The 2021 List: August

I don’t know how, but I’ve managed to reach the magic 100 by the end of this month. The irony is that its not really been a target this year, as I’d intended to try keep the quality up (watch less, watch better) this year, so I’m not really sure how well I’ve kept to that maxim. That said, this wasn’t a bad month quality-wise. Babylon Berlin, which I haven’t gotten around to reviewing yet was a particularly fine series and I look forward to catching up with the third season sometime. Film-wise I didn’t really see an absolute stinker (The Blood Beast Terror possibly qualifies but I hadn’t expected much of it anyhow) and the film noir films I watched were very good. So August wasn’t a bad month at all, I even managed to fit in some quality re-watches thanks to some 4K releases and a lack of new/interesting stuff handed me opportunity to pick discs off the shelf that I haven’t seen in awhile.

Real-life problems are increasingly impinging my time for viewing films and writing posts, and I can’t see that getting any better for awhile yet. Ain’t getting older and all the resultant responsibilities grand? It may be that my posts may have to get a little shorter and there may be a few spells of slim updates but I’ll see how it goes, I enjoy the writing etc and would hate to see things slide too far. 

September will see a few notable releases – I should have Arrow’s 4K edition of Dune in a few days, the new 4K edition of The Thing is due in a few weeks and there’s that Star Trek 4K set of the first four films coming out. Towards the end of the month Indicator should have some discs coming my way too (yay, another Columbia Noir set as well as what is said to be the film Peter Cushing most regretted being involved in- how intriguing is that?). I’m certain there’s going to be a few surprises I’m not even aware of yet; Amazon of course has the Eva rebuild films including the finale. Its all just a matter of finding the time, and I’m certain if I can manage that it will be a very interesting month ahead indeed. 

Television

92) Babylon Berlin Season One

93) Babylon Berlin Season Two

Films

94) Gilda (1946)

95) Enemy (2013)

96) The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

97) Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed (2021)

98) On Dangerous Ground (1951)

99) Gun Crazy (1949)

100) Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

Netflix Bebop?

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Ha ha those crazy buggers at Netflix, I thought they were joking, you know, the way Hollywood keeps fooling around with the dangerous idea of a live-action Akira movie. They talk about it but they’re never fool enough to actually do it. But no, it looks like Netflix is serious. Its coming in November. My God, I’ll never be ready for this.

About the only thing that really has me excited here is Yoko Kanno returning to handle the soundtrack duties, which certainly gives the project some credit – at least it will SOUND like Cowboy Bebop, and Kanno wouldn’t associate herself with a turd, would she? Oh Ghost you are so gullible.

See you November, Space Cowboy.

Blade Runner: Black Lotus

While I’m a sucker for anything Blade Runner, and appreciate the efforts that Alcon are making to keep their investment in the property alive (the Titan books, comic spin-offs etc) this trailer for an anime series titled Blade Runner: Black Lotus just feels so woefully generic (it also disturbingly looks too much like that old Westwood Blade Runner game). For me it is just a cautionary reminder of how bad BR2049 could have been- it would have been so easy just to make a Blade Runner sequel with steamy, wet, rain-swept streets and superhumans beating the shit out of each other. Hell, maybe that would have been more successful at the box-office than BR2049 proved to be, and maybe closer to what many would have actually preferred but really, that tired old aesthetic is not what makes Ridley’s film so great for me, and there is surely more to the franchise/IP than that. Its not about countless neon signs and throwing Coca-Cola logos into the background. At least BR2049, while it made nods to that, actually went with a brutalist look of its own.

Perhaps this trailer is not indicative of what the actual series will be like- maybe it will be more intelligent than it looks and have some decent ideas behind it, but it does look so woefully generic that I fear the worst. I’m not confident about the CGI anime style either; to me I don’t see the point in this semi-cartoony/semi-reality ‘look’: you either go stylised art or photo-realistic (there’s plenty examples of both in Netflix’s excellent Love, Death & Robots series). Oh well. Mercifully I may not be able to watch the thing anyway, as its being made for Adult Swim and Crunchyroll in the States so I rather hope it doesn’t get sold over here in the UK at all.  Ignorance is bliss.

Recent Additions

P1100368 (2)While the crazy disc-buying days of old are over, I’m still prone to buying discs (I just try to be a bit more selective). Here’s my most recent additions to the shelf. Some still in the shrink-wrap, but others actually watched already (!).

