Thursday, 23 January 2020
An unexpected companion piece to last year's Gemini Man, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah's Bad Boys for Life once again considers Will Smith, and the star persona he has created, in terms of obsolescence and replication. Where Ang Lee's film favoured mechanical reproduction, for Life offers a supernaturally slanted duplicate, a piece of youthful vigour stolen then reconfigured to exact a personal revenge. Smith returns as Mike Lowrey, a sociopathic rich kid turned cop, originally positioned as the cool guy opposite to Marcus Burnett, Martin Lawrence's sweaty, aggravated police detective. The original Bad Boys centred around an identity mix-up with each of the top-billed stars pretending to live the life of the other. Smith got to play the dutiful family man while Lawrence delivered his own snarling take on a moneyed, two-fisted Lothario.
Bad Boys for Life surprises because it remembers these tossed-off building blocks - particularly the ease with which Lowrey took to slipping on a new identity - using them to power events that now stretch backwards and forwards in time. Unlike both Michael Bay entries, films that never felt any particularly need to stay on one firm emotional wavelength, this third Bad Boys actually aims to define several human relationships then extract non-hysterical drama from the ways in which they evolve or clash. This development requires a level of earnest introspection that, while not completely new to the series, is usually smuggled in then drowned out by hideous violence or skits centred on gay panic. Arbi and Fallah's film elides Bay's radioactive mania (and, frankly, the knuckle-dragging director's world class flair for action and visual invention), arriving at a tone that is closer to the chummier end of the Lethal Weapon sequels.
Wednesday, 22 January 2020
Digital Foundry talk us through the PC preview build of Doom Eternal, with special mention to the game's various high-end display settings and how id Tech 7 allows for blubbery, real-time, enemy damage. As well as allowing the player to centre the on-screen weapons straight out of the box (pretty sure we had to wait for that to be patched in last time), this sequel looks to have massively expanded the vertical play area, necessitating all manner of climbing and mid-air dash mechanics.
Monday, 20 January 2020
A sweeping, post-apocalyptic Neo-Testament, set in the ruins of the twentieth century and centred around martial arts monsters able to burst, or cleave, the human body with the lightest of touch. Toyoo Ashida's Fist of the North Star adapts Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's sprawling, circuitous manga, boiling down dozens of serialised chapters into a episodic feature about the kind of messiahs that might rise in a radioactive wasteland. Following a nuclear war, what remains of humanity has devolved to the kind of future-schocked feudalism seen in Escape from New York or the Mad Max series. Rather than gather round the last remaining combustion engines, the conflict's improbably muscled survivors have embraced might, specifically the people descended from warring combat schools who are able to tap into luminous, cosmic energies.
Our hero is Kenshiro, the anointed successor of the Hokuto Shinken style, a position that makes him a target for all manner of jealousies. We meet Ken shorty after we've learnt that civilisation perished in flames. He's attacked by a former friend, Shin, who brutally disfigures Ken then leaves him for dead. This is Ken's scourging, the brutal act that allows him to transform from a person into something inhuman and mythic. We are given very little sense of what Ken's life used to be beyond an arranged, but apparently successful, relationship with Yuria, the woman Shin covets. Ken is so easily defeated by his rival that we're not even sure if he was taking the fight seriously. In one fell swoop Ken has lost an ally and his reason for living. Cast into a pit by another, vengeful, party, we don't see Ken again until he is summoned back to life by a terrified child. For all intents and purposes this is the point where Kenshiro, a person with human wants and desires, dies.
The English script used by Streamline Pictures for their dub organises Ken's reappearance in terms of justice or perhaps mercy. He hears the cries of two imperilled children then makes the journey to assist them. The original Japanese script posits something deeper and altogether stranger - Ken is dragged out of his death state by Lin, an uncanny, mute child able to communicate with Kenshiro psychically. Lin is introduced earlier in a disconnected sequence depicted with a dreamy sense of religious awe. We watch as the plump, cherubic souls of the irradiated dead escape their charcoal skeletons to drift away into space. The shot that immediately follows is Lin, encased in a rainbow coloured womb, slowly walking at the camera. She approaches, her eyes closed, a divine apparition. She represents life and light physically returning to this damned world.
