June 27, 2014

Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003)

The claims of importance and cultural relevance made for Battle Royale (2000) perhaps does not apply to Battle Royale II: Requiem. It is a 2003 sequel, directed by Kenta Fukasaku, who wrote the screenplay to the original film for his father. Kinji Fukasaku actually started shooting this sequel himself, filming a brief sequence with Takeshi Kitano before he lost his battle with cancer. Kenta took over and brought the film to completion. As a capstone to his father’s works it is oddly appropriate. Kenji’s career was based almost entirely in violent pulp cinema, and violent pulp cinema is pretty much what Requiem provides.

The film begins provocatively, as a sunset-filled vista of downtown Tokyo collapses in a massive terrorist-instigated explosion. Requiem was released in a different world to Battle Royale – the 9/11 attacks came in between the two movies – and Kenta makes damn certain we realise this. It’s bold, but it’s also an empty provocation – it feels like a film attempting to shock rather than a film with something to actually say.

June 26, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Emissary"

The Enterprise is sent on an emergency mission to intercept a 75 year-old Klingon sleeper ship whose crew will not know that the war with the Federation is long over. To negotiate with the Klingons, Starfleet sends a special emissary: the half-human, half-Klingon woman K'Ehleyr (Suzie Plakson), who has a troubled romantic past with Lieutenant Worf.

"The Emissary" is a bit of an odd episode, and I think it demonstrates a lot of the problems that episodes have had this season. It has a reasonably engaging premise with the Klingon sleeper ship, and it centres on a charismatic and likeable guest star with Suzie Plakson, but for some reason in the final product these elements simply don't gel together very well. A lot of time is spent on K'Ehleyr and Worf's romantic and sexual attraction, but it never really feels like time well spent, and the actual sleeper ship plot is given a cursory and simplistic treatment as a result. A rewrite or two could have easily fixed this problem, but I get the impression that the production team simply didn't have the time.

PSX20 #13: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

PSX20 celebrates the 20th anniversary of Sony's Playstation videogames console by counting down my 20 favourite videogames for that platform. These aren't necessarily the best PSX games ever made, but they are the ones I liked and played the most.

When the PlayStation was released 20 years ago, it was pushed very aggressively on the back of its 3D graphics: not sprites and left to right gameplay, as was the norm for the SNES and Megadrive, but rather polygon-generated graphics and three-dimensional movement. In that respect then Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a bit of an outlier: it's a 2D platformer that, some graphical and musical flourishes aside, would have comfortably squeezed onto the last generation of games console.

While the 2D platforming nature of Symphony of the Night might lead you to think it's just like it's NES and SNES predecessors, it's actually a sort of soft adventure-come-RPG. It cribs liberally from Nintendo's excellent Super Metroid to create an immerse environment rather than a linear string of levels. You might pass an area you can't reach, develop a new skill later on, and then return to access that previously unavailable area. It's a technique that works wonderfully to create a sense of space: you're not jumping and slashing your way through level after level, but actually exploring a massive labyrinthe castle.

June 25, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Manhunt"

Deanna's mother Lwaxana Troi returns to the starship Enterprise. Part of me really wants to end the review right there, since that's pretty much all you need to know: Majel Barrett is in this episode, mugging to the camera for all that she's worth in a 42-minute string of gags about sexual harrassment. Picard looks rather appalled, and to be honest I know how I feels. I felt harrassed just watching the damn thing.

The Enterprise has been tasked with escorting a pair of fish alien diplomats to Pacifica for negotiations for their species to join the United Federation of Planets. En route they also pick up the ambassador for the planet Betazed, who turns out to be Lwaxana Troi. Lwaxana is undergoing the Betazoid menopause, which for her species means a massive increase in sexual appetite and an unstoppable rampage through the ship to find a romantic partner.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Up the Long Ladder"

Lt Worf collapses with a Klingon virus, leading to him and Dr Pulaski bonding over poisonous tea. The Enterprise tracks a distress signal and finds not one but two long-lost human colonies. The Enterprise gets filled with sheep. Riker scores with a woman while on duty within hours of meeting her. Riker and Pulaski murder themselves. Picard laughs out loud, and recommends that we all simply embrace the ridiculous.

What the hell is this episode?

