s Akihiko Sanada into the picture as a detective in the second half of the show.

Now to look at the building blocks:

The Art style is very good.  It borrows from Shigenori Soejima’s style of character design without actually being him, and the use of cold colours is prevalent in the series (it does start off in winter after all).  The backgrounds are also nicely done without stealing the show in a way that Laid Back Camp does.

The Animation is good.  From time to time you’ll notice a little bit of CGI, in particular from travelling cars and the Personas when they’re battling, but they’re presented well enough to not create a fuss.  Although to be fair, the Persona Battles aren’t that spectacular.

The Voice Acting is good.  Although it is hard to make comparisons.  What do I mean?  I mean there was only ever a Japanese VoiceOver made.  No english.  Just subtitles.  & as someone who played Persona 3 in english and remembered Liam O’Brien’s performance as Akihiko Sanada very well, I was not used to hearing the character in Japanese.  The voices suited their designs…and that’s all that can be said.

The Characters are…at best, they’re okay.  You can tell which supporting characters are meant to somehow be compared to other persona 3 characters. Takurō Sakakiba (Afro guy) is basically Junpei Iori.  Megumi Kayano (red hair) is basically Yukari Takeba.  Kanaru Morimoto (blue hair) is more or less Fuuka Yamagishi.  The eldest Kanzato brother Ryō is probably the closest representative of Mitsuru Kuijo (other than maybe Ayane, but I said no spoilers so I won’t delve there) – which makes sense when you consider how Persona 3’s Akihiko Sanada also happens to be a detective in this show (despite no longer having use of Polydeuces or Caesar, his personas).  Meanwhile, it has been suggested that Shin is closest to Aigis in role, which is interesting.  A harsh reality though, is that there are too many characters, and I don’t care about 80% of them in the slightest.  I honestly don’t care about the villains enough to know their names.  Seriously, there are characters that move the plot forward and I still don’t know who they are…it’s quite criminal.

The Story…It’s good.  Engaging to a point, but not overly interesting.  The mysteries are there, but a part of me feels like they pack too much stuff into it, while at the same time, leave a lot of developments undercooked or too obscure for too long that you forget why certain clues and details were meant to be a revelation of some kind.  It’s nowhere near as engaging as Persona 3.  I know I keep referring back to this – but the 40+ hour video game is much better than this.  Much of the show conveys sadness, and at times is prone to depress.  The tone is dark, however I had difficulty caring for too long.

The Music by Taku Iwasaki is easily the best thing about Trinity Soul, to the point that it is much easier to find the soundtrack than the actual show itself.  It borrows significantly from Persona 3’s composer Shoji Meguro and at times I’m reminded of the J-Pop singer MISIA, in particular her song Color Of Life.  Yumi Kawamura (who sings the song ‘Mellow Dream’ in this show) has also sung several songs in Persona 3, 4, Q and 1-remastered – so the familiarity is there.  I found this soundtrack to be both eclectic and very enjoyable, and out of everything that this show is meant to be, this is the aspect that captures the heart of the series the most and strings it with its parents.

Themes focus primarily on identity, aspirations, facing ourselves, and sacrifice.  But the problem is that the flow of the story and the development of the character were enough to the point that the themes weren’t not as fully realised as they could have been.  There was 1 scene that maybe did it for me, but it happens much later in the show.

Would I recommend Persona Trinity Soul?…Compared to other Persona stories, I will say ‘not exactly’.  If you played Persona 3 specifically and liked it without allowing Persona 4 and 5 to build on that series’ universe, then it’s nice to see some old faces pop up in a spin-off series while maintaining some of the world-building characteristics that the game had.  However, compared to Persona 3, this show is nowhere near as engaging or charming.  Its main characters are a bit on the bland side, and despite a lot of episodes that were designed to replicate the day-to-day of the games that are meant to develop characters and get us interested in them…it doesn’t really work here.  The plot’s not terribly straight-forward to follow, and the character-driven aspects are a bit of a mess.  On top of this, the show lacks a sense of humour that Persona 3 had.  To put it simply, if the Persona label wasn’t slapped onto this show, it could pass off as a stand alone complex.  Not the best stand alone.  But 1 none the less.  If you ever watch this and enjoy it, all the power to you!

