Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King

Much like the television series that proceeds it - 1997's Berserk: The Sword-Wind Romance - Toshiyuki Kubooka and Studio 4°C's 2012 adaptation of Kentaro Miura's long-running manga has very little interest in the assured but episodic run-ins that introduced Monthly Animal House readers to Guts back in 1989. Kubooka's film elects instead to focus on a later, flashback, saga that explains - in part - how this monstrous mercenary was physically and mentally shaped. One enormous cleaver aside, Miura's conceptual coup was to place a brawny, Japanese presenting, street tough in a Medieval milieu. He stands out, his mere presence subversive. In this filmic context, Guts feels shaped by the titans of genre - the wandering Ronin or the spaghetti western bounty hunter - as well as the cocksure performances of Rutger Hauer (particularly when working with Paul Verhoeven), or the charming shitheads essayed by Bunta Sugawara. 

Miura was careful to temper this mountainous, swaggering, machismo with an obvious psychological damage that goes far beyond vague standbys like a fallen kingdom or a distanced love. Guts is clearly and explicitly portrayed as a product of abuse, a trauma reaching back into an (initially) unseen childhood that seems to be of a sexual nature. As an adult, manga Guts is able to withstand the lash and branding iron but is apoplectic when a sympathetic fairy places their tiny hand upon him. The nightmares Egg of the King uses to convey this information may be stuttering and deliberately incomplete, but there are glimpses of the genuine pain that underlines this person. Following a crucial defeat for the character, the film adopts a perspective derived directly from Guts. We watch through his eyes, seeing moments from a childhood in which he is threatened then abandoned; sold then horribly abused. Adults tower over this young boy, massive and physically repulsive, rendering him helpless. 

Although outwardly calm, Guts - in every medium - is wound up and broken, a character suffering in different temporal dimensions. The future black swordsman's presentation in The Egg of the King charts a simple growth, from a precociously powerful teen merc to a Captain in The Band of the Hawk, a company of highly successful child soldiers. Their leader, the outwardly beautiful and charismatic Griffith is, in his private moments, a creature of pure ambition. Although his troops love him, Griffith considers them in far starker, utilitarian, terms. The first in a three part series, Kubooka's film forgoes bigger and bigger plate armoured battles - staged earlier in the piece using jerky computer animation that reads like crude and unattractive puppetry - to narrow in on a personal moment for its denouement. An earwigged exchange between royalty and a would-be nobleman strikes at Guts in a way that this expert brute is completely unable to surmount. He is a tool, perceiving revelation in the unguarded boasts of another man who sees Guts' life in purely transactional terms. 

Tom Holkenborg - All of You Undisturbed Cities

Skull Knight by witnesstheabsurd

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Army of the Dead

Despite a desert-set prologue that uses knowingly overwritten dialogue to prickle memories of the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer era of Summer blockbusters, Army of the Dead ends up looking a little further back for its structural inspiration. As with director Zack Snyder's debut feature, Dawn of the Dead, Army is the zombie parable repurposed as action cinema, a model (in both instances) heavily indebted to the works of James Cameron. Most obviously, Snyder's latest harkens back to Aliens, a hysteria-inducing masterpiece, quoted here both verbally and mechanically. Sadly, neither of these grammatical reproductions manage to exceed, or even meet, the thundering excitement minted back in 1986. 

Other, earlier, influences bubble to the surface over the course of the piece, films typified by the tension created when well-equipped (American) intruders find themselves out of their depth, in someone else's territory. John Boorman's Deliverance and Walter Hill's Southern Comfort the alpha examples in a sub-genre that works through the Stateside trauma of the Vietnam War by proposing a cultural and technological façade, then allowing them to crumble in the face of a determined, indigenous, force. Army cedes the territory of Las Vegas to Richard Cetrone's musclebound progenitor monster and the children born from his mouth and loins, offering up a primal society of undiminished body-poppers who stand apart from their dried-up, deactivated, brethren lying in state at the city's limits. As with Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, the undead are given routines and something resembling a social class. 

These zombie categories are rooted in a hereditary infection based around a pathogenic half-life that determines that those directly bitten by the source of the infection retain the ability to run and, seemingly, apply basic reason. Conversely, the cases originating from the slathering disciple creatures resolve to a shuffling mass of braindead chompers, content to pack themselves into cool, dry, places, awaiting stimuli. Just as the Dawn of the Dead remake built its threat off the back of the raging sprinters seen in Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's 28 Days Later, Snyder's latest also accounts for recent, popular, depictions of massed rot - specifically the undulating lines of regimented dead who departed from The Land of Always Winter in the later seasons of Game of Thrones

Computer generated assistance allows the director and his special effects departments to expand the reach of reanimation beyond appliance covered Homo sapiens to include a decayed, but still predatory, white tiger and a collapsing stead for an armoured zombie chieftain. Army of the Dead then is a pastiche, a swaying structure barrelling through sequences and set-pieces with a demented sense of abandon, anchored by Dave Bautista's broken-hearted father. Despite the film's massive length, Snyder and co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold still produce a series of harsh gear shifts; grinding transitions that place expert characters in situations where it's baffling that they don't object to corporate tomfoolery sooner or stammering confessions, squeezed into scenes, that play like roughly applied garnish designed to put a harsher spin on an imminent mangling. 

