The Scythian Lamb (Hitsuji no ki)


….but the seafood is GREAT!!!

(2017) Drama (Asmik Ace) Ryo Nishikido, Fumino Kimura, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kazuki Kitamura, Yuka, Mikako Ichikawa, Shingo Mizusawa, Min Tanaka, Yuji Nakamura, Tamae Ando, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Toshiyuki Kitami, Miyako Yamaguchi, Shinsuke Suzuki, Sansho Shinsui, Yota Kawase, Masatoshi Kihara, Tsuyoshi Nakano, Daihi, Noa Miyake. Directed by Daihachi Yoshida

The rehabilitation of criminals can be a tricky thing. After all, there are all sorts of criminals; those who commit crimes by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; those who have a compulsion; those who fall in to the wrong crowd and some who just plain like being bad.

Like many other rural towns in Japan, Uobuka is having difficulties maintaining their population as many Japanese citizens are emigrating from the countryside to the big cities. The mayor of Uobuka has struck a deal with the Japanese prison system which is dealing with overcrowding to house six criminals who are considered low-risk; they are to be paroled early and send to Uobuka to live provided they stay there at least ten years.

A minor civic functionary, the handsome and somewhat enthusiastic nebbish Hajime Tsukisue (Nishikido) is assigned to get all six of the new residents settled. He greets all of them enthusiastically, remarking that Uobuka is a nice place…with nice people…and great seafood.

The first arrival, Hiroki Fukimoto (Mizusawa) seems rather nervous and when treated to dinner, eats like he had been lost in the wilderness without food or water for days. He is given a job at the local barber shop. My first instinct upon seeing him was “who in their right mind would trust this guy with scissors?”

Next comes the beautiful and sexy Reiko Ota (Yuka) who gets work at the local senior center. Hajime likes her just fine…until she strikes up a romance with his own dad! Shigeru Ono (Tanaka) is ex-Yakuza and wants to stay that way, reacting violently to a recruiting visit by his ex-colleagues.

Kiyomi Kurimoto (Ichikawa) seems rather tightly wound; she has an affinity for cleaning…and burying things in the garden. Katsushi Sugiyama (Kitamura) looks to be the bad boy of the bunch; he is unrepentant and with his shark-like grin gets bored almost the instant he gets into town and starts looking for trouble.

The one exception to the bunch seems to be Ichiro Miyakoshi (Matsuda) who comes off as gentle and friendly. After being placed in a delivery courier position (in a distinctive blue and yellow van no less), he and Hajime become friends which isn’t a bad thing; after all, Hajime has a bit of a double life, going from respectable city functionary to being part of a garage rock band on weekends. When Ichiro shows up wanting to learn how to play guitar, Hajime is fine with it. When he starts hitting on Aya (Kimura) who was the high school crush of Hajime (and lead guitarist in his band), things get a little awkward.

They get even more awkward when Hajime discovers that all six were convicted of murder and when someone shows up murdered…well, the fish guts are about to hit the fan, particularly when another functionary finds out their secret and enlists them all to participate in the Nororo festival, a tribute to an ancient sea creature who once terrorized the town, leading to a tradition of two people being thrown off the cliffs into the sea; Nororo would take one, leaving the other to survive.

Yoshida has rafted a wonderfully off-kilter movie that although ostensibly a drama has elements of noir, black comedy and slice-of-life coming of age film all woven in. The Uobuka looks like a pretty nice place to live which although the running joke of Hajime’s exhortations about the quality of life may get old they are nonetheless dead on which is part of the joke.

The performances here are really rather good. Each of the various parolees has a distinct personality and they each get their own moments to shine. Nishikido, known more for his music career than his acting, shows that he has the chops to make it in the movies on both sides of the Pacific. He doesn’t do a lot of singing even in the garage band sequences but he has plenty of presence nonetheless. Oddly, most of the score is less pop or rock oriented but is a kind of discordant minimalism that actually works better in getting across the “something is not quite right” vibe that this film brings to life wonderfully.

While the New York Asian Film Festival screening has already come and gone, this is a good bet to pick up some sort of American distribution. Sure it’s a bit strange but not so much that American audiences won’t connect with it. Hopefully those of you not in the New York area will get a chance to see it sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is pitch black and the tone just off-kilter enough to be fascinating. Life in Uobuka looks pretty nice to me.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is minimalist and discordant.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, some mild profanity and a disturbing scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nishikido is a major pop star in Japan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The World According to Garp
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Whitney

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Edge of Tomorrow


Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Kick Gurry, Franz Drameh, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Masayoshi Haneda, Noah Taylor, Terence Maynard, Lara Pulver, Madeline Mantock, Assly Zandry, Martin Hyder, Mairead McKinley, Andrew Neil, Beth Goddard, Anna Botting. Directed by Doug Liman

What a difference a day makes. Sometimes, a single day can make all the difference.