Planetes is a brilliant Japanese anime which seems increasingly prescient over the years, concerning a team of astronauts tasked with cleaning up all the debris cluttering Earth-orbit before it causes a calamity (Gravity owes a lot to it). I used to have it on DVD back from the days when we used to have to buy anime shows over time in multi-volume releases (five or six discs released over several months, as I recall) which puts into comparison even the premium costs of these boxsets from All The Anime. Fortunately for my wallet I was able to pre-order this set in an early deal; its a lovely set with a 80+ page book of artwork accompanying the digipack in a sturdy hard slip-box, and on the Blu-ray the show really shines; it looks gorgeous. I only watched the first episode, as I’m biding my time to watch the series throughout properly, but this will be a definite pleasure.

Of course every boxset that Indicator release truly delivers- and Columbia Noir #3 is as beautiful a package as the first two sets. A series of posts reviewing this set’s six noir films will follow over the next few weeks, and hopefully the films, none of which I have seen before, will be equal to the films that preceded in the first two volumes. These are possibly my favourite sets from the last few years. I used to complain about there being so few film noir releases over here in the UK and then we hit the motherload with these. I hope there is another two or three volumes of Columbia Noir to come (no-one seems to be sure how many we’re getting).

I bought Irreversible with Columbia Noir #3 and Someone To Watch Over Me direct from Indicator, justifying it by saving on postage and getting my credit points high enough to get a discount on my next order. Its a notorious film; I have it (somewhere) on DVD and only managed to stomach it for one viewing (probably why the DVD is long-since AWOL) so its hard to fathom exactly why I bought this Blu-ray. The package is enticing, with fine artwork, definitive-looking extras and an 80-page book… its almost as if I bought this intending to learn more ABOUT the film rather than actually get around to watch it. We’ll see. 

Someone To Watch Over Me and Extrablatt (The Front Page) I’ve already mentioned, having watched them together on Saturday

Two Criterions follow, thanks to an offer on Amazon (my previous Criterions were bought last summer in the previous Criterion sale). The Ascent is the most recent release, as it came out on my birthday earlier this year, funnily enough, which felt something of an omen since the film seems to have been given universally positive reviews: a ‘masterpiece’ of Russian cinema released on my birthday? Well, patience has saved me some dosh. Gilda is the Criterion that slipped through the net last year, as I couldn’t pick a film to accompany it, which has been doubly annoying as I kept on seeing/hearing references to it on the Columbia Noir sets from Indicator. I’m really curious about it, as I’ve never seen it, and it will certainly fill a gap in my noir collection.

Lastly, this week has seen the 4K UHD release of The Sting. Here again I have to confess that, despite my affection for 1970s American Cinema, and plenty of opportunities over the years with television screenings, particularly over Christmas’ past, I have somehow never seen this film. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw? I’m reminded how odd it can be, the films we don’t see, over the years. I think it proves something of a lesson, particularly for a film lover like me who’s seen so many films- so whenever I read a blog and someone hasn’t seen Citizen Kane or some other ‘classic’ I have to cool down my dismay and appreciate I’m guilty of some bad misses too. Its all relative, after all- I mean, I’ve seen less Russian films than I can count with the fingers of my two hands and my experience of European Cinema is pretty slight, so we can all be guilty of being a little myopic in our choice of films. 

 

Millennium Actress 4K UHD

mill2I’m actually worried to note that Satoshi Kon passed away in August 2010; I clearly remember being saddened and shocked by the news (he was only 46)- but it just really, really doesn’t seem that long ago. Time and memory plays tricks on us, certainly I can vouch for it becoming increasingly obvious as I get older that the years are falling by faster and faster. But how is it that Kon passed in 2010? How can it be more than a decade, now, already?

One of the reasons I remember it so clearly was how sudden it was, announced from out of nowhere and accompanied by a message from him, written shortly before his death and posted onto his blog. In May he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and had chosen to spend his last months at home. From the perspective of 2021 I am thinking of two things: how Kon’s final message being posted on his blog feels so very of our age, and how it foreshadowed how I felt when Prince died (and indeed David Bowie just a few months before Prince). I’m not comparing Kon to Prince or Bowie at all, its just how shocking someone’s passing can be when you fool yourself into thinking they will be around forever. But then again, we always seem to do that. We always think we have years, decades. I suppose the last several months we have all shared should have us thinking differently. We should be thinking that we can count on nothing, and should take nothing for granted.