Art style: ****1/4

Animation: ***1/2

Voice Acting: ***3/4

Characters: **1/2

Story: **3/4

Music: ****1/2

Themes: ***3/4

Overall: ***1/2

 

Roujin Z (1991) Anime Review

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I was first introduced to this film through, believe it or not, a Vaporwave song called PARIS by RITCHRD, which used clips from it in the youtube video by yotsu to add to its already nostalgic aesthetic and tone (It’s all watched without a context, so potential spoilers aren’t really spoilers).  When I realised some of the powerhouses who worked on it…it had to be seen.  This is Roujin Z

I mentioned that powerhouses made this; here are the 1s I know best:  Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Director of Blood: The Last Vampire) as Director, Katsihiro Otumo (creator, mangaka and director of Akira) as script writer, Satoshi Kon (director of Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent and Paprika) as key animator, and Hisashi Eguchi (renown illustrator, mangaka and Perfect Blue Character Designer) as Character Designer.  Among others who worked on some of the best anime films and OVAs over the last 30 years.

So what is Roujin Z about?  Well, ‘Roujin’ is Japanese for Old Person which prepares you a little bit for what happens next…or not (So, it’s technically “Old Man Z”..I just realised the pun there and wonder if it was intended).  Set in a version of the early 21st century as imagined from the perceptive lens of artists living in 1991, our story revolves around 2 characters; Kiyuro Takazawa, an 87 year old widower who can barely move, and for the most part, Haruko Mitsuhashi, a young medical student volunteering to be his nurse for home visits.  When a group of scientists, along with the Ministry of Public Welfare create a robotic bed that would allow “Old people to be looked after while young people focus on their own lives” Takazawa becomes the first “patient” of this bed, to the dismay of Haruko, who sees this as a flashy and shallow substitute for real nursing.  From here, things get very interesting, as the bed ends up having, not only a mind of its own..but seemingly untapped military potential.  Leading to a journey on Takazawa’s part, and both the aid and chase of Haruko, who is concerned for his well-being.

Now to talk about the components of his machine:

I love the Art style.  It is very much a product of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it is still really pretty.  Eguchi’s character designs are among my favourite in the industry.  Realistic, yet within the borderline of what ‘qualifies’, at least stereotypically, as the anime or manga style.  The colours are very bold, and the line work is strong.  The background art is also beautifully presented.

The Animation is up there as purely fantastic.  It’s better than most anime that you’ll see, even today.  Reason?  It goes above and beyond in its presentation of destruction, change and character interaction.  It is created with the mentality “with animation, you can create anything”, and that is shown throughout the film.  Facial expressions and body languages convey so much in this that at times that they’re as good as actors, if not better.  And on top of that, this is an anime created with traditional, hand-made cel-shading techniques.  It’s more or less a dying or niche art at this point, but I still love seeing it.

The Voice Acting is strong, especially in the Japanese Voice Over.  It’s lively, and suits every design.  The elderly voices are particularly likeable and amusing.  The english voice over is good.  Very similar to what you would hear from older anime dubbing – it comes across as more over the top and fast than lively, but that’s fine.  It was still a good job, and I still prefer the Japanese version.

The Characters are brilliant.  They’re lively, colourful, funny and relatable, even if they’re only on screen for about 80 minutes.  Haruko could be seen as quite stereotypical in terms of female Japanese protagonists – I think she is simply a great nurse, and a vision of vocational aspiration…any underrated characters?  Yes…the Cat.

The Story is more interested in being plot-driven and funny, while at the same time expressing an element of chaos that turns it into a thriller.  The ending is like experiencing a really good punchline to a joke, I haven’t laughed that hard at an ending in a very long time.