Major William Cage (Cruise) is one of those slick PR types that the army employs to sell war. This war, however, is unlike any other war we’ve ever fought; a mysterious race of aliens has invaded and quickly taken over Europe and Asia. The Mimics, as we call them, have withstood the might of our combined armies and now are poised to cross the ocean and take on the Americas. Much like another war half a century ago, the Americans know that they need to stop them in Europe or else have them hit us at full strength.

Cage is meeting up with Irish General Brigham (Gleeson) of the United Defense Force but the meeting doesn’t go well and the exasperated General orders Cage to the front. Cage balks at it and tries to BS his way out of it but ends up being tasered and sent to the front lines anyway. There, he meets up with MSgt Farrell (Paxton), a gung ho Kentuckian and the somewhat sullen J Company as they are put on massive troop transport helicopters and ferried over to Normandy. Unlike the previous invasion of that beach, the Mimics are expecting them and the invasion is disastrous. Cage is killed in the first five minutes.

Except he wakes up, on exactly the same day – right after he was tasered. And things unfold exactly the same. And he wakes up again. This time, however, he does things a little differently – and he survives longer, getting to meet Rita, the so-called Angel of Verdun who just about single-handedly won the only victory the UDF has had. Rita immediately realizes what’s going on and brings him to see Dr. Carter (Taylor) who knows more about the Mimics than just about anybody alive.

Just before he died, Cage had met up with a super-rare Mimic Alpha, and killed the damn thing, getting its blood all over him. That had somehow given Cage the same power the Mimics have or rather their Omega creature – the ability to re-set time. That’s why the Mimics are unstoppable; they know what humans are up to because they see it before resetting time, then react accordingly during the replay. However, now, it is us that has the advantage and if we can find the Omega and destroy it, the war will be ours. However, Cage has to figure a way to get off that beach.

Based on a Japanese manga called All You Need a Kill (a much better title although Da Queen prefers the ad tag line – “Live. Die. Repeat.” as a movie title better), astute moviegoers will recognize the plot conceit as being the same as Groundhog Day. However, the similarities are merely superficial. Whereas the older movie was a comedy in which Bill Murray wanted to get the girl, here Tom Cruise is out to save the world. And get the girl.

Liman, one of the most underrated and outstanding action directors out there (he made The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith among others), continues his fine work with the battle sequence here that recalls that of Saving Private Ryan only it isn’t nearly as intense or chaotic. The parallels between this war with the Mimics and the Second World War are heavy-handed indeed.

Cruise remains as bankable a movie star as there is out there although this is quite a different role for him, at least initially. Cage is a bit of a con artist, shucking and jiving his way through the army and willing to do anything to keep from going into actual battle. He’s a bit of a coward and a whole lot of arrogant, the kind of political survivor that always manages to land on his feet – until the aliens put him face-down. Eventually he grows a pair and becomes the hero we’re used to, but it is a slow process.

Blunt is also playing against type. Generally she plays a spunky but somewhat emotionally fragile sort but here she is all business and a credible action hero of her own. In the manga her character is sometimes known as The Bitch of War and that’s not far from the truth; she’s hard, merciless and without fear. She knows we’re losing this war and only one thing will prevent it – and her opportunity had slipped right through her fingers.

This isn’t a space opera – we never get a sense of how the aliens arrived here and what they want. The somewhat insectoid Mimics have lots of tentacles that owe something to the creature Giger created in Alien and they are terrifying. Kudos to the creature design team who also came up with the Alpha and Omega creatures as well. We’ve seen some decent alien designs in recent years although alien invasion movies have tended to be very poor as of late.

This is a little bit more thoughtful than most Hollywood summer blockbusters and that isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Yeah, sometimes all I really need is a loud movie with absolutely no thoughts in it at all, but this isn’t that. You are left to ponder the significance of each and every day with an eye towards learning how to use that pattern to your own advantage. I found it to be on par with the better-reviewed films of this summer and while the box office hasn’t been scintillating thus far for the movie, it is on course to at least make its production budget back and then some and in a crowded summer of stronger quality films than we’ve seen in recent years, we have to appreciate all the movies that aren’t just formulaic and either lacking in creativity, over-relying on CGI or pandering to its audience. Edge of Tomorrow does none of that.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining. Cruise plays against type.

REASONS TO STAY: Borrows a little from Starship Troopers, Battle: Los Angeles and Groundhog Day.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of sci-fi war violence, a fair amount of salty language and some sexually suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The failed invasion is depicted as taking place in Normandy. In the United States, the film’s official release date was June 6, 2014 – the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Trip to Italy

Astro Boy


Astro Boy

Love the hair, Toby!

(2009) Animated Science Fiction (Summit) Starring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron, Eugene Levy, Matt Lucas. Directed by David Bowers

In the soul of a machine there beats the heart of a young boy. Where does the machine end and the human being begin?

