January 19, 2017

Railroad Tigers (2016)

In December 1941 a group of Chinese railroad workers, led by the station porter Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan) engage in carefully staged raids of Japanese train shipments to disrupt Japan's military efforts to occupy China and invade other Asian nations to the south. When an injured soldier tells the group of a failed mission to blow up a strategically vital bridge, they take it upon themselves to complete the mission on the Chinese army's behalf.

Railroad Tigers is a hugely enjoyable slice of populist action-comedy, headlined by Jackie Chan in one of his most entertaining films in years. While the film has problems - in fact it has quite a few of them - none of them manage to fully obstruct what is ultimately a hell of a lot of fun. This is his third collaboration with director Ding Sheng, following Little Big Soldier in 2010 and Police Story 2013. To my mind this is the strongest of the three. It has plenty of action, a strong line in slapstick comedy, and makes the best use of its ageing star that I can remember.

January 18, 2017

Ikiru (1952)

A disaffected civil servant in late middle-age (Takashi Shimura) learns that he has terminal cancer and a few months left to live. After the initial shock and panic wears off, he sets out in a last-ditch attempt to find a proper purpose and meaning to his life.

Ikiru is Akira Kurosawa's 13th feature film as director, and was his first film after his disastrous experience making The Idiot - which his studio sliced down in post-production and arguably badly weakened in the process. I have no idea if the bruising gauntlet had to run with The Idiot affected his ability to direct Ikiru, but it strikes me as a fairly messy and inconsistent film - and a fair drop down in quality from his widely regarded classics Rashomon and Stray Dog.

There are tonal problems with the film, which swings from bleak satire to uplifting melodrama and back to satire. It is very possible that these shifts in tone were wholly intentional; if so, they strike me as a failed experiment. By trying to make two sorts of film in one there is an extent to which Kurosawa fails to deliver with both. General critical opinion seems to disagree with me entirely, as Ikiru is regularly held up as the 'lost classic' of Kurosawa's career. Personally - and in the end all film reviews are personal ones - Ikiru simply failed to fully impress me. Kurosawa had done better, and would go on to do much better, in the future.

Izetta: The Last Witch: "Beginning of the War"

It is 1 October 2016, and time for the first episode of Izetta: The Last Witch.

In an alternative Earth, a Second World War is looming as the Empire of Germania begins to invade its immediate neighbours. With the island of Britannia refusing to participate and defend its regional allies, Princess Fine of Eylstadt goes on the run from the Germanian forces with the assistance of a flying witch named Izetta.

So this new 12-episode anime is not exactly subtle with its fictional universe, but you can immediately see a method to its madness. Making late 1930s Germany a slightly transformed nation means that Izetta: The Last Witch can essentially do 'magical witch versus nazis' without the inconvenience and controversy of putting actual nazis into its narrative. There is not a Fuhrer but an Emperor. No one salutes with a 'seig heil', but they do a slightly different salute with a 'seig reich'. It's so close as to make no odds, but just far enough away to give the series a nice bit of freedom with what happens as the story goes on.

January 17, 2017

Spotlight (2015)

In 2001 the Boston Globe gains a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Shreiber), who directs the paper's dedicated "Spotlight" team to investigate claims that the city's Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law knew that one of the city's priests was sexually abusing children, but relocated the priest rather than remove him from the Church or report him to the police. As the team - led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) - investigates, they uncover a larger story than they could ever have imagined.

Spotlight is based on a true story: the above-mentioned investigation into the Catholic Church's unofficial policy of relocating and hiding abusive priests to avoid scandal. The real-life story won its writers a 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and had enormous repercussions for the Church worldwide. Tom McCarthy's 2015 film adaptation is a phenomenal piece of work that was appropriately rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is an intelligent, provocative and powerful work of filmmaking.

The Pull List: 11 January 2017, Part 3

It is often difficult to track down English-language editions of French comic books. Cinebooks do an exceptional job, but they cannot adapt everything. It is interesting to see Titan Comics dabble in this area as well with Khaal: Chronicle of a Galactic Emperor, a 2011 bande dessinée series reformatted to an American comic book length and size and released last week to comic shops.