I went into "Up the Long Ladder" anticipating something terrible, because I remember really hating it as a teenager. I've come out of the episode more confused than anything else. It is dreadful, let's not skirt the line with that, but it's an odd kind of dreadful where there seem to be about four different episodes struggling to get the audience's attention like a free-for-all professional wrestling match. It's the biggest indication yet that Season 2 of The Next Generation was creatively crippled by the 1988 writers strike; even the scripts they managed to film all feel half-baked and poorly thought-out.

June 24, 2014

The Lion King: 20 years on

On this day in 1994, Walt Disney Pictures pushed The Lion King into general release. It has been screening in a limited number of cinemas for a week, but this was its big widespread push onto American screens. It was at the time the biggest Disney hit in decades, and subsequent re-releases have helped push it to a global gross of US$987 million dollars.

What's interesting in retrospect is that The Lion King was not a popular project within Disney while it was being produced. It was beset with creative problems, and its story wasn't pulling together, and it was getting partly overlooked by studio management in favour of the more prestigious (and better funded) Pocahontas. Everybody wanted to work on Pocahontas, because it was studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg's big pitch at winning a Best Picture Oscar, and nobody wanted to get stuck animating a movie about lions on the African Savannah. As a result much of the film's crew were fairly new: indeed pretty much all of the lead animators were tasking with supervising individual characters for the first time.

13 Going on 30 (2004)

The age-changing comedy seems to be a perennial idea in Hollywood: a child, through wishing, magic, a dream or other shenanigans, wakes up the body of an adult, and gets to discover why they shouldn't want to grow old so fast while simultaneously charming an audience with their inappropriately childlike ways. One major example is Walt Disney Pictures' 1976 comedy Freaky Friday, based on the Mary Rodgers novel, although I'm sure there must be earlier examples. Penny Marshall's 1988 comedy Big was the film that made Tom Hanks a bona fide megastar, and emerged from a cluster of similar age-changing and body-swapping films: Like Father Like Son (1987), 18 Again (1988) and Italy's Da Grande (1987).

I think the earliest example I can find is the 1916 adaptation of the F. Anstey novel Vice Versa, a novel that was adapted several times over the decades. It's clearly a premise with enormous appeal for an audience: it combines nostalgia with wishful thinking, and a strong sense of "what if".

One contribution to this mini-genre was Gary Winick's 2004 comedy 13 Going on 30 - unless you lived in Australia, where it was titled Suddenly 30. I'm not sure why they chose to change the title here - whatever the reason it didn't really change the quality of the film.

June 23, 2014

New Lone Wolf and Cub Volume 1 (2014)

Lone Wolf and Cub is one of the most popular and influential manga of all time. It ran for seven years from 1970 to 1976, and told the story of disgraced samurai Ogami Itto who - after being betrayed and disgraced - travels Japan with his three year-old son Daigoro in lengthy and meticulously planned quest for revenge. It is an epic samurai drama that was collected into 28 volumes. The final sword fight alone runs for almost 180 pages. By the end Ogami lies dead, and it is his son who strikes the final blow against the antagonist Yagyu Retsudo. That's where the story ended, until writer Kazuo Koike returned in 2004 to write an unexpected follow-up. As the original artist Gozeki Kojima had died, this new series has been illustrated by Hideki Mori (Bokko).

I'm not sure why it's taken a decade for New Lone Wolf and Cub to be published in English. Certainly it took until 2000 for Dark Horse to properly release the original series, so I suppose we were pretty far behind to begin with. Late or not, I'm glad that Dark Horse are now publishing the new series, because it's incredibly good.

June 22, 2014

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

Terrorists have taken control of the White House. The President of the United States is taken hostage, and America's only hope lies in a former Presidential bodyguard who... and so on and so forth. Olympus Has Fallen is a masterpiece of derivative cinema. It leaves no stone unturned in its relentless 100-odd minute quest to showcase every cliche of the action genre. It is entirely unashamed of how ridiculously derivative it is. That actually makes it a rather enjoyable film: you know exactly what you're going to get from the outset, and within its very safe and predictable parameters it does not dissapoint.

Gerard Butler plays Secret Service agent Mike Banning who, 18 months earlier, failed to save the President's wife (a very brief appearance by Ashley Judd). Aaron Eckhart plays the President, Benjamin Asher, who's negotiating a response to North Korean aggression with the South Korean Prime Minister (Keong Sim). When Asher is taken hostage in his own White House, naturally it's down to Banning - who doesn't even work at the White House any more - to single-handedly take down terrorist mastermind Kang Yeonsak (Rick Yune) and his ridiculously large army of nameless goons and thugs.

Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale, released in Japan in 2000, is one hell of a movie. The premise goes something like this: in the near-future, Japan’s youth have become so violent and unruly that the government has passed the “Battle Royale” act. Once a year, a classroom of ninth grade students are kidnapped, dropped on an island and given an assortment of weapons. After three days, the one student left alive gets to go home. If more than one student lives the whole three days, then all of them die.

That's the basic gist of the plot. It brings to mind images of William Golding’s legendary Lord of the Flies, as a pack of children go violently mad once unobserved by the adult world, or Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game. Contemporary viewers will also immediately think of The Hunger Games, the widely acclaimed Suzanne Collins novel and its popular film adaptation, however I strongly suspect Collins was inspired by similar sources to Battle Royale rather than by Battle Royale itself.

What these images don’t sufficiently express however, is the sheer over-the-top violence and horror of the actual film. This is not your standard, everyday action flick, and it goes a long distance beyond anything seen in The Hunger Games (which is, by mainstream movie standards, pretty brutal). Battle Royale depicts forty confused teenagers killing each other one by one using automatic firearms, hatchets, crossbows, grenades and all manner of other weapons - both deadly and hilariously inoffensive. There is a lot of blood. Nothing is implied – it’s all shown to you right there on the screen.

June 21, 2014

PSX20 #14: Driver

These days Grand Theft Auto is pretty much the biggest name in videogaming. The most recent instalment, GTAV, sold an estimated 29 million copies in its first week of release. The blend of gritty crime, social satire and immensely playable car chases has made it enormously successful, but it owes a large chunk of its long-term success to Driver.

Let's jump back to 30 June 1999. That's the day Driver debuted in the USA, before being released in other markets around the world over the following weeks. At this point Grand Theft Auto was a single game - its sequel wouldn't be released until October. GTA was also a top-down game, with the player controlling a tiny squeaky criminal and driving around a very two-dimensional playing surface. The tone is there, but the three-dimensional immersion of later instalments is a distant future. Not so for Driver: Driver burst onto the scene as a fully realised three-dimensional driving game with breakneck chases, story depth, grit and replayability. It completely left GTA for dead. Then, two years later, Grand Theft Auto III essentially stole its act.

I'm a huge fan of GTAIV and V. They're two of my favourite videogames ever. I'm aware, however, that neither of them would exist had Driver - and its British developer Reflections Interactive - not been there first to show the way.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Samaritan Snare"

Picard needs heart surgery, so rather than letting Dr Pulaski do it onboard - where his crew might discover he needs a valve replacement - he voluntarily spends a day in a shuttlecraft with Wesley Crusher en route to a nearby starbase. Meanwhile Lt La Forge is kidnapped by intellectually challenged aliens who want him to become their permanent ship's engineer.

This is genuinely the plot of "Samaritan Snare", an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that simplies defies rational belief. It's unbelievable that somebody pitched this storyline, and it's unbelievable that the production team and producers accepted that pitch. And nowhere throughout the process did someone in a position of authority raise their hand and inform the room that it's a stupid idea for a story, and would make for a pretty awful hour of television. This is an episode that's bad, but not as bad as the worst episodes I've rewatched so far, but also wholly inexplicable, since we just saw with "Q Who" how good the series could be when everyone actually puts in some thought and effort.

June 20, 2014

Armour of God (1987)

Jackie Chan is a difficult actor to review, or at least many of his films are. For most Hong Kong movie fans he hit his peak in the 1980s, with titles such as Police Story, Project A, Dragon Lord and Armour of God. He’s not just a superb kung fu star, he adds in inventive acrobatics, hair-raising stunts and superb comic timing. I’ve seen his gift for physical comedy compared to Buster Keaton, and it’s not as ridiculous a comparison as it sounds. This is what makes his films difficult to review: it’s hard to look at a man achieve some inhuman feat of acrobatics, and then dismiss his film as poorly made or dull. Nonetheless, I shall try.

I re-watched Armour of God after a period of many years, and many subsequent Jackie Chan films. It has to be said that, despite Chan’s outstanding stunts and amiable on-screen persona, it is sadly a very badly-made film.

