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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

REVIEW: Ishirô Honda's Latitude Zero

NEW YORK, December 25 — Finally, a Special Edition Double DVD of Latitude Zero (aka "Ido zero daisakusen") has been released in the United States (Release Date: December 11, 2007). It was released by Tokyo Shock, a subsidiary of Media Blasters.

Latitude Zero is an underwater tokusatsu adventure by Ishirô Honda, the director of Gojira. It's a sci-fi film centered on Latitude Zero, an Atlantis-like underwater utopia. It's a classic Toho Studios production.

First, I want to address the matter of the packaging. The packaging is pretty stripped down for a "special edition". I was hoping for more extras and liner notes, instead the box was filled with Media Blasters advertisements. This advertising stuffing included a fold-out catalogue and a DVD of trailers. It was disappointing.

When "cult" films such as Latitude Zero are transferred to DVD, they are frequently victims of poor packaging and stripped down DVD authoring. Media companies just produce these DVD releases with very little creativity or care. The Latitude Zero release follows this trend of bland packaging and presentation.

Tokyo Shock could have paid a writer and a graphic designer to create an interesting booklet and box cover. It would cost very little money to produce.

Let’s get back to the film...

Crew of the Alpha submarine.

Before I reviewed this film, I read a lot of internet reviews on Latitude Zero. Many mainstream movie reviewers gave this film a bad review. However, I don't think it's really that bad. Latitude Zero has its problems, but it's a decent film. It is just misunderstood.

I understand that Latitude Zero is not for everyone. For many mainstream movie goers, many standard Japanese tokusatsu films (such as Gojira) are perceived as too weird and sometimes incomprehensible. Guys wearing large rubber monster costumes are still a little alien to western audiences.

However, Latitude Zero is just a step beyond the standard tokusatsu fare. This film was Honda's attempt to create a mixture of a western style sci-fi adventure with Japanese visual effects. He was trying to target both an American and Japanese audience simultaneously.

Capt. McKenzie (Cotten) catches a bullet with his bare hands.

The cast was a unique mix of western and Japanese actors. The most notable western actors were Cesar Romero (The Joker from TV's Batman) and Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane). They are joined by Akira Takarada (Gojira: Fainaru uôzu, Gojira, and Kingdom Hearts Video Games) and Masumi Okada (Brother Michael from TV's Shogun). Takarada is veteran Godzilla actor and a staple of Toho Pictures. His tokusatsu career spans the entire history of Godzilla films from the original 1956 Godzilla film to Godzilla: Final Wars.

The movie was also filmed in English, and many of the Japanese actors had to learn English. Some of the Japanese actors had the English script broken down into phonetic katakana in order to learn it. If you listen carefully to the Japanese actors, you will hear extra syllables and trailing sounds at the end of words. This is mostly due to learning English from reading the katakana phonetics.

Mutant humanoid bat henchmen.

The story of Latitude Zone begins in the Pacific Ocean. A research team is lowering a deep sea diving bell into the ocean. Two Japanese scientists (Takarada and Okada) and an American journalist (Richard Jaeckel) are diving into the deepest part of the ocean in order to study temperature shifts. An underwater volcano suddenly erupts, and their deep sea diving bell crashes to the bottom. They are quickly rescued by Captain Craig McKenzie (Cotten) and his uncanny submarine crew. After the rescue, the Alpha, McKenzie's submarine, is quickly pursued and attacked by the Black Shark, Doctor Malic's (Romero) submarine. An action filled underwater pursuit begins.

If you are fan of early sci-fi films, Latitude Zero will be a bizarre cinematic treat. Most of Latitude Zero's story deals with the concepts of a utopian society and the miracle of scientific progress during the early 20th century. The film portrays science as both a destructive force and a nurturing one. The ambivalent feelings toward scientific progress are a familiar theme to many sci-fi movie fans. In many respects, Latitude Zero is very similar to The Thing from Another World (1951), Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), and Forbidden Planet (1956).

Giant griffin versus a submarine.

This film also has a good helping of Kaiju fun. It is an Ishirô Honda film after all. The crew of the Alpha battles humanoid bat creatures, giant rats, and a large furry Griffin monster. Many kaiju fans will also recognize the orchestral score. Music for the film was provided by Akira Ifukube, composer for most of the Godzilla films.

Latitude Zero does suffer from some pacing issues. The exposition scenes are painfully slow in the movie. Honda tried to stuff a political message into the long dialogue scenes, but it was completely awkward. He was trying to argue that the Cold War has tainted the noble pursuit of scientific research and human governments could not be trusted. It was a little too didactic, and it was a drag on the story.

In the end, Latitude Zero is not for everyone. However, if you enjoy a bizarre cinematic sci-fi experience, I highly encourage you to pick-up Ishirô Honda's Latitude Zero.

Ohh... Did I mention that they have girls on trampolines!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mister Gray [EDITED]

NEW YORK, December 13 — It was a frost covered Thursday night. Everything was either slushy or covered in ice. I slowly made my way to the train station with cautious steps. I rode the subway train to 14th street (near Union Square) and disembarked the train. I walked a few more ice covered blocks north to Tibet House (near 15th Street and 6th Avenue).