Ken's entrance then is an anastasis. Following Lin's mind zap, Ken's mummified remains pound through the wreckage of a high-rise city, hacking away at sagging skyscrapers until they finally collapse on top of him. Ken doesn't even slow down as the concrete buildings collide with his body - in fact, it is the superstructures that buckle and break on contact. Ken passes through them as if they were smoke, not just unfazed but immune to their incredible weight. It's an outrageous display of power and perhaps even an over-correction designed to distract the viewer in a scene that tethers our hero so explicitly to another saviour figure. Ken is made into an answer, the martial artist organised into a semi-subordinate role, that of a disciple. This sequence, crucial to the film's conclusion, casts Kenshiro as the monstrous protector of a tiny, vulnerable person who might bring salvation to this world. Clad head to toe in clay, he resembles the unthinking might of a Golem.
Shorn of Tom Wyner's overly literal, dubbed-up adaptation, North Star reveals itself to be a film about characters who actually do understand their world-changing power in abstract, mythological terms. Villains, in particular, react and behave in ways that demonstrate both a desire and a willingness to dominate humanity psychologically as well as physically. Kenshiro's older brother Raoh is off on his own sub-adventure throughout the film. He deals with the subversion of his birthright by destroying his family's temple then taking his father's life. Untethered from dynastic expectation, Roah climbs a mountain to literally challenge the heavens themselves. The regime he then goes on to engineer is pure totalitarianism - faceless, expendable, chattel organised around Raoh's absurd, indomitable strength. Despite the number of opponents that come his way, The Conqueror of Century's End doesn't even bother to climb down from his pachyderm sized horse until faced with one of equal strength.
Raoh's withering self-interest extends to issues of basic practicality too - when Lin is captured with her fragile, flowering plant pot, Raoh treats the offending shoot not as the first signs of sustainability returning to this nightmare world but as a dangerous challenge to his authority. Raoh is not simply content to rule through strength, he wants his starving, dwindling subjects to be hopeless too. Of course Fist of the North Star eventually brings Ken, the avatar for hope, and Raoh back together. Their battle is brief but cataclysmic. The Babelian city of Cassandra is shaken to dust by a streaking, psychedelic light show; its populace lifted up and carried away by the tornadoes stirred up by this momentous clash. Surprisingly, at least in terms of your standard heroic journey, the battle does not go Ken's way. Although evenly matched - the two warriors pierce and pound each other until they are both collapsed in a bloody heap - it is Raoh who rises first. Poised to deliver a decisive stamp to Ken's head, his foot is stayed by Lin, the imploring child once again surrounded by a radiant light.
Raoh asks Lin if it was her that called him to this place. The question, and the unexpected mercy that follows, suggests that the conqueror understands these events to be ordained by a higher, unknowable power. These devils, defined by their monstrous self-sufficiency, have fulfilled their function, clearing the decks so Lin and her generation can reclaim the world and bring back the oppositional, synergetic forces of nature. The end credits bear out this despondent, cyclical fate for our high-kicking hero. A revived Ken travels vast, swirling deserts, unable to find his phantom love Yuria. He seems to pass through a revived, resplendent forest, a space where he feels a connection to his absent fiancee. Quickly though, the untouched green dissolves away and we are back in the wasteland. Ken presses on, striding up a sand dune to gaze out on a familiar, unchanged vista - the shattered city we saw at the beginning of the film. Although Ken has travelled far, he is explicitly back exactly where we started. Ashida's film, much like George Miller's Mad Max cycle, views brawn as ultimately expendable. A terrifying, Old Testament asset briefly deployed to vanquish evil but, ultimately, useless in a world struggling to mend itself after having suffered so completely.