For a film about a small team of mercenaries invading a walled-off city, danger is neither constant nor mounting in Army of the Dead - an early warning from Nora Arnezeder's Coyote that precipitation will reactivate mummified throngs seems to herald a thunderstorm or a reactivated sprinkler system that never actually trickles to life. Snyder, also working as his own Director of Photography, seems less concerned with this kind of diegetic minutiae, using the film as a further opportunity to perfect his deliberately imperfect approach to digital portraiture. As with the claustrophobic talking heads between Batman and Joker that brought Zack Snyder's Justice League to a close, the director shoots faces coming into and out of focus; human and animal skulls as topographical landscapes, textured with peaks and valleys, framed by distorted instances of intrusive light. 

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Justice Society: World War II

Something of a return to form for the DC animated universe, Justice Society: World War II forgoes caped crusaders and the Man of Steel to place Wonder Woman front-and-centre in an alternative history take on the Second World War. Diana (voiced by Stana Katic, an actress who previous voiced Lois Lane in Superman: Unbound) leads a team of Golden Age, Allied, superheroes, including Omid Abathi's Hawkman, Matthew Mercer's Hourman, Armen Taylor as a period appropriate Flash, Matt Bomer as a time displaced Barry Allen and, best of all, Elysia Rotaru as a scrappy, lovelorn, Black Canary. 

This portrayal of an Axis-bashing superteam has its roots in the comics and serials of the time - the Justice Society itself dating back to 1940's All Star Comics issue 3. The film depicts a real war of occupation, complete with war crimes and extrajudicial executions, being fought by bright, four-colour, American personalities. Unlike the comics Justice Society adapts, this film takes place after the United States has joined the war, an event perhaps expediated by the fall of this universe's Soviet Union. Not to be outdone in the propaganda stakes, the Rome-Berlin alliance have their own Übermensch in the form of a blonde, brainwashed, Aquaman - the King of Atlantis providing a friendly dock for German U-boats on their way to New York. 

Although taking clear cues from 2002's Justice League season finale The Savage Time, Justice Society avoids replicating Bruce Timm's Alex Toth influenced character designs, opting for a less stylised depiction that instead recalls the light, wooden, caricature of a television series like Archer. Figure outlines in Jeff Wamester's film are thick brackets separating handsome character drafts from their background. Similarly, the meat and potato action sequences have a marionette quality to them - a uniformity of figure that suggests a baked character model being twisted and manipulated rather than an individual piece being animated from scratch. Still, a sequence where Wonder Woman beats up a squad of advancing Tiger tanks - with her bare hands - has more heft and pulverising weight to it than the last half-dozen straight-to-video DC adventures. Justice Society succeeds for similar reasons to 2015's Justice League: Gods and Monsters, it tackles a formulaic story from a less formulaic perspective; a light shake-up confident enough to be mistaken for a feature-length pilot episode. 

Power Glove - Wolf

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Released the year before Godzilla, and clearly a massive conceptual influence on that film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a far more jubilant experience than Ishiro Honda's unflinching look at atomic firestorms. Adapted for the screen by Fred Freiberger, Louis Morheim, Robert Smith and director Eugène Lourié, The Beast is partly based on Ray Bradbury's The Fog Horn, a short story published in The Saturday Evening Post that told the tale of a sea monster who has fallen in love with a lighthouse, mistaking its warning honks for a seductive mating call. Lourié's film eventually adapts this incident, diverting from the rambling scientific investigation that makes up the majority of the piece to show Ray Harryhausen's beautiful stop motion monster squaring up to the signal light of a similar watchtower, then climbing all over it, humping the building to rubble. 

Awakened by a hydrogen bomb test in the Artic, Harryhausen's roaming, quadrupedal, Rhedosaur is very clearly the product of a country basking in the glow of fissile radiance rather than having suffered beneath it. This newfound energy is used as a catalyst for wonder and invention, operating at almost a commercial level - a product of pure, American, invention. Indeed, these world altering explosions have a frightening short half-life in Beast, functioning instead as a current affairs axis from which a long buried creature can spring. Late in the film, when the titular monster has finally made its way to an American metropolis, the soldiers attempting to corral the bleeding beast begin falling sick. Rather than position the predatory sauropod as a massive vector of radioactive contamination, Beast soft-peddles the moment, diverting the film's deeper threat to an ancient germ that has slumbered alongside the massive reptile. For the finale, nuclear energy actually becomes a tool of heroism - the only thing on Earth capable of killing Big Rhed is a radioactive isotope, fired from the service rifle of a young, but still dead-eyed, Lee Van Cleef. 