Chan plays the “Asian Hawk”, an international antiquities thief who travels the globe stealing archaeological artefacts and selling them at auction. When he steals the sword of the fabled “Armour of God”, a group of European cultists kidnap his ex-girlfriend (Rosamund Kwan) and demand Chan finds the remaining four pieces of the armour.

June 19, 2014

The Pull List: 18 June 2014

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are a simply stunning creative team. They first got my attention with their magical pop music series Phonogram, before making a big splash at Marvel with their deliberately short run on Young Avengers. Now they're launching a new ongoing series at Image: The Wicked + the Divine, and I think it has the potential to be one of 2014's best new comic books.

The series focuses on a series of gods, who are reincarnated once a century into human bodies. Their lives on Earth are brief, lasting only a few short years before they depart in a burst of flame. In the 20th century they arrived during the Jazz age (something we see during a brief but tantalising prologue); in the 21st they live as pop stars. Through the eyes of a young music fan, Laura, we are introduced to a world of celebrity, skepticism, magical powers and assassination attempts. There's a lot squeezed into this first issue, and it's pretty much the sharpest, smartest and most entertaining stuff Gillen has written to date.

Jamie McKelvie is a master of drawing facial expressions and emotions, and like Gillen he comes to Wicked + the Divine at the top of his game. This is a stunning book to look at, from the striking front cover to the beautifully illustrated interiors.

On a purely gut reaction this issue reminded me a lot of The Invisibles, Grant Morrison's epic 1990s Vertigo book - still my favourite comic of all time. The odds are that if you like Morrison's non-superhero work you're going to love this. Image has done it again: they're just releasing hit after hit this year. (5/5)

Image. Written by Kieron Gillen. Art by Jamie McKelvie.

Under the cut: reviews of Batman and Ra's al Ghul, Batman Eternal, Batwoman, Daredevil, Eye of Newt, The Last Broadcast, Manhattan Projects, Silver Surfer, Thor: God of Thunder and Wonder Woman.

June 18, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Q Who"

Q (John De Lancie) returns to the Enterprise, requesting permission to join the crew. When Picard turns down Q's offer, Q throws the ship halfway across the galaxy and into the path of the Borg - a mysterious alien species that may be too powerful for the Enterprise to overcome.

"Q Who" is probably the best-known episode from The Next Generation's first two seasons, and for good reason: it heralds the third appearance of Q and it finally introduces what will become the series' most popular set of antagonists. The Borg are overwhelmingly important for The Next Generation, because they're the first new creation for the series that feels like something new. Q is basically a revision of the original Star Trek's Trelane (see "The Squire of Gothos"), and the Ferengi could have easily been presented in one form or another in the 1960s. This isn't the case for the Borg: they're a decidedly 1980s creation, too bleak and horrific for the original series and too heavily embedded in ideas of networked computers and cybernetics to pre-date cyberpunk.

So this, for all intents and purposes, is where The Next Generation grows up: the characterisation and tone may have finally clicked into place some episodes ago, but this is the key to the puzzle.

EVE: True Stories (2014)

EVE Online is a peculiar MMORPG, in that it seems to generate its own internal dramas; rather than players work their way through publisher-dictated events and plots, the events seem to generate organically out of whatever the players themselves do within the game. A case in point is the now-legendary 2009 destruction of the "Band of Brothers" faction via in-game corporate espionage and high-stakes betrayal.

It's not often that something that happens in a videogame makes the news, but this one did: tech journals and geek-friendly websites were awash with reports of what happened. Now those events have been adapted into a four-issue comic, collected together by Dark Horse in a tidy little hardcover book. It has been written by Daniel Way with artwork by Alejandro Arajon, Tomm Coker, Federico Dallocchio and Daniel Warren Johnson.

What fascinates me about this book is not the collection itself, but rather the manner of its creation. This represents a long trail of creativity: the imagination of the people who developed and produced EVE Online in the first place, the players who created the drama within that game, and now the writer and artists who have adapted those players' game experience into a cohesive narrative fiction.

June 17, 2014

The Pull List: 11 June 2014

Image have now firmly established themselves as the go-to publisher for original science fiction comic books, so it's no longer a surprise when a new title comes out and it's some riff on SF. The latest entry into their growing range is Red City, a hard-boiled pulp thriller set on Mars several centuries in the future.

