Sunday, July 29, 2012

He Hath Risen

 So... it's impossible to do what I want to do here without some pretty massive spoilers to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. If you haven't seen this yet, come back and read this once you have. You're wasting time and ruining your own fun otherwise, and that's just downright silly of you. (Unless you live in Japan or someplace that got it a week late.) It's a pretty frickin' good movie. Go join the rest of the world and get your Goddamn Batman on, will ya? back? Awesome.
Let's do this.

Anyway, I thought I knew where Chris Nolan was going with this. I was only half right, though, and it kind of irks me. The first hour of the film establishes a world in which the events of The Dark Knight have left Wayne with seemingly no choice but to retire his role as justice in Gotham, and it's not until the threat of Bane appears that he realizes the time has come to don the cape anew. I actually liked that whole bit, giving a distraught and emotionally void Wayne a reason to come out of his sad-sack and reclaim his role as criminal cock-puncher of his beloved city.

What irks me, however, is the fact that they introduce Bane, and even mirror his actions in Knightfall... and then they DON'T do the one thing that Bane is supposed to do. I mean, they do, but they do it in a temporary, half-assed sort of way in which Wayne's back is "broken" but still fixed with an only slightly mystical healing touch. It's lame. It nullifies the big impact of introducing Bane as the Final Boss character, and missed a huge opportunity in offering 'Robin' a chance to step up to his role before the end of the film and appear in combat as an almost Christ like figure, carrying on the symbol that Batman Begins wouldn't shut the fuck up about in the most literal way possible... and then they decide, nah, let's just backtrack to that opening scene in the first movie and have THAT be the big revelation, that Bruce Wayne is finally strong enough to SAVE HIMSELF.


Granted, it's worth saying that Rises is, in many, MANY ways, a direct sequel to Batman Begins rather than The Dark Knight. To some degree, I think that was unavoidable. Heath Ledger redefined the very concept of the comic-book villain and then passed on before the film was released, leaving an awkward and very Joker shaped hole in whatever direction the franchise could even take afterward. If he were still alive, I'm sure the final film would have had some pretty drastic differences... but, he's not. We can't have Ledger's Joker back, not now, and not ever. Honestly, I could have seen Joker taking an army of anarchists to war with Bane's militia of violent socialists and making the police presence in the final reel almost a foot note, but hey, no use crying over what we can never have, right?

Y'all get WHY he smacked his lips, right?
If swear, if I hear someone bitch about that one more time...

With that in mind, it only makes sense that the storyline backpedals to the characters of Batman Begins, and that's... not a good thing. Oh I know the whole world loves that fucking movie, and I'll grant that the stuff with Scarecrow can be pretty awesome, but personally, I can't stand it. Liam Neeson is a fine actor, but I never bought that he was a friggin' ninja, and Ra's Al Ghul is kind of a stupid character to focus on if your whole concept is "Batman Minus The Fantastic" to start with; his two defining characteristics are that he's an immortal demon who sits in the fountain of youth, and that he has a hot daughter who totally wants to bear her daddy some half-evil Batbabies. Remove both of those, as they did in Batman Begins, and he's basically just a less drunk version of Sean Connery in Highlander. And that's what 2/3 of the film actually focuses on. I get why Nolan took the film in the direction he did - after the disaster that was Batman & Robin, he wanted to drive to the opposite ends of the universe if at all possible, and for that I can hardly blame him - but what we get on the screen is just... dull. I tried to re-watch Begins the same night as Rises and after 10 minutes I just gave up. It sucks, it really does.