Lucy in Disguise & Tima - Night Owl

Drunken Master II by Blake Smisko

Monday, 3 May 2021

The Ideon - Be Invoked

A truly apocalyptic take on intergalactic warfare, Yoshiyuki Tomino's The Ideon - Be Invoked functions as a corrected and expanded conclusion to the Space Runaway Ideon television series, freed from budgetary and, quite apparently, the decency constraints inherent to the small screen. Be Invoked goes far beyond the special effects skirmishes of its nearest live action contemporaries; the scale here is both massive and completely despairing. Dozens of planets are pulverised in the crossfire between the Solo spaceship and the pursuing Buff Clan. The calamity these warring factions generate is not constrained to their deep space front line either, the universe itself is being shook apart. 

Multiple sentient civilisations - including both belligerents' home planets - are battered to dust by meteors, the cosmos itself objecting to their ever-expanding conflict. Where other space operas give us a glimpse of the brief hot spots that bubble up during never-ending cold wars, Be Invoked goes much further, depicting the depressed mania that drives two species towards mutually assured destruction. The attacks on the Solo craft - the prehistoric battery that holds the mysterious power of Ide - come in unrelenting waves. The now derelict Buff Clan hurl every remaining member of their race into a suicidal war with an insanely powerful robot and the crew of a reality skipping spaceship. 

Be Invoked's death toll is easily in the millions; the hero characters aren't immune either. Tomino wrongfoots his audience at one crucial point, quickly reversing a fatal outcome for a pregnant, plot relevant, Princess and the high-ranking naval officer attempting to protect her. Once we are reassured that our favourites will remain shielded and safe, Tomino begins running rampant through his cast. No-one is safe from an instant, distressing, end. Not civilians or medical officers; not child soldiers or even, in one horrifying instance, a distracted toddler. Be Invoked takes the churning bones of a big mech battle show - the merchandisable machinery and a cast packed with adolescents - then removes all sense of safety, steering the series towards a genuinely astonishing outcome. 

Foewi - Reflowing

Sunday, 2 May 2021

VIQ - Unravel

Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting - COCAINE KEN

Everyone loves Street Fighter II': Hyper Fighting, right? Best game ever made. Here's the second of the Super Lore Boys' Corner Store Legends tournaments, a five hour championship bracket with competitors hailing from the game's golden age, including all-time legend John Choi, as well as newer hands, such as Zangief-on-main, VodkaGobalsky. Once a winner has been crowned, the organisers then run us through a few exhibition matches, with a special attention paid towards the bespoke palette adjustments made to this custom Fightcade enabled ROM. 

Thanks to TurboAnnihilator, every character gets an arresting, but tasteful, makeover. Highlights from the tournament include a greyscale Blanka who looks like he's snapped himself off a church built during the Middle Ages; a Dr Pepper coloured dictator dubbed Bipson; and, in a clear nob to the Violent alternative character from Switch exclusive Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers, a coked-out, radioactive, Ken. Keep your eyes peeled for a late appearance by LeRaldo's boxer, an absolute treat to watch as he elbows his way into specials or throws out 60-second charge Final Punches. 

Saturday, 1 May 2021

The Ideon - A Contact

Yoshiyuki Tomino's The Ideon - A Contact unfolds with the impressionistic fervour of a collage. As a logical, narrative-based, proposition this 85 minute feature is basically unintelligible. Characters intuit incredible perceptual leaps to explain away the pure momentum we are witnessing. Punch card diagnostics become swirling, operatic, rhetoric as teenagers attempt to explain their brief communions with a massive combining robot-cum-God. Similarly, the film's scowling cast find themselves in roles and situations with very little explanation of how they got there or why they might be suitable for a particular task. There's a sense of real propulsion in A Contact though, we see a (pointless) war begin then escalate in real time, sparked off by a defiant alien Princess and her overprotective bodyguards while they nose around one of humanity's far-flung colonies.

Built out of Space Runaway Ideon, a television series that ran for 39 episodes from May 1980 to January 1981, A Contact is not dissimilar to the Neon Genesis Evangelion recap film, Evangelion: Death, in that its main function is to recombine already produced footage to set the stall for a forthcoming theatrical conclusion - in this case, The Ideon - Be Invoked. Tomino's attempt at summation cuts far past the bone though, the director tearing through hours and hours of small screen continuity to flag up complex animation or dream-like moments, rather than the basic grist of plot or character insight, as a way to communicate his expanding tale of a desperate, intergalactic, pursuit. Events in A Contact are therefore (obviously) episodic. A Contact allows us a stuttering glimpse of a larger story that revolves around a mysterious and apparently inexhaustible power source that resonates with imperilled children as well as the dangling insinuation that the otherworldly and, we are repeatedly assured, extra-terrestrial belligerents - the Buff Clan - are not actually that biologically distinct from humans. 

Alien by Oleg Bulakh

cacho. - Soulless