Tibet House was hosting Sacred Earth: Places of Peace and Power, Martin Gray's new gallery show. I fought the icy elements in order to attend this gallery opening and book signing. Gray had traveled all over the planet in order to photograph the world's most sacred sights. He had some fascinating work. Many of his photographs focus on Buddhist and Eastern subjects like Buddhist statues, temples, and sacred mountains. His work interested me.

As I was leaving, I did run into Kyra and Ganden on the stairs. They are two of my dearest friends. I talked to them briefly before going home. It was good to see them again. At least my ice storm gallery trip ended on a good note.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happyfunsmile Christmas: New York Anime Festival After After Party!

Happyfunsmile at Forbidden City

NEW YORK, December 12 — Brian and the entire crew at Happyfunsmile rocked the Forbidden City Bar and Lounge (14th Street & Avenue A). This was their last performance of the year, and they were in great form. They played three fantastic sets of Okinawan pop.

Peter Tartara, the Programming Manager of the New York Anime Festival, declared this the "After After Party" of the convention. I met up with Peter and Petrina at the bar. They introduced me to Newton, another alumni of Central Park Media. They were very cool. We traded anime convention war stories with each other. It was great fun.

After the first set, Ame, Detour Noir Studios writer and artist, rolled into the bar with a couple of friends. They joined me at the bar. We enjoyed the Happyfunsmile music with hard liquor and good food. Happy Holidays to Happyfunsmile and everyone at the Forbidden City!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The New York Anime Festival: Hard Drinks and Harder Karaoke, Part 2

NEW YORK, December 9 — After the ending ceremonies of the New York Anime Festival (December 9), some people took the party to the Forbidden City Bar and Lounge (13th Street & Avenue A). This is the so-called "After Party". The bar had half price drinks for everyone with the New York Anime Festival badge. This badge discount gave everyone a quick and cheap infusion of alcohol.

New York Anime Festival After Party at Forbidden City.

The post-con gathering consisted of con attendees, cosplayers, dealer room merchants, and volunteers. Party goers came to the bar as individuals or small groups. I tried to corral everyone with con badges around the tables in the back of the bar. Most of the party goers were strangers, but they quickly became fast friends.

After some heavy drinking, the group quickly moved over to the karaoke bar across the street. No, it was not my idea. The group was pulled by the gravitational forces of the karaoke machine. It was against my better judgment, but my better judgment was impaired by several Jack Daniels.

Looking for the perfect karaoke song.

The karaoke bar was extremely small, and they only had one karaoke machine hooked up to several televisions in the bar and lounge area. The bar supplied us with little yellow post-its. We wrote our song selection on the post-it and gave it to the bartender. The bartender put the post-its on a board. All requests were placed in a single queue on the board. As song came to the top of the queue, the bartender punched the song numbers into the karaoke machine, and he handed out the microphones.

The first song was free, but each additional song was $2. I put in my song and waited for quite a long time. The queue was freaking long. In the meantime, Jess, a cosplayer, got her song on the machine. Jess and a few other otaku got together to sing Weird Al Yankovic's "White & Nerdy". It was a surreal experience.

Otaku singing "White & Nerdy".

When my song came on, I rocked the bar with Harvey Danger's "Flag Pole Sitta". I was jumping around and screaming the lyrics with a drunken confidence. Shortly after I exorcised my karaoke demon, I took a short rest. After a few more songs, we all left the bar and went home. It was a hard rocking finish to an awesome weekend.

And yes... this round of karaoke was also fueled by drinking.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The New York Anime Festival: Hard Drinks and Harder Karaoke, Part 1

NEW YORK, December 8 — The New York Anime Festival was a very cool anime convention. Peter Tatara did an amazing job with putting together this convention.

I could only attend the very last hour of Saturday's show (December 8). I was stuck at work until 5:30 PM because of an insane amount of paperwork. After work, I raced over to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center with all haste. I got to the convention at roughly 6:30 PM. I got a little lost, and I had a tough time finding the registration.

After all the pain of getting my badge, I walked around the convention looking for the Otaku USA panel. I ran into Angela, Mandisa, and Dan from the local Metro-Anime club. They seemed to be shopping happily. They had the anime con game down to a science. I talked to them for a little bit.

Otaku USA panel. Left to Right: Joel White, Dave Riley, and Daryl Surat

After some searching, I found the Otaku USA panel and stayed for the very last minutes of the panel. After the panel ended, I got to meet-up with some friends. The group consisted of Dave Riley (Fast Karate for the Gentleman), Joel White (Fast Karate for the Gentleman), Daryl Surat (Anime World Order), Erin (Ninja Consultants), Patrick Macias (Otaku USA), and Matt Burnett (for tax reasons).

After the convention, the group met up with other very cool cats including Noah (Ninja Consultants), Chris Oarr (ADV Films), Zac "Answerman!" Bertschy (Anime News Network), and other members of ANN. Patrick took his leave.