The Music by Bun Itakura incorporates a fair amount of neo-jazz and funk, giving it a kooky edge.  Truth being told, there isn’t too much music here outside of a few choice scenes.  But it’s still very characteristic.  Even though Itakura didn’t create too many other anime or film works – his sound can be seen as influential to the work of other creators, in particular Satoshi Kon.

The Themes focus on 3 things in particular, but mostly it’s about a social condition; 1 that asked “what if looking after the elderly was a waste of time for the youth?  What if the youth could live their lives the way they want while the elderly are taken care of and (supposedly) have all of their needs met?”  Others involve the usual balance between traditional and “the future”, and then there’s the political 1 which could suggest a certain political leaning attempting to re-militarise Japan, even though military projects hadn’t been a priority in the country in over 40 years.  It’s a classic Sci-Fi thesis.

Would I recommend Roujin Z?  Yes!  This film is a sleeper hit and it needs to be seen and enjoyed by anybody who watches anime.  It’s especially good if your sense of humour is a little on the dark side.  Why this anime doesn’t have the recognition of many other anime from its time, I might never know.  It deserves recognition.

Art style: *****

Animation: *****

Voice Acting: ****1/2 (Japanese) ***1/4 (English)

Characters: ****3/4

Story: ****1/2

Music: ****1/2

Themes: ****1/4

Overall: ****1/2

 

Come And See (1985) Movie Review

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Thursday, July 23rd 2020;  Here is a report of what I’m feeling right now, as I have just finished this film:  I feel unsettled…horrified…shocked…saddened…haunted…angry…and it’s partly because the source that introduced me to this film was correct…This might be the scariest movie ever made.  Here I will try to be primarily spoiler-free.  In what became Elem Klimov’s final film, this is Come And See

What’s it about?  It’s about war.  More specifically World War 2 in 1943, through the eyes of a naive 15 year old boy named Flyora (played by Aleksey Kravchenko), from Belorussia (now Belarus), who wanted to be a Soviet Parisian in order fight the Nazis.  Shortly after finding a rifle buried in the sand at the beach, he is picked up by the Parisians and then leaves his mother and twin sisters behind.  After he was then left behind by the Parisians to guard their camp (due to an older soldier needing new boots and getting Flyora’s boots in the process), Flyora develops a friendship with Glasha (played by Olga Mironova), a nurse at the camp whose dream is to be a lover and a mother.  When an air strike destroys the camp and paratroopers arrive to clean up, it was enough to make Flyora and Glasha run back to his village as a means of love and safety from it all…however it is from here on that the real nightmare truly begins.

Now onto the realities:

It could be argued that Aleksey Kravchenko, the teenager who plays Flyora, is among the greatest child actors of all time from this movie alone.  Word is, he experienced so much stress while on the set that his hair started to turn white, and we see his face change from an optimistic, smiley and ruddy young boy looking for adventure, to a traumatised young boy who has seen so much death, suffering and evil that he aged 40 years in 1.  The acting from everyone else was absolutely fantastic.  It has been suggested that the larger group of Nazis (rather than the select handful that leave the biggest impact) came across as a bit buffoonish or yobbish – but it’s unsettling to watch none the less.  The face that 1 Nazi in particular (played by Jüri Lumiste) had when he tells of his beliefs, or more specifically his perception of those he is hurting…it’s frightening.

The Characters are “every person”, with roles based on real life counterparts.  These characters could be us, ranging from everybody living a simple life before being thrown into this nightmare, to ordinary men who were indoctrinated to do great evil, and other men, fearing for their lives or simply looking to join the winner, collaborating with them (As several Ukranians were among the Nazis).  Flyora’s role in the film has elements of Christian Bale in Empire Of The Sun (which came out 2 years later) in the sense that he has no big picture in his head when he sets out to do what he wants with his life.  In Bale’s case, it was to have his cake (escape the invading Imperialists with his parents) and eat it (retrieve his toy plane, which he dropped in the frantic crowd).  In Flyora’s case, It was to either live out his dream alone and/or with strangers…or forget the dream and die with everything he knew and loved.