The year is 3000 and the world is terribly polluted. The citizens of Metro City have created for themselves something of a utopia by floating their city high in the atmosphere and creating an army of robots to wait on the citizenry hand and foot…or cog and wheel, as it were. Those who disagree with the policies of the repressive government headed by President Stone (Sutherland), a megalomaniacal tyrant, are sent to the surface to live amongst the garbage.

Dr. Tenma (Cage) is a brilliant robotics specialist and as it turns out, Minister of Science for the current regime. The President wants Tenma to create the ultimate war machine so he can wage war on the surface dwellers; not so much because they’re a threat but so that he can regain a higher approval rating and win the upcoming elections. The Peacekeeper is Dr. Tenma’s solution; what it needs, however, is a power source that won’t konk out on it mid-Peace.

That solution comes courtesy of Dr. Elefun (Nighy) who has extracted the core of a comet and discovered two opposing energy sources; the stable and pure Blue Energy and the unstable and unpredictable Red Energy, which predictably is much more powerful than the Blue Energy. Just as predictably, the President wants to use the Red Energy as the Peacekeeper’s power source despite the objections of his scientific staff. The result is a catastrophe; the Peacekeeper goes out-of-control ballistic and is only just barely restrained. There is a casualty however; Dr. Tenma’s young son Toby (Highmore)  is caught in the crossfire and is vaporized in front of his very eyes.

Understandably, Dr. Tenma is grief-stricken and withdraws from his position. Half-mad and wracked by guilt, he determines to replace his son with a robot, one that will pass for him physically and is cloned from the DNA of a single strand of Toby’s hair, which remains on his ballcap. Dr. Tenma also adds some enhancements for robo-Toby (Highmore) to adequately defend himself, knowing that once word of the advanced robot reaches the President he’ll want it for himself.

However, something odd happens. At first, the new robot is the perfect copy of his son, complete with all his memories and personality quirks, but he isn’t quite the same. For one thing, he very quickly becomes aware that he isn’t human – perhaps it’s the jet pack built into his feet, or the machine gun that comes out of his tush. Yes, that’s what I said.

In any case, Dr. Tenma rejects his artificial son and the robot winds up falling to Earth following an encounter with the military. There he is befriended by a group of scavengers reporting to Hamegg (Lane) who runs a battle arena where robots battle one another, most of them built from scraps and spare parts his scavengers pick up for him. The robot is christened Astro Boy and eventually is befriended by Cora (Bell), one of the scavengers but the military eventually comes looking for him and you and I and everyone in Japan knows that eventually Astro will be going robot a robot with the Peacekeeper.

Astro Boy originally appeared as first a manga and then a black and white anime in Japan back in 1951, showing up in the United States in the 60s as a color series. It has appeared occasionally in one form or another on these shores on television since. The creator of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka, is considered the father of modern anime and is credited with the distinctive large-eyed look of the genere.

Fans of the original manga and anime series will not be pleased at some of the subtle differences that have been wrought by Bowers who was co-director of Flushed Away for Aardman. For example, Dr. Elefun who in the series adopted Astro Boy is relegated to little more than a cameo here. In some ways, the rejection of Astro by his dear old dad is much crueler here than it was in the series as well, which may upset some young boys who might be feeling much the same as the robot.

Still, fans and non-fans alike will thrill to the visuals of this movie. Imagi Animation Studios, a Hong Kong-based studio, were responsible for those and they show themselves to be nearly the equal of Pixar in that regard. Both the utopian Metro City and the dystopian surface are wondrous to look at. Even Astro himself is a joy to behold.

What is not so much a joy is a good deal of the voice acting. Granted, the script is not super well-written but it felt like many of the actors phoned in their performances. Cage, who can be very emotional when he wants to be, is curiously flat here as the grieving father. The movie needed raw emotion to draw its audience into the story but that is never provided; consequently, the audience feels disconnected from the movie and that makes it really hard to love it.

There are some good elements here and certainly it is an attractive movie to look at, but like a vacuous blonde, once you get past the good looks you realize there is nothing of substance here. While I look forward to Imagi’s future endeavors, they have yet to learn the simple secret of Pixar’s success – that no animated movie, no matter how beautifully drawn it is, can survive a poor story but a movie with a great story that is beautifully drawn will be a classic that will last for years to come.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely drawn visuals and a chance to re-visit an anime icon.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wooden voice acting in many instances and a plot that could have used some shoring up.

FAMILY VALUES: This is action a-plenty, and scenes of a young boy placed in mortal peril. There are also a few mildly bad words which are probably nothing your average 8-year-old hasn’t already heard and most likely coming out of your mouth.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Japanese version of the movie uses Astro Boy’s original bodyform, facial characteristics and hairstyle, while the U.S. version is updated on all three counts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films utilizing characters from the movie, but for my money the most interesting extra feature is a featurette showing the evolution of Astro Boy from Tezuka’s original drawings until now.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.9M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Gulliver’s Travels (2010)