In the aftermath of a solar system-wide civil war, former police officer turned government agent Cal Talmage is tasked with recovering an ambassador's missing daughter in Mars Central - the Red City. The city is filled with humans and aliens; most of the aliens are pretty much anthropomorphic animals or have odd skin colours, pointy ears, and so on. The result is a sci-fi crime comic that actually reminded me the most of Gerry Anderson's abortive 1990s TV series Space Precinct - and that's not really a comparison any comic should want to make.

There is talented here: decent enough artwork and snappy dialogue, but this first issue is buried so deep in archetype and cliche that it's difficult to fully enjoy it. I was looking hard for some fresh ideas and to be honest couldn't really find any. It's entertaining to an extent, but if you're being published in the same range as Saga, Manhattan Projects, Prophet and Storm Dogs then I'm not sure that "to an extent" is good enough. (2/5)

Red City #1. Image. Written by Daniel Cory. Art by Mark Dos Santos.

Under the cut: reviews of Batgirl, Batman Eternal, Detective Comics, The Empty Man, FBP, Infinity Man and the Forever People, Lumberjanes, She-Hulk, Star Wars, That's Because You're a Robot and Worlds Finest.

June 12, 2014

Treeless Mountain (2008)

Two young girls, Jin and Bin, are unexpectedly sent to live with their aunt while their mother leaves to find their absent father. Before leaving she gives her daughters a piggy bank: when they behave, their aunt will give them a coin. When the piggy bank is full, their mother promises she will return. Left to their own devices with an aunt who does not particularly want them in her house, and with the piggy bank slowly filling up, Jin and Bin begin to question whether or not their mother will return at all.

Treeless Mountain is a South Korean drama by writer/director So Yong Kim. How the viewer will respond to the film is likely due to what sort of film they are expecting to see. It is a very slow, measured film, filled with small moments of character. It is shot in a very matter-of-fact, stripped-down manner. It exclusively follows the two protagonists, seven year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and five year-old Bin (Song Hee Kim). It does not follow a Hollywood-style three-act structure. Instead it’s more like a window into people’s lives. Alfred Hitchcock once famously stated that films were essentially life with the boring parts cut out. Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain is simply life.

Vengeance (2009)

A pitched gun battle goes on in the woods near a barbeque area. The air is thick with smoke as two rival groups of men duck and weave between the trees, firing off their handguns whenever they think they’ve got a shot. Suddenly the moon is obscured by cloud, and the forest descends into a deep darkness. Everybody stops, their backs pressed up against the trees or the ground. Everybody watches the sky. Then, as the clouds slowly roll back from the moon, and the forest is illuminated once more, all seven men turn and begin shooting once again.

It’s an unusual and striking moment of calm, a typical poetic flourish from a director whose films are peppered with such imagery. Vengeance, Johnnie To’s first English-language feature, may not be one of his finest films, but it is rich with enough moments and character to still make it a potent movie experience.

June 11, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Pen Pals"

Wesley Crusher is placed in charge of a science survey team, testing his ability to lead others. Data makes contact with an alien girl from a pre-warp civilization, communicating with her from his quarters in violation of the Prime Directive.

They do love their Prime Directive on The Next Generation. It seems to get name-checked every second episode. Here Data knowingly violates that rule to meet Sarjenka, a young girl on a planet that's about to be destroyed in a system-wide natural disaster. When her imminent death becomes clear, a conflict arises over whether she and her people should be saved or if they should be left to their own devices. This really is a storyline that only works with Data in it: he has sufficient naivety and wide-eyed optimism to start talking to Sarjenka in the first place.

June 10, 2014

RIP Rik Mayall

Rik Mayall has died, and I am bereft.

It seems ridiculous to mourn somebody that you have never met. After all, more than 150,000 people die around the world every day. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy in its own way, probably every one of them is deserved of remembrance. And celebrities are, of course, not immune: whenever a famous writer or artist dies I generally note their passing on my Facebook, and I seem to note so many that I now have a reputation for dwelling on the deaths of celebrities.

Mayall's death has hit me hard, though: it's not enough to just note on social media that he's died. This one hurts. His performances and his writing formed a great part of my childhood and adolescence, and even as an adult I have watched his television shows regularly. This past week, while trying to move house with a horrendous headcold, I've been relaxing at night by watching episodes of The New Statesman, his savage late-1980s satire of Conservative politics.