Though the story is fiction (based on the novel ‘I Am From The Fiery Village’), it is made up entirely with building blocks of real life events, and is a cry for remembrance.  Remembrance for the dead and left-for-dead of the Belorussian people while under Nazi Occupation.  A remembrance of the 600+ villages that were destroyed, including Khatyn, and the 2.3 million Belorussians who died in the war (It might be ‘small’ compared to other countries in the conflict…but that was 25% of their population!).  There isn’t really a plot to speak of, only a series of events that happened somehow and somewhere to someone during those 7 uncertain years, and in this case, they were happening to or being witnessed by Flyora.  Very simply, this is his story.

The Art and Design aspect is among the most realistic you will ever see in cinema.  Here is some examples as to why:  First of all…real ammunition…to the point that Aleksey Kravchenko was 10cm away from losing his real life on several occasions.  Then there’s the uniforms, which were real.  Those aren’t costumes.  Those are 40-45 year old outfits that were worn by the Nazis, the Partisans and the village folk.  Real locations.  Real fires.  And because the USSR chose to maintain its military history better than most, a lot of it feels very authentic.

The Music consists mostly of 4 things; Oleg Yanchenko’s score, which brings a sense of dread and horror to each scene it appears in.  Classical German and Austrian pieces, which includes Mozart, Strauss and Wagner that occasionally get mixed into Yanchenko’s score in a similar fashion to how “Everywhere At The End Of Time” by The Caretaker mixes Big Band music from the 1920s into gradual distortions to replicate the sounds heard by a person with Dementia.  Both a Russian and Soviet selection of folk and military songs…and then there’s the silence…silence to let the eeriness slowly follow you until it’s breathing down your neck.

There is no CGI, and the special effects would be in the gore, make-up and deliberate destruction.  There was some fireproofing.  Some facial ageing.  Some fabric damage.  Everything I’ve seen in this area has been very dramatic.

Aleksei Rodionov’s Cinematography is a stand out in the film due to the brilliant use of both Steadicam and close up shots, which contribute heavily towards the visual horror and foreboding terror.  Not just in the presentation of intense violence, but also the faces of the actors.  They are positioned in such a way that when they look at the camera, they are looking at us.  As if we are doing these things or seeing them like we are there…and almost as a “please…please stop this”.  On top of that, to the disturbance of viewers…there is some real life footage mixed into the editing.  You’ll know it when you see it.

Would I recommend Come And See?  Yes…But only to a careful selection.  Is it 1 of the greatest movies ever made?  Absolutely!  Is it 1 of the greatest war movies of all time?  Absolutely!…and that’s besides the point.  This film is not for our entertainment.  It is a masterpiece in artistic and realist cinema, and 1 of the best expressions of its subject matter that I’ve ever seen…and that’s why I can’t recommend it to just anybody.  When war veterans have cried and called this movie “The Truth” where every other war film seems to fail – that’s when it hits you.  This film is a heartbreaking depiction of lost innocence and an overwhelming mountain of depravity, and I will probably talk about it from time to time for the rest of my life with the same shock that I have now.  Truly unforgettable…and that’s the point.

Acting: *****

Characters: ****

Story: *****

Art/Design: *****

Music: *****

CGI/Special Effects: *****

Cinematography: *****

Overall: ****3/4

 

Ju-On: The Curse (2000) Movie Review

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As someone who enjoyed The Grudge and recently watched the Netflix show Ju-On Origins (Perhaps more on that later);  I felt that it would be a good idea to watch the first 2 movies, as well as 2 short films that were produced a few years before it.  What do I mean?  Well, The Grudge is actually the third movie in the series known as Ju-On (Ju-On being Japanese for “Curse Grudge”, hence the names of each movie).  Meaning there was a certain degree of mise-en-scene.  So lets go back to the Beginning; This is Ju-On: The Curse.