Streets of Rage 4 developers Jordi Asensio, Cyrille Lagarigue and Beausoleil Samson-Guillemette talk us through the influences and ideas bearing down on Sega's long-awaited sequel. Happily, Asensio talks about minimising the kind of modern, repeat value influences that have derailed other, promising looking 2D action games. By the sounds of it, Rage 4 is content to be a good, old-fashioned, belt beat 'em up.
Sunday, 19 January 2020
Thursday, 16 January 2020
Hideo Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai examines chivalry in the context of corrupt, self-serving systems. Tetsuro Tamba plays Sakon Shiba, a ronin who falls in with a group of starving peasants who have kidnapped a Magistrate's daughter in order to accelerate an interest in their desperate cause. Shiba represents the samurai in unblemished, heroic terms, a skilled swordsman who isn't obliged to tow the line or answer to uncaring masters. Shiba can pursue his own interpretation of the honour codes that govern and direct his warrior class. Shiba's resolve is such that he attracts others to his cause, first from the ranks of the men hired to kill him, later from within the Magistrate's own household.
Loyalties are tested throughout the film, hired guns and sworn swords alike chaffing at the promises Hisashi Igawa's Magistrate deliberately and, ultimately, foolishly breaks. His actions send shock waves through the film: if the man at the top (at least in local terms) can break the rules to further his own cause, then why not everybody else? Shiba's honourable example struggles to find purchase because it is altruistic, it doesn't track into the ruthlessly ordered, selfish power structures that define feudal Japan. Gosha stages his film to reflect these disconnections, the director and cinematographer Tadashi Sakai use their actors and environments to construct barriers - arms and bodies combine with the limits of the screen to become bars that trap people, physically separating them from other, potentially sympathetic players.
Gosha, a television director graduating to his first feature project, takes to the wider frame instantly, using the extra horizontal space to tell his story physically, through action and blocking. At one point five men arrive to kill Shiba - three over-confident thugs sprung from prison and two rather more cagey souls. The bruisers advance, hoping to overwhelm their target. The biggest braggart charges, Shiba strikes, quickly felling one of the men and taking himself from the left of the frame to its centre. The remaining criminals, stood either side of Shiba, slowly part like cinema curtains, leaving the frame to reveal the two remaining men - Isamu Nagato's Sakura and Mikijiro Hira's Kikyo - both of whom will become instrumental to Shiba's cause. It's beautifully done.
Tuesday, 14 January 2020
Monday, 13 January 2020
Intergalactic space travel recounted with the fist-pumping enthusiasm of a rock concert. Odin: Starlight Mutiny - a significantly shortened Central Park Media video release of a Japanese theatrical feature entitled Odin: Photon Sailer Starlight - mixes naval battles and mythic seafaring with a heavily commercialised vision of space travel. The central laser schooner, the Starlight, is introduced seconds before its maiden voyage with the kind of booming hard sell you'd expect to hear at an expo show. The youthful crew board the vessel at a hundred miles an hour, racing down winding, futuristic corridors to heavy metal music. Coloured spotlights blare and bleed, lending the casting off sequence, one usually depicted in solemn, ceremonial terms, the frazzled energy of a joyride.
Odin, even in this truncated form, struggles to maintain this youthful enthusiasm, quickly becoming emotionally distant and episodic. Detail, particularly that which might delineate the throbbing, hard-rocking mutineers, goes out the window. Odin then is a relentless push towards speculative material that would end up going unexplored. The heavy insinuation that Earth's Germanic peoples are descended from deposed, alien, adventurers was left dangling after a tepid run at the Japanese box office. Still, we're at least left with a scene in which a dying, Norse cyborg claws a crystal storage device out of his heart cavity with the instruction that its contents be used to ease his passing. The extraterrestrial computer immediately cues up a Planetarium laser show, complete with a pulsing synth score. Hacked to pieces to eschew accusations of tedium, what's left of Toshio Masuda, Takeshi Shirata and Eiichi Yamamoto's film is pure incident, animated with a pleasantly psychedelic sense of fluidity.