What's odd (or at least interesting) is that, after the comparatively "realistic" second film, which is essentially just a Michael Mann thriller with capes, Nolan has finally come to embrace the trappings of the medium he was largely eschewing for the screen. Explicit origin stories are played out and then twisted beyond recognition, fans are given their fair share of service in quips pulled from legendary books in the DC canon and plot twists that may shock people who have never picked up a comic should have been figured out long before the reveal by franchise fanatics, and in the end, the entire proceeding feels... episodic, in a way that none of the other films did. It references chapters past, expands upon those ideas, and then promises more to come without explicitly saying "This will be Part 2, we promise!" (as Begins so clumsily did.) Perhaps the blatantly fantastic nature - and commercial success - of Marvel's competing blockbuster franchise has eased WB and Nolan's reigns on the "grim and gritty" angle a little bit? I'm not really sure, but in any case, it was nice to see the two most interesting aspects of Ra's Ah Ghul referenced in the film, if only in a passing, winking sort of way.

Quite a few liberties were taken with Bane's motivations, but I think that's probably made him a more nuanced and memorable character for it. And Selina Kyle (never "Catwoman" explicitly) might be the best thing in this movie, goofy goggles or not. As a friend of mine so perfectly pointed out, "DKR" works on comic book logic; what works on the page is what you get here on the screen, where as "DK" before it worked on action movie logic, and "BB" worked on... I, don't even know what that was. But I know I'm mostly alone in that, so, whatever.

Don't get me wrong, despite all of the above bile-expounding, The Dark Knight Rises is actually a really good movie. It just confuses me why Nolan has all of these perfect set pieces lined up like dominoes and decides not to tip them over to their most logical and, yes, final conclusion. Is he too afraid that audiences won't accept a broken Batman and reject the "new guy", as fans of the DC comics did not too long after Knightfall ended? Or am I just feeling that inevitable disappointment that it's simply not as fresh and compelling as The Dark Knight was? I'll begrudgingly admit that The Dark Knight has a few logic leaps that work against the whole that this film generally lacks, and while there have been some perfectly valid arguments against Rises' sense of passing time (Really? Bane had Gotham by the short hairs for FIVE MONTHS? And it... basically looks exactly the same, other than the snow? Huh...) the film's 165 minute runtime passes by without any substantial snags or downtime.

So, there we have it. An extremely good third film that trounces the first but doesn't quite live up to the second. Considering how many trilogies end on an absolutely dire note, I guess Nolan didn't do so badly. Highly recommended, even if it won't knock your socks off quite as hard as the last flick.

I'll say this, what with my tepidation towards the film based on everything I'd heard about it, I decided to play it 'safe' and spend a mere $6 on a 'standard' digital showing. I was pleased to see that even at 2K resolution and in a fixed 'scope ratio it was pretty easy to tell what was shot on anamorphic 35mm and 65mm IMAX, with a sudden increase in clarity and less obvious grain structure springing to life during each and every big action scene in the film - nearly half of it was shot on large format film, which seems unthinkable in a world where the Red One is likely going to replace 35mm in the next decade. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I liked the film enough that I'm already figuring out which theaters in the area will be showing a "real" 70mm, which will likely cost over twenty bucks a head, after you factor in parking. It's often gallingly expensive to see a movie around the City of Angels, but I liked what I've seen enough that I'd like to get the full 70mm experience while I still have the chance.

Friends, if you don't think Kentai saying he's willing to spend $17 on a ticket to watch something he just saw two weeks ago isn't a massive thumbs-up, I don't know what more I could possibly say on the matter.

 And while we're on the subject, Sam Kieth drew the best Batman ever.
Because Sam Kieth ALWAYS draws the Best Things Ever. He's cool like that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Not Sure If Metal Or Just Irony

So I had a lot of fun at Anime Expo. Bought a lot of shit I shouldn't have, saw some charmingly awkward Internet Celebrities at panels, and "accidentally" looked up more fetishistically cut skirts than I'm pretty sure is legally allowed in any other venue that doesn't charge $12 for a glass of grapefruit juice. It'd be easy to brag about the cool, rare stuff I found for a bargain, but that's not really much fun, is it? Nah, negativity and frustration is WAY more fun than shouting "Yay! I got the Out Of Print Hyperdimension Neptunia MKII Pre-Order Box For $70!"