Set in the present day (the year 2000 in this case and even though the shorts were made in 1998, we’ll lump them together into 1 year, because school uniforms stay the same forever), our film is a collection of vignettes that all have 1 thing in common – they are connected to a house.  In this case, the current and former Saeki Residence.  An unassuming and older-looking 2-storey detached home that gained notoriety due to…bloody instances.    The kind that causes the deaths of a mother (Kayako) and her son (Toshio) at the hands of her husband and his father (Takeo) while she experiences an intense rage.  This then leads to a haunted house that follows its victims home if they enter.  Out of all the characters in theses 2 movies, the 1s with slightly more focus than the others are Shunsuke Kobayashi, a primary school teacher visiting the house, as the son, Toshio, who is 1 of his students, had been absent from school and nobody could get a hold of him.  The other is Tatsuya Suzuki, the real estate agent trying to sell the Saeki house, who decides to investigate after a visit to the house with his sister Kyoko appears to be effecting his family. (not live in.  Visit!)

The 2 short films that started it all; ‘Katasumi’ and ‘4444444444’, can be found on youtube, and can be treated as part of the series due to them having characters and references that end up in the movies to come.  Katasumi introduces us to Kayako, the mother, as her role involves stalking 2 high school girls while they are feeding the school rabbits.  The other film, 4444444444, introduces us to Toshio, as he haunts a high school boy who finds a mysterious cellphone that rings to show the number 4444444444, with the number 4 being treated as unlucky in Japan.  ‘The Curse’ is 2 TV movies, however the 2nd movie is more of a 1.5, as the first 30 minutes are from its prequel, with 40 minutes of extra story added.  It is 1 of the longest recaps you could ask for.

Now onto the components:

The Acting is good.  For the most part it’s not world class or even acclaimed on a niche level, but nicely done.  The star of the show, by far, is Takako Fuji, who plays Kayako Saeki.  She is easily 1 of the best ghosts in cinema history, and having seen Ju-On: The Grudge before watching these, I can vouch for that.  And for all the time in which he’s on screen – you would not want to meet Takeo (played by Takashi Matsuyama), the husband, in public.  Matsuyama brought to this role, 1 of the creepiest voices that I’ve ever heard in the Japanese language.

Most of the Characters are not that heavily developed, as they’re closer to being “every-person” rather than to necessarily stand out.  The focus changes, as the film switches main characters roughly every 10 minutes.  However the presence of Kayako Saeki, her son Toshio, and Kayako’s husband Takeo are prevalent throughout the movies, and much like Horror Icons such as Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, they are the stars of their own franchise.

The Story is good, but not fantastic.  It sets a formula that becomes quite common throughout the series, which is to essentially be an interconnected anthology.  It sets the tone well.  Does some very good Show Don’t Tell, and the more you investigate the stories, the more disturbing they seem to become.

The Art/Design sticks within the confines of realism with a hint of the supernatural.  The house was real, the props were real, the clothes and hair were an everyday choice, and the legends of the Onryō are a staple in Japanese Folklore to the point that while the West would see this as a great ghost story, some Japanese would be deliberately cautious.

The Music by Gary Ashiya is both excellent and creepy along with the sound.  Some of it reminds me of what I would hear in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and video games on the PS2 (such as Project Zero, and Siren (the later being a game that Ashiya also composed for).  And the end theme is quite ’80s in style with its use of synthesiser.  But what he does best are the simple things.  The low strings.  Bass piano notes.  Low vocal chanting.  The kind of things that can be creepy forever.  A timeless creepy that will never die.  The sounds in these movies alone are best (or best not) listened to in the dark.