Sunday, 12 January 2020
Wednesday, 8 January 2020
Although no date is specified, it's clear that Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust takes place a significant amount of time after its predecessor. Whatever power the vampire aristocracy held over humanity has waned to such a degree that the creatures of the night now huddle in their own ghettos for safety. While Toyoo Ashida's film used the bloodsucker mythos to punch up a feudal kidnapping spree, Kawajiri's take on the material digs deeper, embracing the forlorn, romantic aspects of characters who, by their very nature, cannot help but stand apart from the mortals who make an impression on them.
In Bloodlust the titular bounty hunter is contracted to return the daughter of an elderly, dying millionaire. Charlotte, the young woman in question, appears to have been taken by a vampire named Baron Meier Link. Charlotte's father and brother presume an abduction but the truth is more complicated. Charlotte and the Baron, an unusually gentle ghoul, are a couple. Although she pushes him to turn her, the Baron refuses, unwilling to curse the woman he loves. In Ashida's film the monsters were nobility, all-powerful lords who ruled radioactive ruins. In Kawajiri's, the threat has been banished to such a degree that humans now hold fortunes and wield far-reaching powers of life and death.
Vampirism is treated like a disease in Bloodlust, something that needs to be rubbed out. Indeed, Charlotte's father instructs D to murder his daughter if she has succumbed to the temptation of eternal life. Kawajiri marks this shift between films through an aesthetic reevaluation that favours emptiness and desolation rather than, simply, wreckage. Bloodlust explodes its predecessor, tracking design elements to their absurd, beautiful conclusions. D's voluminous, spaghetti western styling is cast aside in favour of a pulp swashbuckler rendered as an insect. His skin is marble. His clothes are closer to armour; a carapace that gleams like a beetle's elytra. His sword is long and thin, curling like a talon. D is supernatural in appearance now, not just deed.
Architecturally we're deeper into a blown-out future - wastelands and modernisme that has slowly, and definitively, returned to nature. Ashida's blend of organic exteriors and mechanical interiors coalesces here into incredible edifices that, finally, resemble a Star City designed by Antoni Gaudi. Carmilla's neo-Gothic castle, the space where our story concludes, is a towering, wrought iron exaltation that contains a cathedral spire able to take to the heavens. The fortress is a place of worship interpreted as unchecked, cancerous growth - a religious structure that has sub-divided and multiplied completely out of control. This impossible series of towers and bridges is explicitly held together by a banished, vengeful spirit who desperately clings to what little life remains to her. Even in death, Bloodlust's vampires suffer.
Friday, 3 January 2020
Thursday, 2 January 2020
Ten thousand years into the future, mankind shivers in ramshackle slums while the world's nobility - undying vampires - lord it up in massive, mechanical castles. The landscape of the hereafter is ruin; buildings sag and decay, accented with scrounged-out zap technology. The toppled skyscrapers of the pre-apocalyptic age have fossilised, now only sand-blasted rectangles with the faintest hint of windows. Livestock survive, encircled by electronic perimeter fences that sometimes manage to fend off the carnivorous clouds that settle into the herd, turning their prey into gravity defying soup. Our hero is the travelling swordsman D, a half-human, half-vampire known to his fellow bloodsuckers by the (presumably) racist invective Dhampir.
Better looking in repose - the OVA's animated fights basically boil down to sweeping lunges and telekinetic bludgeoning - Toyoo Ashida's Vampire Hunter D is an otherwise dynamically drafted adaptation of Hideyuki Kikuchi and Yoshitaka Amano's light novel series. Amano's delicate, porcelain people are rendered here as spiky and determined, weighed down by the heavy, oily paints that chart their figures. D towers like a goth Clint Eastwood; the women he encounters are cherubic. The video (explicitly designed to appeal to teenagers relaxing between study shifts) boils over with creeping monstrosities and their macabre magick. A particular highlight is the entrance-cum-drainage pipe that the title character uses to enter the castle of the evil Count Magnus Lee. Every surface in this makeshift gaol seethes with spluttering, decaying life - the variety of these oozing, occult figures rivalling that seen grumbling beneath the mood lighting of Star Wars' Mos Eisley Cantina.