...which I totally fucking did. Eat it, anyone who even knows what that silly game is! And I may have literally thrown cash at the confused worker behind the counter whilst screaming a variation of Fry's now-infamous "Shut up and take my money!" But, again, neither here nor there.

Don't let the MoeBlob-GalGe-JRPG love fool you.
It's about to get all sorts of manly up in here.

Anyway, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume you're all at least slightly familiar with ANIMETAL. If not, the short version is that they were a band formed in 1996 that played insanely hardcore versions of both contemporary and classic anime themesongs, and produced a total of a dozen studio albums, plus various singles and even, if you can believe it, some original material. They broke up in 2006, leaving a legacy of awesomely cheesy nonsense in their wake, and personally, I like it. Yes, it's all very juvenile and goofy when you get right down to it, but I've never found being ridiculous to be such a bad thing, and the fact that they made the absurd so goddamn fun has fueled my life with far more enjoyment than it probably ever should have.

Looking over the Anime Expo schedule pointed out that there was an Animetal concert on Friday, but having company with me and still sifting through basic expenses to make up for a dramatic cross-country move, going just wasn't in the cards, as fun as I'm sure it would have been. That didn't stop me from strolling by their booth in the Dealer's Hall, however, and the fact that said booth was run by a pair of teenagers cooing over my wife's ears probably didn't hurt; $18 plus tax for "Animetal USA" seemed like a fair enough price. Huh, Animetal USA, you say? Must be a US reunion, sort of like that who-the-fuck-could-have-guessed X JAPAN reunion that started because Daryl Lynn Bousman really, really wanted them to write a theme for goddamn SAW 6 and they were impressed enough with his insanity to agree to it*. Also, buying the CD got me a ticket to get me to the front of the line to get it signed - hell, how could I turn that down?

* I may quite not be the angst-riddled teen girl target audience of Repo! The Genetic Opera, but damn it, I'll watch anything with Michael Rooker in it!

So there I am in line, shocked that I'll get to shake the hands of a Japanese band, knowing how insanely protective their management tend to be. And then open the actual CD, flipping through the booklet, marveling at how... white, the band appears to be in the centerfold. I'm not trying to come off as racist when I say this, but this is what I was expecting to see some sinewy pretty boys in outfits that'd make the cheesiest of Ninja Turtle villains hang their heads in shame:

You know, classic "Oh, Japan!" billshit. Instead I saw a bunch of overly gothic and slightly beefy dudes covered in metallic spikes and cloaks, a group that looked more like Kiss and Mortal Kombat had a drunken one-night stand, or that Dethklok's legion of cartoon followers had finally been made flesh through some sort of horrible reality-shattering experiment...

"Ah. Fuck." I mutter to myself in line. Animetal USA wasn't the album title, it's a new fucking band entirely! Not knowing a thing more, and already feeling a mix of shame that I didn't realize my mistake - and rage that I might have just wasted just shy twenty bucks with tax - I still stood my ground, getting the booklet signed (...'cause why the fuck not?) and made it a point to listen to the tracks that interested me the most as soon as we got back to the car. Trouble was we had an 18+ panel to wait for, and even then, my fucking car wouldn't read the disc... had to wait 'till the wee hours of the morning to pop it in and figure out what the hell had happened.

Skipping straight to the track that'd clenched it for me in the first place - Crystal King's Hokuto no Ken OP, Ai wo Torimodose!!, naturally - I wasn't really sure what to expect... and yet, somehow I didn't expect the one thing I really should have to come pouring out of my speakers:

You are shocked, the sky is falling with the power of love
You are shocked, oh, now it's falling into my open heart...

