Friday, July 26, 2013

What I'm watching now (Part the Second) Space Battleship Yamato (2010)

I must say the first part of this review was a little rambling because it was kind of re-purposed mid-writing. At first I had the brilliant idea of reviewing three versions of Yamato (Yamato 2199, The Live action film from 2010 and the original) to see the way that the three told the same story over a span of time. What I did discover whilst researching is how many now ubiquitous tropes and concepts of modern Sci-Fi seem to be formed in that 1974 animated series; so the review became a discussion of Yamato in a broader sense whilst focusing through the lens of its newest incarnation.
I'm going to move on with the latter concept, this time through the lens of the 2010 live action movie "Space Battleship Yamato" and then next time tie it all back to the original 1974 animation.
So on with the show.

My knee jerk reaction to what is wrong with the 2010 live action movie of the Yamato story starts and ends with this guy. Who is he? Well he is lord Deslar (Desslok in Star Blazers) the principle villain of the series; supreme ruler of the Gamalias empire. The problem with the live action film is that he kinda isn't in it... Deslar was possibly the first "Modern" anime villain (Berg Kattse/Zoltar in Gatchaman  maybe a precursor to some extent); charismatic, honorable, driven and intelligent, a far cry from the cartoonish villains normal for animation. He was such a popular character that he was brought back in the second and third series of the original show and becomes a hero.
Desler's history is beside the point, he was a strong character in the original series and represented a very human opponent for Yamato's naval based adventures. He had plans, he and his generals used all sorts of tactics against our heroes; the Gamilas were not just monsters-of-the-week but an opposing military force with all the dynamism that should bring to story. (Which makes Yamato 2199 even better; there they are developed much further, gaining internal political dynamics that would make Westeros proud.)

Our foe in the 2010 is sometimes called Gamilas but also calls itself Dessler but is a wholly un-pathos generating energy being able to occupy and control an army of quasi-biological ships and troops. It manifests once as a blue crystalline humanoid reminiscent of our beloved dictator of Gamilas, but this is clearly a nod to fans rather than anything story based.This narrative choice is one that is understandable to an extent; there is a lot of story in Yamato and telling it in 2 hours is almost impossible. But the lack of a more substantive villain sucks alot of the drama from the story; instead we have a relatively faceless threat to earth and an ok rejigg of the original series twist of the nature of Iscandar.
The film itself is a pretty good attempt besides my lengthy gripe above. It's a distorted mirror of the animated series, many of the elements are there but shifted in not very subtle ways. Captain Okita and Navigation officer Shima are probably the only two characters who remain basically unchanged. (Although Shima is in a much reduced role to make Oxygen for the Kodai/Yuki romance) Dr Sado is now female but still a drunk, Science officer Sanada is less logical and more just a senior crewman
and Yuki is now the ace of the Black Tiger squadron. (Akira Yamamoto and Kato are pretty much bit players here.) Kodai is; well Kodai is the main character and this is very much emphasized here to an extent that the original and 2199 did not. (I'll talk about this next time more, but suffice to say the ship is the main character in the original series) He is also an extensively changed character; he is this time a retired ace pilot rather than a raw recruit and his joining the Yamato is a controversial return to service. He is much more a bad boy than a wild card, and this makes him a less dynamic character; his experiences on the Yamato don't teach him anything much as he is already a veteran. Instead it seems to be more about him coming to terms with his dislike of Captain Okita (who was the commander of the mission that his brother died in) and through that his dislike of command. (Basically he doesn't like the idea of his commands risking his charge's lives) Analyzer is basically reduced to a pocketwatch that talks but gets it's full proto-R2D2 look in the film's penultimate action sequence. (In which he kicks ass)
The film is pretty and much grittier in appearance than the animated; you really do feel that humanity has been forced to live in squalor underground by the Gamillas attacks and the thread of hope seems even more tenuous as a result. The CG is very good for the most part, shown off in a number of very nice set pieces. The battle for Mars at the start is very effective, though the FX sequences get thinner as the film goes on. (The Gamilas shock troops are pretty disappointingly designed sadly, but the ships are all top notch)
That I think is the live versions biggest issue, it seems to get thinner writing wise as it goes on and begins to stray from the source material more and more. There is also a brutal round of character killing in the third act, which would have been more effective if the minor characters were better established. For example; The Black Tigers apart from Yuki are just the Kodai fan squad. Their main role is to tell us (the audience) how awesome Kodai was before he left the military, so we really don't miss them very much when they get shot down. Kodai does all the awesome stuff in his Cosmo zero, and all the other fighter plane heroism is left to Yuki to establish that she is an ace.
The other *big* problem is the ending sequence, lifted from the non-cannon movie followup to the original animation "Farewell to Battleship Yamato". (It was decannonised because it was very unpopular replaced by a retelling of its story in a second series of the TV series) But the final sequence has to be the worst paced of any movie ever, seriously. After returning from Iscander with the radiation "device" to cure earth, Desslar appears on the bridge to lament his defeat. (We see him in his only humanoid guise for the film here) He then basically decides to launch a missile at the earth to spite the Yamato; what proceeds is a full fifteen minutes of dramatics while the slowest missile in history plummets towards the earth. Kodai orders evacuation and then has three long dramatic conversations attempting to convince him not to ram the missile with the ship. Meanwhile the FUCKING MISSILE THAT CAN BLOW UP EARTH HAS BEEN LAUNCHED. Fifteen minutes! But no i need to convince the crew to evacuate, ok now I need to convince Shima to release navigation and evacuate and then I need to convince Yuki (Who by the way is the host of the energy being who can cure earth's radiation) that she shouldn't stay and die with me because THAT WILL HAVE THE SAME EFFECT AS THE BOMB HITTING EARTH. That whole sequence kinda messes up any merit the film had as it sucks all the tension from the piece.
Its a fun watch, with some nice FX sequences, but it is ultimately a flat retelling. The only thing worse could be a US version...