Khaal is set on a massive penal colony starship that, due to its isolated location and locked-down nature, evaded the destruction of a huge galactic war. Inside it is ruled by Khaal, a powerful human with psychic links to alien servants, who defeats any challengers to his rule in the arena. Meanwhile a small group of alien enemies conspire to overthrow him.

This is a very traditional French science fantasy epic, packed with sex and muscles. Valentin Secher's artwork is gorgeous in that typical Metal Hurlant style. For the most part Louis' script matches the tone, although scenes of Khaal and his harem of sex slaves feel woefully out of date and a little tedious to read. Overall I'd prefer seeing this series presented in 48-page perfect-bound or hardcover editions like French comics usually are: what we have here not only splits the narrative in two but shrinks the artwork down awkwardly to American dimensions. For anybody craving some old-fashioned sexy French comics, however, it is definitely promising stuff. (3/5)

Khaal: Chronicle of a Galactic Emperor #1. Titan Comics. Written by Louis. Art by Valentin Secher. Colours by Delphine Rieu.

Under the cut: reviews of Daredevil, Grave Lilies, Motor Crush, Ms Marvel and Poe Dameron.

January 16, 2017

Yowamushi Pedal: "Naruko Shoukichi"

It is 28 October 2013, and time for another episode of Yowamushi Pedal.

While visiting the anime fan's paradise Akihabara, Onoda meets Naruko Shoukichi, a loud and aggressive cyclist from Japan's Kansai region. When a passing motorist flicks a lit cigarette onto Onada's bicycle, Naruko is incensed and insists they chase down the car on their bikes to flick the cigarette butt back. The chase further educates Onoda on the science and strategy of high-speed cycling.

There are two main elements to this fourth episode of Yowamushi Pedal. The first is an explanation for high-speed cycling techniques, including the use of gears and slipstreaming in high winds. The second is the introduction of the series' fourth key character: the noisy, brash and ridiculously self-centred Naruko Shoukichi.

Doctor Who: "World's End"

It is 21 November 1964, two days shy of Doctor Who's first anniversary, and it is time for "World's End".

A man stands on the edge of the Thames in London. A bridge is behind him; it has clearly seen better days. Weeds have grown over rubble and wreckage. Behind the man is a large sign: "It is forbidden to dump bodies in the river". The man wears a strange mechanical apparatus around his head and neck. In a sudden, frenzied moment the man rips the apparatus away from around his neck, and then stiffly but calmly walks into the river and drowns himself. Once he is dead, the scene returns to a state of silent, desolate calm.

You really do have to pause for a moment to consider what has just occurred. All this in the first minute of an episode of Doctor Who. This is a television series for children, isn't it? Rubber-suit monsters abound, or historical figures dressed in wonderful period costumes, or William Hartnell as the Doctor coming up with a clever scheme to escape his latest adventure and return to his TARDIS. Instead there is death, and suicide, and the ruins of London. It is easily the most startling and eerily effective opening to a Doctor Who serial yet.

January 15, 2017

Deadpool (2016)

Deadpool is a film that several Hollywood studios have been attempting to make for about a decade and a half, and it has taken until 2016 for it to finally gets its chance to impress. For most of that time actor Ryan Reynolds has been attached to star as well, so before any kind of actual review begins I feel it's worth pausing to both applaud 20th Century Fox for finally giving the project a chance and to congratulate Reynolds for his stamina and persistence, if nothing else.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a terminally ill mercenary given a second chance at life through an experimental process to activate mutant genes in his body. Ruthlessly betrayed, he sets out on a quest for revenge against the villain who transformed him into a hideously scarred psychopath with Wolverine-like healing powers.

To be honest there is not much in the way of story to Deadpool. It essentially has a couple of extended action scenes that frame extended flashbacks. It is basically a loose skeleton upon which the film can hang a lot of rude gags, extreme violence, knowing pop culture references and comic book in-jokes. That does not just work as a description of Deadpool the film; it can also work as a description of the comic book franchise upon which it is based.