Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Super-thieves, low-level parties, and Deadpool.

A trio of reviews



After much trepidation (and a mix-up with Blu-Ray regions), I finally own Lupin III (2014), the latest attempt to bring Japan’s cartoon answer to James Bond to live-action. I put it off for a year and a half because reviews were poisonous, but I’m happy to report that the film far exceeded my expectations.

This is not quite the same as saying it’s a good movie. Like the James Bond films, Lupin III is a franchise that can only be judged in relation to itself. A spy who offers his real name to everyone he meets would be a huge plot hole in a serious espionage film, but it’s par for the course for James Bond. Similarly, the criminal world of Lupin III is flamboyant and gaudy, featuring criminal masterminds who flaunt their schemes in front of paying audiences. It would seem absurd to anyone expecting a modicum of reality in their heist film, but it’s standard operating procedure in a Lupin movie.

Of course, most Lupin III movies are cartoons. The character has starred in five anime television series, seven animated theatrical films, three original video animations, twenty-five anime television specials, and one previous live-action movie (which is, arguably, more cartoony than any of the animation). I’ve seen roughly half of everything, so I feel pretty confident in declaring Lupin III (2014) to be a thoroughly mid-level entry in the Lupin franchise, equal to the better television specials but below the heights achieved by the theatrical films Secret of Mamo (my personal favorite) or Castle of Cagliostro (everyone else’s favorite).

In James Bond terms, it’s Moonraker quality.

(Oddly, the most damaging thing about Lupin III (2014) is the decision to aim the film at an international audience by making it bilingual. Practically half the dialogue is in English, which is unfortunate because most of the cast cannot emote while speaking English. I generally hate watching dubbed live-action films, but in this case it would actually improve the film.)

The plot reminds me strongly of how the usual TV specials go: Lupin and company run through their usual shenanigans while a disposable cast of allies and antagonists is introduced to supposedly add emotional weight. This time, we’re treated to yet another story of how young Lupin III got his gang together, with several movie-only members not making it out alive. The most inventive part of the film is how faithfully the world of the manga and anime is adapted to live-action. Director Ryuhei Kitamura threatened to significantly update and modernize the characters (even saying in early press that Goemon wouldn’t wear his traditional kimono) but instead he turned in a surprisingly faithful (though not completely faithful) adaptation.




For an inventive, even deconstructive, take on something, I’d have to instead recommend Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, an anime adaptation of a light novel (AKA young adult) fantasy series. While Grimgar… inititially feels like it falls into same “stuck in a computer RPG” genre as series like the .hack and Sword Art Online franchises , it quickly begins to seem more like a traditional portal fantasy like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – or some weighty blend of Lewis and Donaldson.

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash is set in a fantasy world where amnesiac teenagers suddenly appear through a magical portal and then find themselves forced to make a living as first-level roleplaying game characters defending a keep on the borderlands. While there’s a few JRPG touches to the kids’ character classes, overall it feels like these poor dumb kids just stumbled into a world run by Gary Gygax. In other words, player incompetence is punished by character death, and these teens have no idea what they’re doing.

(I’m probably making Grimgar… sound grimmer than it is. Five episodes in, only one of the party members has died.)

The show is more drama than adventure, an exploration of the traumas and challenges of adapting to a life of killing goblins for copper pieces. There’s a lot of screaming and tears when the cast faces the troubling realization that the goblins they’re hunting share the same simple desire to live that they do (a realization drummed home to the viewer by scenes of goblins hanging out by the campfire, laughing and swapping stories). Add on to that the tribulations of poverty and deeply-buried personal issues from their lives before amnesia (modern lives with subconscious memories of planes and phones), and Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash becomes a compelling dissection of the basic assumptions of a lot of fantasy gaming.

(Though reading some old-school fantasy materials has made me question that myself recently. In “Down-to-earth divinity” in issue #54 of Dragon – the October 1981 issue – Ed Greenwood wrote about imagining the Forgotten Realms as a world of free will, that every sentient being had the option of choosing good or evil. If I ever return to traditional fantasy gaming, I’m definitely going to prompt the players to try reasoning with anything they can talk to.)

Grimgar... made me really question the enjoyment to be found in depictions of violence. Thankfully, Deadpool reassured me that it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a good beheading.

Ah, Deadpool: a gift from Generation X to itself. Stuffed with references to Gen X touchstones like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Voltron: Defender of the Universe, rated R to keep the gorram kids out, and scored to the most eclectic collection of songs this side of Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool proved to be an amazing Valentine’s Day film. Words fail me.

No, they really do. I have no idea how to end this post.





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