June 7, 2014

Tetris at 30

On this day 30 years ago, the Soviet Union's greatest contribution to videogaming was released. Tetris was a tile-laying puzzle game designed by Alexey Pajitnov and released on 6 June 1984 for the Elektronica 60 computer. It is a fairly simple game: a series of geometric shapes fall from the top of the screen - each is comprised of four connected squares - and the player must rotate each shape as it falls and fit it in among the shapes already sitting on the bottom. Once a complete line of squares is formed, that line vanishes - and so on. It's simple, yes, but it's also quite difficult once the speed at which the shapes (or 'tetrominoes') fall increases.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to call Tetris the greatest puzzle videogame of all time. There have been many others, but I'm not sure any of them are as instinctively easy to learn but as wonderfully challenging as Tetris. It's also one of the highest-selling games ever made, with an estimated 170 million copies sold across countless platforms and consoles.

June 6, 2014

The Pull List: 4 June 2014

I came to Kurtis J. Weibe and Roc Upchurch's Rat Queens late, bypassing the monthly issues and reading the first five-issue story arc as a trade paperback. Not again. This book is quite frankly too entertaining to wait for, and with its return for a second storyline I've taken the dive and started buying the individual issues.

The book is essentially a Dungeons & Dragons game played by a roller derby team. The team consists of Hannah (an elf rockabilly wizard), Violet (a dwarf fighter/hipster), Betty (the halfling thief and mushroom-eating hippie) and Dee (the human cleric, who's also an atheist). They are foul-mouthed, hard-drinking and generally badly behaved, and they kill monsters for money.

The book's appeal isn't in the plots, however, but in the dialogue and the character. This is a laugh-out-loud funny book, definitely for mature readers (or, at least, immature ones old enough to know better), with great characters and a surprisingly clever undercurrent of depth and feeling. Roc Upchurch's artwork is particularly stunning, with rich and detailed panels expressing remarkable emotion and subtlety. Altogether it's a simply brilliant package: fast, funny, and immensely entertaining. (5/5)

Rat Queens #6. Image. Written by Kurtis J. Weibe. Art by Roc Upchurch.

Under the cut: reviews of Action Comics, Aquaman and the Others, Batman Eternal, Batwing, Black Widow, Justice League 3000, Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man, The Wake and The Woods.

June 5, 2014

PTU: Police Tactical Unit (2003)

A police detective slips and knocks himself unconscious while pursuing a gang of young hoodlums. When he wakes up, his handgun is missing. Over one tense night, the local police tactical unit (PTU) uses every means at their disposal – both authorised and illegal – to recover the weapon before its loss must be reported.

PTU is a short, tightly made police thriller directed by Johnnie To, a man I believe to be the most talented director working in Hong Kong today. While it fails to reach the heights of To’s best works – Election, Exiled, Sparrow, and so on – it is nonetheless a captivating and memorable experience. Like many of To’s films PTU cleverly balances comedy and drama. He has a particularly odd, slightly off-kilter sense of humour that filters through many of his films. The humour has a way of sneaking up on the viewer and catching them off guard. At the same time some scenes of police brutality in this film are quite difficult to sit through, partly because of the confronting forms of violence but mainly because it’s so believable.

June 4, 2014

Scott Derrickson: director of Doctor Strange

Marvel Studios may be struggling to fill the director's chair on Ant Man, recently vacated by Edgar Wright after irreconcilable creative differences, but they're pushing full steam ahead on Doctor Strange. Scott Derrickson has just been confirmed as that film's director, although I'm not sure a release date has been confirmed as of yet; I'm guessing some time in 2016.

It's a great choice: Derrickson's debut feature The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one of my favourite films from the past decade, seamlessly blending a courtroom drama with a supernatural horror film and drawing great performances from Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson and Jennifer Carpenter. Based on that film's success Derrickson was handed the poisoned chalice of remaking 20th Century Fox's classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still. His effort was critically flawed, but importantly it did demonstrate that he can handle himself with a large budget on a studio picture.

June 3, 2014

Samurai Flamenco: "Flamenco vs. Fake Flamenco"

Video recordings of Samurai Flamenco's antics have gone viral across the Internet, leading one media outlet to place a significant reward for anyone revealing his identity. Hazama's manager Sumi Ishihara has a strong suspicion, but Hazama refuses to confirm it. Things are complicated when, on a TV variety show, classic TV star Kaname Joji outs himself as Samurai Flamenco, leading to a showdown on the street between Hazama and the ageing TV star.

