Saturday, January 22, 2011

Space Battleship Yamato - 2010

Director - Takashi Yamazaki

Rating: 3/5

In the year 2194 Japanese morals are alive and well in this Hollywood-esque CGI spectacular.

This live action movie adaptation of the long running anime series of the same name, now in its 36th year on TV, arrives with a mega budget ($23.9 million), and a mega-star at its helm. Borne out of legal wranglings between creator and series director, it makes a decent stab at that Hollywood staple, the big sci-fi blockbuster, without losing its inherent Japanese-ness.

Survivors of an alien attack on earth are living underground, hiding from the radiation poisoning left behind after the onslaught. It seems that all hope is lost, but when Kodai, Takuya Kimura finds a remnant from a crashed capsule that has the power to stop the radiation, the humans are given a last ditch chance to reclaim their planet. The warp technology enhanced Battleship Yamato sets off on its maiden voyage to find the planet the capsule came from, with the hopes of mankind pinned on it. I confess that I was not familiar with the animation series before but subsequent research shows that the film keeps the retro stylings of the original series intact. Those snazzy leather jackets still look pretty cool and the naff sailor suits for the captains are at least authentic. There is no series reboot or re-imagining going on here.

The action may be set in 2197 but the message is one that has echoed throughout the ages in Japan. The importance of the group, fulfilling your role in it, and respecting authority all come to the fore here. At times the film comes across like a very strange sort of propaganda, not helped by the constant aggressive saluting. The series itself harks back to the real warship Yamato that went on what was essentially a suicide mission to Okinawa in April of 1945. This is evident not only in the design of the spaceship itself, basically a flying 2nd world war battleship, but in the perpetual taking one for the team message that reverberates from start to finish. Among Yamazaki's previous output as director are the two Always films. Polar opposites on the outside, they are sentimental dramas about post-war Tokyo that embodied the same conservative messages being presented here.

Takuya Kimura asserts himself well. He definitely has star quality and is one of the few modern Japanese actors with the star status to pull off a role like this. This said, the transition Kodai goes through seems to be set to fast forward. He starts the film as an aggressive loner but after every smidgen of exposition he seems to have changed immensely. By the 3rd act with Kodai suddenly all grown up, and not shouting at authority figures, it remains a little unconvincing. His dynamic with Mori, Meisa Kuroki the ass kicking female ace pilot, is overall a bit lifeless. Apart from a few instances when her strong woman credentials are being established, she doesn't maintain your interest. The cast as a whole is full to the brim with house-hold Japanese names, even in the blink and you miss it cameo roles, giving the film a nice meatiness.

The CGI is by and large impressive. The battle scenes show some unique touches. They feel like one of those old arcade games with spaceships and lasers flying in every which direction. The pensive space-scapes are mesmerizing and help to immerse you in this alternate reality. There are a few moments where the CGI has a noticeably fake sheen to it, largely when blended into actual scenery. When things are purely blue screen based though, it is of a high standard. The interior sets of the spaceship look the part, too.

Aside from the distinctly Japanese morals, we are in standard Hollywood emulation territory here. The film works in bite-size chunks of exposition washed down with a smattering of action, all paced in that very familiarly slick way. The cockpit scenes have an inevitable Star Trek dynamic to them. Even the final song by Aerosmith's Steve Tyler seems to be geared up to replicate Armageddon (why anyone would want to escapes me). One thing that is striking in its absence, there is no Darth Vader character, no supreme bad guy to unite against. The threat is largely a faceless one. For most of the movie the enemy is just wave after wave of spaceships and this lack of a focal point makes it a little hard to engage with at times. Perhaps for those inclined to, this could be read as a further example of a Japanese subtext, that general fear of the outside, but on face-level it leaves the story feeling a little unbalanced. Already a massive success in Japan, this movie is an admirable attempt at playing Hollywood at its own game.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Negotiator, The Movie - Koushounin The Movie - 2010

Director - Hidetomo Matsuda

Rating - 2/5

A by the numbers film based on characters from Japanese drama, The Negotiator.

The Negotiator, or to give it its full Japanese title The Negotiator – The Movie, Time Limit 10,000m Head Games, is a completely implausible, testosterone laden, mildly entertaining genre romp. It is the film version of the popular Japanese drama, and fans are unlikely to be disappointed as there is a distinctly TV special vibe to the proceedings. Those not acquainted with the show need not worry as the story keeps within the confines of the two hour running time. The movie itself twists and turns far more than is necessary and gets more than a little carried away. You don’t just need to suspend your disbelief; you have to forget you ever had any in the first place.

Three robbers are in a huge car chase after stealing 250 million yen. They escape into a shopping mall and begin taking hostages. The leader Mido is one of those smooth, charming, and charismatic criminals that seem to only exist in films. He waxes lyrical about social injustice, bizarrely citing Mark Chapman, John Lennon’s killer. He starts negotiations with our heroine, Reiko Usagi of SIT (The Special Investigation Team), but before she gets anywhere communications are terminated and the SWAT team are invading. When the criminals blow up the entrance, one uses the confusion to escape, and Mido is taken into custody. Days later as Usagi is preparing to fly off on holiday, she spots one of the hostages who was acting strangely boarding a flight at the airport. Suspecting that there is something bigger afoot’ she follows him onto the plane. She is proved right as the hostage and his brother have become tangled up in the criminals’ master plan.

The ensemble cast’s ability varies immensely, at times exposing the TV roots behind the film. Usagi (Ryoko Yonekura) is a pretty stereotypical rebel with a cause character, a strong woman in a man’s world. Yonekura is very earnest throughout but she just doesn’t have much to work with. Her fellow SIT colleagues. too, all give perfectly serviceable performances but don’t impress immensely. The bad guys fare a little better. Grand villain Mido, played by Masahiko Tsugawa, is slightly hammy but very entertaining. He enunciates all his words in a way that makes him seem like a Disney villain who’s landed in the real world, and it is a shame he doesn't have more screen time. Takashi Sorimachi as the cold criminal and hijacker deserves a mention as well. Overall though, a lot of the script feels like it's been written with caps lock left on, and the characters are under-developed and two dimensional.

The film has some monumental plot holes that are a bit distracting. Somehow the hijackers have managed to get a fairly decent arsenal of weaponry onboard. So much for the post 9/11 world that everyone has been going on about for the last decade. Thrillers have to jump left and right but this veers from totally predictable to completely ridiculous. It all winds up feeling a bit absurd. Perhaps you shouldn’t pick too many holes in a film with no delusions of grandeur, but when they are this glaringly obvious it does make all the overly serious acting seem a bit silly. If you do manage to make peace with it all. there is a certain charm to its callous attitude to reality.

The Negotiator is never less than watchable but its by-the-numbers direction and acting and its clichéd storyline are more suited to the confines of a television than the big screen. It hurtles along at a decent pace and is generally well made, but we’ve seen everything here before and there’s nothing that really stands out. Those who follow the TV series will enjoy seeing the extra money in the budget being splashed around, explosions, car chases, and stunts punctuate the movie. I never found myself bored but there are far better examples of this kind of thing out there.