Death Note (Desu noto)


It's a bishop. No, it's a rook...

It’s a bishop. No, it’s a rook…

(2006) Horror (Viz) Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Asaka Seto, Shigeki Hosokawa, Erika Toda, Shunji Fujimura, Takeshi Kaga, Yu Kashii, Shido Nakamura (voice), Sota Aoyama, Ikuji Nakamura, Norman England, Shin Shimuzu, Masahiko Tsugawa, Miyuki Komatsu, Hikari Mitsushima, Tatsuhito Okuda, Yoji Tanaka, Michiko Godai. Directed by Shusuke Kaneko

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, what would the power of life and death do? How long would you be able to retain your humanity if you could kill with the stroke of a pen?

That’s what law student Light Yagami (Fujiwara) receives when he finds a notebook. Disgusted after overhearing a criminal in a bar brag about having gotten away with murder, he has lost faith in the justice system of Japan. However, when he discovers the notebook, he discovers it has a specific power; that anyone whose name he writes in the notebook and whose face he can picture will die in the method and at the time he specifies; if he fails to specify a time and method the person whose name is written will die of a heart attack within minutes.

After a couple of tests prove the notebook is genuine, Light is visited by the book’s previous owner, a Shinigami (a Japanese god of death) named Ryuk. Ryuk is 9-feet-tall, eats apples and has a dry sense of humor. He resembles a Peter Max drawing of a Blue Meanie, only he’s more of  White Gothie.

Light resolves to rid Japan of her criminal element and begins killing off criminals. As the police notice the epidemic of criminal deaths, Light’s own father (Kaga) heads up the investigation of the deaths which they believe are the work of a mastermind named Kira. Light is at first amused by this but as his father brings in the world’s most brilliant detective, a mysterious figure known only as L (Matsuyama) who turns out to be even younger than Light. Now the two will go head to head, each trying to discover the other’s identity. The closer L gets, the more Light begins to change and lose more and more of his humanity. Which one will win out in the end?

This is based on one of Japan’s most successful manga (the Japanese comic book) which in turn became a hit anime (animated feature). This, a live-action movie (which came out the same year as the anime as well as a live-action sequel to this movie) was a massive hit, showing just how popular this particular manga was.

The premise is a bit complicated but once you get it, it’s wickedly clever. I also found the acting to be pretty good, considering that the movie is the equivalent of a Swamp Thing movie. Ryuk is essentially a digital creation, and quite frankly although the character itself is interesting and brings quite a bit of comic relief, there are unintentional laughs because it simply looks and moves in a ludicrous manner. Even the apple-eating gag gets old after awhile.

Now, I understand that realism isn’t going to be a strong point in a movie about  a death god giving a death dealing notebook to a law student, it simply stretched believability beyond the breaking point in making “L”, the smartest most successful detective on Earth, a teenager. Of course, the movie is meant pretty much for teenagers but for the rest of us, a big fat raspberry for that move. It just brings the movie to a grinding halt.

Despite its faults, this is a wildly entertaining and fun couple of hours. Kaneko does an excellent job of keeping the tension at a high level throughout. While there are supernatural horror elements to the movie, the truth is that this is more of a tragedy as we watch Light with the best of intentions and best of hearts slowly and inexorably slide down the path of corruption and arrogance as his God-like powers of life and death begin to erode his soul. It’s a fascinating and sad process that kept my interest high from beginning to end. How do you like them apples?

WHY RENT THIS: Ingenious premise. Well-acted. Very suspenseful.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ryuk effect is a bit cheesy. An older actor for “L” would have worked better.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is a bit on the adult side. Some of the deaths are violent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers got permission to reserve a subway train and line to film a crucial scene, something that the Tokyo government hadn’t ever done before.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a director’s interview split over several parts. The extras menu is graphically designed as a group of apples floating on the screen. While the apples remain in the same position, the extra feature that each apple represents changes randomly so that one minute it might be a trailer for the anime version, the next part three of the director interview. It’s different but annoying after awhile..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $42.9M on an unknown production budget; while nearly all of the box office was from Asia, the movie was undoubtedly a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drop Dead Fred

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Mother’s Day

Defendor


Defendor

Clark Johnson can’t believe he gets stuck with the low-rent superheroes.

(2009) Action Comedy (Darius) Woody Harrelson, Kat Dennings, Elias Koteas, Sandra Oh, Michael Kelly, Clark Johnson, Lisa Ray, A.C. Peterson, Kristen Booth, Charlotte Sullivan, Tony Nappo, Ron White, David Gardner, Bryan Renfro, Max Dreeson. Directed by Peter Stebbings

 

When you think about it, in order to be a superhero vigilante sort you have to have at least a screw loose or two. It would be much worse if you didn’t have any super powers to speak of.

That’s Arthur Poppington (Harrelson) to a “T.” By day he’s a mild-mannered construction worker – actually, he’s the guy who holds the “Slow” and “Stop” signs on road crews. He was abandoned by his mother as a boy and is certain that she was murdered by a super villain named Captain Industry. He has dedicated his life to tracking down this nefarious criminal, thus far without success. Usually it involves Arthur dressing up as the superhero Defendor – yes, spelling is not one of Arthur’s strong suits. He puts on some army surplus blacks (with a “D” on his chest in silver duct tape), a video camera on his helmet and eye-black serving as a kind of mask. More often than not he gets his butt kicked.

One night he interrupts a pimp beating up on a crack-addled hooker and stops it. It turns out that the pimp is actually a cop, Sgt. Dooney (Koteas). The girl, Katerina (Dennings) is in no shape to go anywhere so Defendor/Arthur violates one of his own rules and takes her to his Batcave…err, lair. She finds him to be a bit unbalanced but sweet – and maybe her ticket out of this horrible nightmare that is her life. She intimates that she knows who and where Captain Industry is and things escalate in a very bad way.