Karaoke All-Stars. Left to Right: Daryl Surat, Erin, Noah, and Joel White

The rest of the group found it's way to a local karaoke bar in Koreatown, NYC. Everyone took turns rocking the mic. It was a crazy round-robin of embarrassing 80s pop hits and hard edged rock-n-roll classics. Erin rocked the Bon Jovi play list, while Chris belted out some great classic rock hits. I worked some Steppenwolf. Noah, Zac, MCBurnett, and Joel also rocked the mic pretty hard. There were awesome performances from everyone. It was a night of All Stars Karaoke players.

Our voices were fueled with a powerful mixture of Japanese snack foods and alcohol.

The Ninja Consultants: Erin and Noah. The fiercest tag team since Demolition.

However, we were all humbled by Dave Riley, the grandmaster of the mic. His Kung-fu was in top form. Pai Mei would be proud of Dave, his spiritual disciple. Dave sang everything from Back Street Boys to the JAM Project.

Masters of the Wu-tang school of karaoke.

We rock hard so you don't have to... to be continued (Part 2).

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Takehiko Inoue's Mural at Kinokuniya Bookstore

NEW YORK, December 2 — Takehiko Inoue, the mangaka for Slam Dunk and Vagabond, painted a mural for the recently renovated Kinokuniya Bookstore (across from Bryant Park). The Inoue appearance was a Viz publicity event, which was closed to the public. Only press was allowed access. You can read about the event here: Takehiko Inoue Graces NYC’s All-New Kinokuniya Bookstore With Vagabond Mural.

Last Sunday, I did get the opportunity to see the fully completed Inoue mural. It was a pretty amazing Black-and-White painting from Vagabond. The details were stunning. The hands, eyes, and tsuka (translates as "sword handle") details were especially masterful.

If you are near Bryant Park, you should check out this mural.

Related Links:
Takehiko Inoue (Official Site)
Wikipedia: Takehiko Inoue
Viz Media, LLC.
Kinokuniya Bookstore

Saturday, December 1, 2007

REVIEW: Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (Criterion Collection)

NEW YORK, November 30 — The folks at Janus Films and Criterion Collection recently released the latest high-definition digital transfer of Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (released November 27, 2007).

As part of their standard production, Drunken Angel is a masterfully authored DVD with an amazing accompanying booklet. The packaging reminds me of old rock albums that were accompanied with original artwork and great liner notes. Packaging and good liner notes are slowly becoming a lost art with cheap DVD releases, Thinpaks, and direct downloads.

The Criterion DVD also has great extras like old archive interviews with Kurosawa and commentary by Donald Richie. Donald Richie is the author of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History.

Drunken Angel's Criterion Collection Packaging and Liner Notes.

I have to confess that I'm a huge Akira Kurosawa fan. I have most of Kurosawa's movies in the restored Criterion Collection editions.

Drunken Angel is not characteristic of Kurosawa's later samurai movies like Rashômon or Seven Samurai. It's closer in tone and content to his earlier films dealing with post World War II Japan such as Stray Dog and Ikiru. It deals with many of Japan's post war problems such as crime, disease, and poverty. These themes are the pillars of Kurosawa's early noir classics.

In many ways, Drunken Angel is a precursor to Kurosawa's more famous Ikiru. Ikiru is one of my all time favorite films. Both films deal with issues of fatal diseases and poverty in Japanese society. Drunken Angel seems a little raw in comparison with Ikiru. In this film, Kurosawa was still looking for his own voice and style. Some scenes seem like pale imitations of Italian neorealism and Russian silent films. There were also some scenes that didn't seem like Kurosawa at all. (Note: Both of these styles are hugely influential on Kurosawa's own directorial style.)

The main story centers on the two main characters played by Takashi Shimura and Toshirô Mifune. Both Shimura and Mifune play notable samurai in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai movie. In Drunken Angel, Shimura plays a drunken doctor, who treats poor patients in his small clinic. Mifune plays a gangster that is diagnosed by Shimura with a deadly case of tuberculosis. Shimura directly confronts the gangster with his illness.

Shimura's directness was shocking to a Japanese audience because of Japanese medical practices at the time.

In the 1940s and the 1950s, it was common for Japanese doctors to lie to their patients about deadly ailments like cancer and tuberculosis. Japanese doctors believed that news of a fatal disease would be like handing a death sentence to a patient. The news would impair a patient from living the rest of their lives with any sense of normalcy. Kurosawa often criticized this medical practice in his early films. The practice of concealing fatal diseases prevented Japanese society from dealing directly with the problems of poverty and poor health.

In post war Japan, many Japanese died of deadly diseases from poor living conditions, poor hygiene, and polluted water. Disease and hygiene became very serious issues, and Kurosawa explores these issues in Drunken Angel.

If you don't mind some of the raw elements, I recommend that you watch Drunken Angel. It is not one of Kurosawa more polished films, but it does not disappoint. The film has passionate performances from both Shimura and Mifune, and Kurosawa's directing and editing are emotionally powerful.

Related Links:
Criterion Collection: Drunken Angel
IMDb: Akira Kurosawa
Wikipedia: Akira Kurosawa
Wikipedia: Tuberculosis