The CGI and Special Effects…I wouldn’t say there is CGI here, so it’s pure practical special effects and lighting…and in this area, these films are very strong.  It may have been done on a television budget in the year 2000 (when CGI was a special attraction rather than a norm), but everything I saw looked like something I could actually touch or be touched by.  Some scenes in particular, especially later on…are very disturbing.  Especially within the context of what’s happening.  There’s a moment when Takeo becomes as bad, if not worse than Kayako.

The Cinematography is prone to being perhaps a little too dark.  But at the same time it does add to the creep-factor by being quite realistic and potentially hiding some aesthetic flaws.  We’ve all experienced a House without the lights on and sometimes hear strange sounds in the dark, so this all plays into quite common tension.  Also the editing has some great moments – I’m talking about a few choices frames of film that appear here and there that can be missed the first time, but appear when you look at the whole screen.  For instance, when Shunsuke Kobayashi looks out the window of the Saeki house, you will see Kayako appear in the second storey for a few milliseconds before the screen turns black.  Stuff like that works really well here.

Would I recommend Ju-On The Curse?  Yes, if you like Japanese Horror and Ghost Stories.  It’s a classic at this point, and while it didn’t have the budget of The Grudge, it’s still a well-made and creepy film or 2.  The first film is by far the better of the 2 due to it being all original while the second film was more of a recap with an appendix of new stories. Had it been edited better, it would have been  a very good 1 hour and 40 minute film.  Anyway, I liked it in a cult-following sort of way.

Acting: ***1/2 (****3/4 for Takako Fuji)

Characters: ***1/4

Story: ***1/4

Art/Design: ****1/4

Music: ****1/2

CGI/Special Effects: ****1/2

Cinematography: ****

Overall: ***3/4

 

Black Lagoon (2006-2010) Anime Review

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If this wasn’t already a manga by Rei Hiroe, I would say that the writer’s room had some very interesting days when creating this show.  Primarily when you consider that this perhaps has.  Well.  Everything.  Or at least everything that could be humanly possible…minus how skilled people can be at dodging death…and maybe the Vampires…and the Nazis that live in a ship on International Waters.. But who knows.  This is Black Lagoon.

Set sometime between 1993 and 1996 in the South China Sea, and in the fictional East Thai Harbour city of Roanapur, near the Cambodian border – Our stories revolve around the Black Lagoon company; a small but sharp group of pirate mercenaries/smugglers, which includes Dutch, the leader, physical muscle and heavy gunner.  Revy, the gun muscle, and Benny the computer guy, who all make unorthodox deliveries their bread and butter.  When a young Japanese salaryman, Rokuru “Rock” Okajima, is kidnapped and held hostage by them, everybody ends up taking a different course when he decides to join them and leave his old life behind.

Now to shoot for the details:

The Art style reminds me of anime that’s more western influenced while having hints of proportion distortion here and there, since about 95% of the characters are not Japanese.  I see hints of Cowboy Bebop, and a lot of other visuals are borrowed from a range of movies; primarily 1s by Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.  The colours really bring this show to life.  Whoever was responsible for them, it’s a fantastic job.  In general, it’s beautiful to look at, from the disgusting urban areas to the lush and revitalising  land and seascapes.

The Animation is awesome, and includes some of the most fun action scenes out there.  Some of Revy’s gun battles are particular standouts.

The Voice Acting is absolutely fantastic with both the Japanese and English dubbing being as good as each other in different ways.  The Japanese dubbing includes character traits that aren’t in the english dubbing.  It’s clear when you watch the whole show that these characters speak multiple languages, and that english is really the first language of the Black Lagoon Company, but they speak in Japanese for the audience (in a fourth wall sense).  Even if their english pronunciation isn’t the best, keep in mind that you’re only receiving the story by reading the subtitles if you don’t understand Japanese.  The english dubbing doesn’t delve and chooses to keep the dialogue in 1 language the whole way through.  For instance, it doesn’t hint that Revy will insult Japanese gangsters by speaking to them in english – but that’s okay, it’s still funny when she does.  I’m very impressed.