There have been a number of delusional superheroes without powers movies of late, mostly on the indie scene but best known is Kick-Ass from a couple of years ago (a sequel is supposedly on the way). This one doesn’t really add anything to the conversation about delusional superheroes but neither does it disgrace itself either.

The reason for that is mostly Harrelson, who has been really turning in some memorable performances of late. Defendor doesn’t have powers per se and he’s not much of a fighter, but he uses some clever weapons – like jars full of angry wasps, and marbles to trip up his opponents. Harrelson captures the hangdog Arthur nicely, making his delusions organic and believable. We never doubt Arthur for a moment.

The framing device of Arthur’s psychiatric sessions with a sympathetic doctor (Oh) goes a long way in helping with that. In fact, the supporting cast is solid if unspectacular, with Johnson as a sympathetic police captain, Kelly as a sympathetic co-worker and Koteas as the dirty cop (Koteas has proven quite adept at portraying dirtbags). Denning is also notable in a role that could be entirely cliché but is given plenty of personality by Denning, who to my mind is one of the most exciting young actresses around. She has all the earmarks of having a career filled with meaty roles and Oscar-caliber performances.

Stebbings is a Canadian actor who is making his feature-length directing debut here and his inexperience shows. There are times when the editing is a bit abrupt and quite frankly much of the material is rather hit or miss. There was some potential here, but I think a more experienced hand at the wheel might have cajoled it out. I wanted to like this movie more than I did but the flaws of pacing, writing and lighting are just too glaring to ignore.

WHY RENT THIS: Harrelson continues with his string of good performances. Denning delivers.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t add anything to the “Superhero without powers” films that have been coming out. Hit or miss.
FAMILY VALUES: This one’s got it all; violence, drug use, bad language and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ellen Page was at one point rumored to play the Kat Dennings role; she wound up in the similarly-themed Super.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44,462 on a $3.5M production budget; a box office flop.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: The Insider

Punisher: War Zone


Punisher: War Zone

The Punisher takes aim at the critics.

(Lionsgate) Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Julie Benz, Stephanie Janusauskas, Mark Camacho. Directed by Lexi Alexander

When you seek vengeance, there is almost always some kind of collateral damage. How much that damage is depends on how far you’re willing to go to get vengeance – and whether or not you’re interested in justice at all.

Frank Castle (Stevenson) watched as his family was massacred by mobsters after they witnessed a mob execution while picnicking in the park. Since then, he’s been on a rampage in his new identity as the Punisher, executing anyone having to do with organized crime while the police turn a blind eye to the whole she-bang.

When he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent while going after the gang of Billy Russoti (West), Castle undergoes a crisis of conscience. He begins to wonder for the first time if what he’s doing is crossing the line. In the meantime, Russoti – who was horribly disfigured by the Punisher and now goes by the name of Jigsaw – wants to find the money that was last seen in the hands of the FBI Agent and turns his attention to his pretty wife Angela (Benz) and daughter (Janusauskas).

With the Russian mob moving a bio-weapon into New York with the aid of Jigsaw (which is why he needs the money so badly) and the FBI sending agent Paul Budianski (Salmon) to take down the Punisher, things are getting complicated. Castle knows he can’t turn his back on the widow or her daughter with Jigsaw after them; he turns to his friend Microchip (Knight) to arm him for one last battle. Unknown to the Punisher, Jigsaw has liberated his insane and ultra-violent brother Loony Bin Jim (Hutchison) from prison and the two are taking aim on Angela, the Punisher and everyone they care about.

While the plot here is paper-thin, it doesn’t really need to be much more than that. In a movie about the Punisher, what you really need is an excuse for blazing guns and body counts. Director Alexander realizes that and gives us all the action we can handle.

In a sense, that’s what separates this from the 2004 filmed version with Thomas Jane in the lead role. While that was more of a straight revenge movie, this one finds the Punisher well along the path of being a crazed killer, the actual killers of his family having long been put in their graves. Now, all he lives for is taking down organized crime. The point becomes when does it stop being vengeance and start becoming bloodlust?

There are no easy answers to that nor should there be. Stevenson could have easily played Castle as a one-dimensional lunatic whose only focus is on dispensing punishment. Instead, he is a living, breathing tormented soul who misses his family terribly and can’t stand to see the helpless being victimized. In that sense, he finds justification for all the carnage he delivers in his quest to protect people like Angela and her daughter.

Alexander really seems to get the comic book and its spirit – in fact, this movie is closest to the spirit of the books than any of the three film adaptations that have been made of the character. There is plenty of action and spent cartridges, but there is a sense of humor involved as well, particularly among the villains who are so out-of-control that control isn’t even in the rear-view mirror anymore. West and Hutchison take bite after bite of the scenery and find it finger-lickin’ good but that’s really what you want in a comic book villain.

While not for the faint of heart, the Punisher satisfies on a visceral level and certainly fans of the comic are going to want to beat the drum for this. Not since Death Wish or Rambo have we had movies that so effectively utilize violence in a vigilante setting.

WHY RENT THIS: Stevenson does a credible job as Frank Castle. The action is virtually non-stop; this is certainly a movie that captures the spirit of the comic book title.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While the acting needs to be over-the-top, it exceeds the bounds of reason in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence ranging from the comic book to the excessively brutal, along with some drug use and some foul language. Definitely not for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title role was originally offered to Thomas Jane, who played the part in the 2004 film. However, while Jane was interested in doing the character again, he wanted a grittier, more realistic film instead of the more comic book film that War Zone was becoming and so he passed, leaving the role open for Stevenson.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Whip It