So Millennium Actress, Kon’s love-letter to Japanese Cinema (and by extension, all Cinema), to lost loves and unrequited passions, arrived in the post from All the Anime last weekend. I hadn’t seen it in far too many years, so I watched it late on that Saturday night. I’m glad to report it remains as beautiful and poignant a film as I remembered and still as emotionally draining. Anybody who loves cinema, and haunted by the impermanence of memory, surely cannot fail to be captivated by this film.

mill1Revealing too much about the film would be very wrong of me, so I’ll keep a summary of the general plot quite brief: a film studio, Ginei Studios has become bankrupt, and its backlot and film stages are being demolished. A reporter, Genya Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida are visiting the home of the studio’s most famous and popular star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress who retired from both acting and the public eye some thirty years ago. While his cameraman has no knowledge of Chiyoko or her ‘old’ films, an increasingly nervous Tachinana is full of awe at finally meeting his favourite star. When the actress greets them, Tachinana gifts her a present; Chiyoko opens the package to reveal a key that she lost many, many years ago. The key seems deeply important to her, and they start the interview, Chiyoko reminiscing about her life and her career and what the key means to her.

What follows is what makes the film so special and why it seems to have such a life of its own, and is also perfectly suited as an animated film- as Chiyoko tells her story, the film becomes a story within a story, the events of Chiyoko’s life interwoven with scenes and images from her films, and Tachinana and Ida caught up within them, inside the films and her memories. The film becomes almost surreal and Lynchian, as we are never sure what is ‘real’ and what is part of one of her films: instead, it all seems to be inexplicably, intricately linked, scenes not just being those that Tachinana remembers from watching his favourite films but also doubling for her own memories, the characters she is playing also being her, somehow. Even when we are watching what is clearly a scene from a film, it seems loaded with subtext for her own ‘real’ life. As if all the films she ever made represent her whole life, a kind of meta-reality frozen on celluloid.

The heart of the story is Chiyoko’s teenage encounter, before she ever became an actress, with a stranger being pursued by the authorities. She shelters him and she learns he is a painter and political activist- soon after the man disappears, leaving her a key as a token. This key symbolises her instant love for this man and her fervent hope that somehow, someday she will meet him again. Part of her drive to become an actress is to be famous enough that perhaps one of her films will reach this stranger so that he might return to her or contact her.

Kon made just four films, Millennium Actress was the second and seems to be rather in the shadow of his greatest popular success, the Hitchcockian thriller Perfect Blue, but I much prefer Millennium Actress. There’s a peculiar magic in it, and I am sure a part of it is just its love of movies, and of how magical and important films can be, how they can have a life all their own. Its also a love story, and like the best love stories, a rather sad one. Its true that the film derives its life-affirming message out of that sadness, which only makes it all the more special. Like all Kon’s films, Millennium Actress suggests that animated films can be as deeply rewarding as any live-action film and that there is much more to animation as an art form than popular Disney fairy-tales or Pixar adventures. There’s nothing wrong with Disney/Pixar films, but very often examples come along in anime that suggest animation can be greater; ‘Great’ even. Such is Millennium Actress.

mill3Regards the All the Anime 4K disc, I cannot really vouch for it to being anything astonishing but it is perfect, all the same. The film does not have any HDR applied which may seem odd but I can’t really say I noticed the lack- the film was never originally made with HDR in mind so it seems perfectly justifiable, to me, to not have it. I can understand why neon-drenched anime spectaculars like Akira possibly benefit from utilising HDR (funnily enough, fans obviously complained about that films HDR-less 4K release over here last year resulting in a recall/replacement) but something as intimate as Millennium Actress really doesn’t need it. The last time I watched the film was on DVD so I was impressed by the uptick in quality, but how much the 4K disc distinguishes itself from the standard Blu-ray that accompanies it I cannot say, as I have not seen any of that disc, and besides, my player/tv upscaling it to 4K rather the point or any chance I’d have anything worthwhile to note. One thing I will mention is the soundtrack; the audio on the 4K disc seemed particularly fine and the sublime music score by Susumo Hirasawa sounds wonderful. That score is fantastic and a huge part of the films success, and is its beating heart as surely as the music of Vangelis is that of Blade Runner. I imported the Millennium Actress  soundtrack on CD from Japan back in the day back when that kind of thing was difficult. A fine music score is a big part of a films success, and a films audio-visual experience a huge part of a films attraction to me. If I make a list of my favourite films, its a good bet they all have deeply involving and effective scores.

I watched the film in its original Japanese audio with English subs but there is an English dub if one prefers that. There’s a few nice extras; interviews with two of the Western dub cast and some of the Japanese film-makers who recall working with Kon. A commentary track would have been lovely but anime films aren’t renowned for being loaded with extras: the rights holders like to keep Western releases expensive and curtailed extras-wise in order to not encourage Japanese fans importing them.