The Characters…oh the characters. I absolutely adore this barmy bunch.  It consists mostly of 3 misfit Americans and 1 Japanese Salaryman, who was originally their hostage.  You have their leader, Dutch, a tall and built Vietnam veteran of African American descent.  Rebecca “Revy” Lee, a Chinese American woman who could be best described as Lara Croft if she was possessed by a Raging Alcoholic Tiger. Then there’s Benny, the Jewish-American college dropout who is their information and computer specialist. Lastly there’s the Salaryman Rock, the lead protagonist. Overtime, we see how both Black Lagoon and Roanapur change Rock, and whether or not he can be corrupted beyond repair.  At the same time, we see how Revy evolves from being content with ending Rock’s life, to protecting him as a type of Den Mother.  Main and supporting characters alike. There is nothing boring about Black Lagoon’s cast.  Nearly everybody (with few exceptions…to balance it out a little) is colourful, interesting, gritty, vicious, dirty, foul, dangerous and sly…just like the City where they live. The kind of city were Ladies Of The Night work during the day, the cops are as bad as the criminals, and body disposal with a chainsaw can almost go ignored.  The side characters are just as memorable as the main 1s, and when you consider that Roanapur and the surrounding area has Triads, the Columbian Cartel, the Italian Mafia, weapon-smugglers disguised as Nuns, Bounty Hunters, Aryan Socialists, Jihadis and Yakuza owning the town…it’s quite the environment. Do I have a favourite side character?…Roberta…who could be best described as Mary Poppins with the physical capabilities of both Rambo and The Terminator…You don’t cross Roberta.

The Story is awesome and very funny…yet also difficult to pin-point… If someone asked me what this was about, I’ll just say “The Adventures Of Black Lagoon”. Because that’s what it is. They’re not looking to go home…and that’s because they can’t – but rather they are living day to day, surviving and trying not to get killed. It is a character driven show rather than plot-driven. All they have are the work they do and what’s left over for food, booze and beds (Lots of Heineken). If there was a classic piece of literature I can compared this to…it would be Alice In Wonderland. Because here is Rock – A Normal Japanese man completely out of his comfort zone, surviving while trying to not kill anybody, in a world full of dangerous and colourful people..kind of like Batman.

The Music is consistently awesome and expresses a great range of emotions without seeming out of place. The opening theme, Red Fraction by Mell, it probably the perfect theme for this show; it’s adrenaline fuelled, heavy, wild and incredibly saucy, while sticking within the formula of being a J-Pop song.  The ending theme is 1 of the most important aspects of the show, as it brings you back to reality – that behind the flashy gunplay and trash talk is a darkness that is the stuff of nightmares. Characters are doing what they do because as far as they are concerned, they are already dead.  The music throughout the program shows influences from Trigun (also known for its gun battles), the Mariachi Trilogy (by Robert Rodriguez, the story of a musician with a guitar case full of weapons), and then you get spots that sound like they’re straight out of Pink Floyd, like  ’66 Steps’, spots that remind me of serious moments in the Yakuza video games (in which the 1st 2 games came out during this show’s production), and you also get the sounds that remind you of sunny islands in the pacific…A really well-made melting pot.

The Themes of Black Lagoon include Environmental Influence, Friendship, Morality, Mortality, Loneliness, Family and Survival.  It displays a surprising amount of heart when you consider the body count that piles up by Season 3 (and that’s just from Revy alone).  The episodes in Seasons 2 and 3 were especially touching on all fronts.

Would I recommend Black Lagoon? Yes I would, if you’re of age and enjoy certain types of shows and movies.  Its presentation is up there with the likes of Tarantino and Rodriguez, and it deserves its mature rating.  Either way, I had a lot of fun with this series, and would happily delve into it again from time to time.

Art style: *****

Animation: ****1/2

Voice Acting: *****

Characters: *****

Story: ****3/4

Music: ****1/2

Themes: ****1/2

Overall: ****3/4