I think this may be my favourite episode of this series so far: it cleverly enriches Hazama's tokusatsu fandom by introducing a retired tokusatsu star: Joji, who used to star in the TV show The Red Axe. It also prominently features one of the weirder phenomenons of Japanese television - to me, anyhow - which is the weird genre of talk show where a panel of celebrities watch and comment on YouTube videos. I saw a bunch of these while on holiday in Tokyo, and they're pretty much exactly how they're depicted here.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Icarus Factor"

Commander Riker is offered his own command, and turns out to have fairly significant daddy issues. Worf is in a bad mood, so Wesley rounds up his friends to give him a proper Klingon celebration.

Oh my goodness, I don't quite know where to start. Let's start with the central narrative: Commander Riker is offered the captaincy of the USS Aries, which is about to embark on a multi-year deep space research mission. Starfleet has sent an attache to brief him on his new command: his own estranged father Kyle Riker. This, of course, re-opens all of the old wounds between the two, who are needlessly competitive and don't communicate very well.

This all winds up with them challenging each other to a duel of ambo-jitsu, apparently the ultimate human form of martial arts. Now I've never trained in a martial art myself, but despite this I'm pretty sure that the culmination of karate, kung fu, judo and tae kwon do is unlikely to be a sport where people dress up like hockey goalkeepers, blindfold themselves and then wildly swing at each other with padded sticks like a bad remake of It's a Knockout.

June 2, 2014

Samurai Flamenco: "My Umbrella is Missing"

Professional model and wannabe superhero Masayoshi Hazama continues his secret quest to become a real-life superhero. He shouts at people for littering. He hassles a woman in the middle of the night over where she puts her recycling. For his sort-of-friend, police officer Hidenori Goto, Hazama's attempted heroics are nothing but trouble as public complaints about a masked local nuisance continue to increase.

This is a strong second episode that maintains the comedic tone of the first, while slowly expanding both the series' extended cast of characters and the depth of its two protagonists. Here we are introduced to Hazama's pushy, ultra-aggresive agent Sumi Ishihara and tokusatsu fan and up-and-coming pop singer Mari Maya.

June 1, 2014

Samurai Flamenco: "Samurai Flamenco Debuts!"

Masayoshi Hazama is a bright-faced optimistic, and ridiculously naive male model. He's also a lifelong fan of "tokusatsu" TV shows: those visual-effects heavy Japanese action shows like Ultraman, Super Sentai and Kamen Rider. He's such a big fan, in fact, that he's decided - despite having no supernatural powers, technology or even combat abilities whatsoever - to become a superhero. His first attempt ends with him beaten up and naked in an alleyway, which brings him to the attention of bored, cynical police officer Hidenori Goto.

Samurai Flamenco is a 2013 comedic anime, originally broadcast on Fuji TV. I've only watched the first episode, but it's a pretty likeable sort of comedy so I may go back and watch some more. It has been licensed in Australia by Madman Entertainment and has been streaming on Crunchyroll. It's basically Kickass or Super, only done with a much lighter touch and in an understandably much more Japanese style.

Cure (1997)

On first inspection I dismissed Cure as one of the myriad of Ring knock-offs that flooded Japanese cinemas following the release of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 horror opus. Then I took a closer look, and realised that Cure pre-dates Ring by a year. It reveals a big problem with watching foreign films – until the past decade it has been extremely difficult to track down and see a wide range of movies from other countries. It does have a tendency to create false impressions. The j-horror craze may have kicked off in earnest with Ring, but it begins with Cure.

Koji Yakusho plays Kenichi Takabe, a police officer investigating an inexplicable string of violent murders. The victims have all been killed in the same ritualised manner. The murderer has been caught. The only problem is that there’s no connection between the victims, and the police have a different murderer in custody for each of them.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is best known for the horror classic Pulse (Kairo), and here he directs a very typical – and typically effective – Japanese horror film. There is a crushing banality to how the film looks, cementing the action within a depressingly ordinary and mundane world. This has the effect of making the uncanny or the horrific violently stand out. It punctures the ordinary world, leaving terror and a lingering unease in its wake.