Friday, July 19, 2013

What I'm watching (In Three parts); Space Battleship Yamato 2199

Ok first things first; if you watched Cartoons in the late 70s and early 80s the following clip may well make you giggle like a kid again.

Yes that's right, they remade Battleship Yamato, aka Starblazers to us English speakers and boy is it pretty. I'm not normally one for reviewing or talking about Anime but a trip to Tokyo kinda does things to you and I have been consuming it a lot of late. (probably for the first time in ten or so years) So whilst there I discovered that Yamato was being remade and released in cinemas as a series of movies that would then be broken up into episodes for DVD/TV release. Instantly hit by the nostalgia stick I returned home to track down this new series. (as well as several others that I may or may not talk about)

For those who are not familiar, Space Battleship Yamato is probably the seminal work of late 20th century Japanese animation. The 1974 series marked that medium's shift towards a newer visual style and methods of storytelling. The series is also one of the pillars of the Space Opera genre, predating Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica by several years and possessing many passing similarities to those two works. (Plus we know Lucas was looking East when putting Star Wars together, the homage to Kurasawa's "The hidden fortress" is well known) Many of the elements Yamato included have become standards in Space Opera on both sides of the Pacific.

Yamato 2199 is a reboot/remake of the original series, all new modern animation and characters to bring the tale of the Battleship Yamato into the 21st century. The basic story remains the same as the original's first series; in the year 2191 earth has contact with an alien race for the first time. Unfortunately that race is the Imperious Gamilias (Gamalons in the west) who attempt to wage a war of conquest against Earth. After earth manages in turning the initial invasion back at Mars the Gamilias opt to instead bombard the earth with radioactive meteorites from a base on Pluto; the human fleet is depleted and no match for the Gamilias superior technology. Humanity is forced underground as the surface is devastated but that is only a temporary solution as the radiation slowly begins to creep into the underground cities. A ray of hope comes in the form of a communication from another alien race from the planet Iskander in the small Magellanic cloud, they offer humanity the schematics to build a faster than light ship and technology that can clean the devastated earth. However the technology to cure the earth needs to be collected from Iskander, so humanity places all of its efforts to build a faster than light starship that can pick up the life saving tech. That ship is the Yamato, and it's crew are charged with the long journey and have one year to complete it before the radiation will render humanity extinct.