Genius Party & the Shelf of Shame

geniusp1There’s a section of my Blu-ray collection that looks particularly shameful, in that so much of it remains unwatched: my anime films and television series. There’s some absolute jewels in anime, films like Akira and Millennium Actress, and television shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop and Kids on the Slope, which remain absolutely personal favourites that are very dear to me. Most are really discoveries bought ‘blind’ on DVD or Blu-ray and its always doubly rewarding when they turn out to be something really good. There’s a few I’ve tried that didn’t really ‘click’ but that’s a part of the risk, I guess. Here in the UK a specialist label, All the Anime, have done for Anime releases what boutique labels like Arrow and Eureka etc have done for mainstream material, possibly only more so, because All the Anime have a tendency to release series in elaborately packaged releases, in lovingly-designed slipcases and boxes that elevate them to collector pieces. Unfortunately for the likes of me, such releases are particularly inviting even though I clearly don’t have the time to keep up with them, and as they are mostly limited editions, if you don’t pick them up when they come out, you can miss out. God, I hate limited editions, whether they be Blu-ray discs or soundtrack CDs or Super Deluxe CDs.

That’s a roundabout way of explaining why I’ve got far too many anime Blu-ray discs on my Shelf of Shame that really need catching up with.

geniusp3So here is Genius Party, an anthology of animated shorts that was released with its follow-up collection, Genius Party Beyond, in a box-set with a 144-page making-of/artbook a few years ago now by All the Anime. Its a little like a Japanese Fantasia or Heavy Metal Movie, disparate shorts that are more experimental than narrative. They tend to lean upon visual strengths rather than storytelling, and some are clearly more accessible than others: anime usually has a non-Western, Japanese ‘bent’ regards humour etc that can make it all a little frustrating and ‘marmite’. On the whole, Genius Party largely works and is rewarding, but at its worst it proves quite baffling, such as the second short, “Shanghai Dragon” which is just irritating in the extreme, frankly. Fortunately since the shorts are, as the description implies, all fairly short, they don’t really outstay their welcome, so if there’s one that proves a dud its quickly followed by the next. Of the seven shorts that make up Genius Party, I’d say three were really good  (“Deathtic 4”, “Doorbell” and “Baby Blue”) with two worthwhile  (“Genius Party” and “Happy Machine”) and two that, well, that’s what the chapter skip button is for (the frankly ‘I-never-want to-suffer-through-that interminable-tosh-ever-again’ “Limit Cycle” and aforementioned “Shanghai Dragon.”

geniusp2My favourite of the bunch has to be the strange, utterly bizarre “Deathtic 4″in which a Halloween world of monsters and zombies is depicted like some kind of Nightmare Before Christmas on acid. Its so strange and captivating visually that it just bewitched me and made the purchase of the discs worthwhile, and just demonstrates how beautiful and unusual anime can be- its just so unlike the traditional mostly family-oriented animation we see in the West from the likes of Disney and Pixar. “Deathtic 4” has the feeling of glimpsing someone else’s dreams, vast and otherworldly, and reminds of the endless possibilities of animation as an artform. The short does have a plot, of a sort (one of the creatures discovers a frog, from our world, and the story narrates his race to return the frog to where it came from whilst being pursued by the authorities) but really like most of the Genius Party shorts, any plot is secondary to the gorgeous animation from Studio 4°C. 

geniuspbSo then we come to the second of the films in the set, Genius Party Beyond, which was released a year after the original, and featured just five shorts which were, I believe, leftovers from the first project. On the whole I think all five are stronger entries (there’s certainly no utter bomb like “Limit Cycle”) and at the very worst they are at least visually arresting. My favourites of this bunch are “Moondrive” which is a sort of heist story set on the moon with a really curious style of animation,  “Toujin Kit” which features really clean, very European-style artwork such as you’d find in a graphic-novel, and “Dimension Bomb” which, while it doesn’t really have a narrative, as such, throws so much bizarre and beautiful imagery at you, I think its best just to soak it up and go with the intoxicating gorgeousness of it all. The two lesser shorts, the opening “Gala” and “‘Wanwa’ the Doggy” are stronger than the weakest entries from the first film. 

geniuspb2So that’s Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond, and one more set removed from the anime corner of the Shelf of Shame. We’ll see how 2021 goes regards this particular section of the Shelf of Shame but I’m hoping to make some headway.