It's a hell of a story, and the tension is increased by the traditional "count" to humanity's extinction at the end of each episode. (something they did in the 1974 series as well) The main cast is mostly unchanged but with a whole bunch of new secondary characters and some wonderful character writing. Unlike the original there is more than one (!) female character; Yuki Mori is also a little more than the Kodai's love interest as well! The new series also treats Kodai (Wildstar in English) very well, able to make him the young inexperienced officer without making him a jerk or shallow bad boy which is common with such characters in modern Anime. Secondary characters are numerous and almost all are given just that tiny amount of depth to prevent them from being cut-outs. The plot is also a little more complex, with the Gamilias being given a few extra dimensions as well as a side plot centered around the intrigues within their empire.
In a very interesting addition is the gender swap of of the fighter pilots Akira Yamamoto, male originally he is now a she in a very Starbuck from BSG way. The meta recasting of this character is quite brilliant and I suspect down to the involvement of Hideaki Anno (the guy behind Neon Genesis Evangelion) in the project. Anno has no formal role in Yamato 2199, but did direct the new title sequence (as seen above) and has always listed Yamato as his favorite anime series. The clever twist with Akira is in the character appearance and name.

Now dear reader, what other Anime character does she look like? A hint? The Kanji for "Akira" can also be pronounced "Rei".
The Japanese penchant for wordplay makes me wish I was better at it...
Overall its a fantastic retelling of a classic series, I think I have described it to my housemates as crack in animated form especially since the series isn't finished yet! Currently it is available on DVD from Japan, some of it on the youtubes and will be released in the west as Starblazers2199 later this year.
What I will be doing is also writing about the other two Yamato related media I consumed recently after running out (!) of the new series. First will be the 2010 live action version that I just watched on youtube and then a rewatch of the original series. (Thanks to Youtube!)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Everyone wants to be special here ; Conversion (2011)

Disclaimer first. I know and quite like the director, writer/star and other star of this little Canadian independent. In fact I was almost in it had my schedule in 2011 brought me into Montreal on the days of the week matching up with their shooting schedule. (It brought me to the right city just not the right three days of the week) So I can quite happily say with full confidence that this was the best film I was almost in I have ever seen. (That's a category bigger than one as well; like many people appendaged to Melbourne's goth/underground scene I could have turned up to the concert shoot for Queen of the Damned. I didn't and am not looking back and still hold the above statement to be true.)

Conversion is a self financed and produced film from Canadian writer Kate Macdonald and Director Dominic Marceau. Macdonald herself stars as Julia alongside Paul Ash as Seth, as a pair of thirty something friends stuck in deadend jobs. The film follows the pair as they attempt to forget their hated wage-slave jobs in the city's nightlife and each others company. One night however they miss the last metro home and are stranded in the city low on cash..

What proceeds that faithful event is a sort of suburban version of the Odyssey, as the pair drift between surreal set pieces whilst waiting for the dawn and their inevitable return to real life. This is all shot against the backdrop of the colorful urban environment of Montreal which is transformed into an everycity just as Seth and Julia are sort of microcosms of everyone who desires to be more than their 9 to 5. (The purposeful omission of landmarks such as the Montreal Olympic Stadium or the Neon Cross for example makes it hard to pick out what city the film is set in unless you have actually been to Montreal) What they encounter is the world that exists outside the gaze of the 9-5 day and in many cases are confused, frustrated and frightened of what they find in the neon-lit graffiti painted maze of the city.

While Paul Ash has some acting to his credit, (he is a notable standup comedian as well) the majority of the cast are not professional actors and the performances are good overall. The dialogue is witty and subtle, the production is top notch in all departments; the lack of budget almost never creeps in at all. Possibly the only criticism I can summon is the dialogue is very stagey in delivery; ie. Person A speaks, Person B speaks, Person A speaks etc. There isn't much cross talk and you can detect the slight pause the actors take allowing each other to complete their lines. But honestly the script itself is so good and the lines delivered universally well that you barely notice that structure.

Conversion is really a wonderful example of what a real independent production is capable of, it is a labor of love for its creators and it really shows in every frame. It is also, in a word that I have become increasingly fond of when describing film, very articulate cinematicaly; something that cannot be said for a large majority of films coming out now days.
Conversion is available world wide through Vimeo streaming. (Yes it even works in Australia which is unique amongst such services)