Somehow, my already shattered expectations just hadn't adjusted to the point where I expected a quartet of American metal musicians who, to the best of my knowledge, didn't speak a word of Nihongo to be performing classic anisongs in English. I know, in retrospect it's kind of a "duh!" moment, but... holy shit. What had I just gotten myself into here? Was this somehow a thing, or just a fever dream brought up by the usual onslaught of convention insomnia, recovery whiskey shots and repressed pangs of shameful lust for girls who would probably only be legal in Canada? Sure enough, the copyright was to Sony Music Japan and having since done five seconds of Wikiwork, I can confirm that Japan got this CD last year, and that these guys already have a second album, under the stunningly clever title "W". No, I don't get it either. Without casting judgment one way or another, I can say that my mind was thoroughly blown... but shit, money's been spent, might as well dig into what's left.

Let it not be said that I'm such a weeaboo fuck that I'm unwilling to wallow in cross-cultural irony if the execution is still awesome. Arranged by Martin Friedman and Chris Impellitteri, Animetal USA boasts a surprisingly robust selection of performers who have been on stage as a part of acts that include Loudness, Judas Priest, and Quiet Riot, and while the whole album may be a joke, it's clear that a lot of attention has been paid to amping up the lightning fast riffs and growling drums that push literal marketing pieces from decades past to, at times at least, absolutely dizzying heights. The execution is fast, polished and with quite a bit of variety, and it avoids the easy trap of simply ramping up the loudness and speed for every track and calling it a day; the execution of (of all things!) Yuke Tiger Mask as a goddamn ballad was risky, but it... kind of works. It shouldn't, God knows, but it's actually kind of awesome. And not just in a strictly lulzy way, though I'd gladly argue that Desu-Metal isn't an entirely invalid genre...

Of course, these aren't instrumental tracks, and that... becomes a pretty big issue. Not only did they decide to crank up the auto-tune effects on the back up vocals when they should be screaming raw, but they've also done some really bizarre translation work for these songs. Make no mistake, I'm not saying the lyrics are bad in the scope of what this project is. "Bad" is a subjective concept, and having worked tirelessly with people who have lived in Japan for years to perfect song subtitles, I actually do know how insanely impossible it feels to try and find a way to make intentionally vague, symbolic Japanese lyrics "work" in the English language. There is no concept of 'rhyming' in Japanese, and Animetal USA hasn't tried to come up with incomprehensible Dr. Seus metal-rapping to compensate... thank fuck for that, at least. Unfortunately, some of the prose still comes off as downright awkward. Perhaps the worst offendor is, fittingly enough, one of the worst covers on the album; Thesis of a Cruel Angel ~ 2112, the themesong to Neon Genesis Evangelion:

Thesis of a Cruel Angel / Soon flies away from the window sill
With spurting hot passion / If you betray your memory
It sparkles reflecting this universe / Boy be in mythology

Is it mere foolhearty to even try and translate Zangoku na Tenshi no Thesis? Perhaps. But for crying out loud, just read it. It doesn't mean anything. It's like a bowl of alphabet soup full of bits and bobs that, at some point, resembled the Japanese lyrics. I know I'm not a Japanese based Metal Supergroup or anything, but for fuck's sake, lemme try to hash this out...

The Thesis of the Cruel Angel /Will soon fly away from the window sill.
With that burning pathos you yet may / Come to betray your own memory!
Embrace the sparkling universe, boy... / Go forth and face your fate as a legend!

Is it perfectly literal? No. In fact, the friend of mine who's helped me translate songs for commercial DVDs is liable to punch me on the end of my cock for suggesting that the above ever be used. But you know what? At least those words form a vaguely coherent image. Language has a lot of nuance that's lost regardless of how smartly and carefully you translate it, by dint of the cultures being so different that a phrase or implication simply doesn't exist or carry any obvious connotations elsewhere. Japanese pop music is especially rocky because it's virtually all written in abstract, vague prose that works based on whatever context the listener wants to imagine it in. I'm going a little overboard, but... what I'm saying is that the less-awkwardly wonder idea I've presented here isn't really any further away from a literal transcription of the Japanese lyrics - it's just less confusing.

If there's a low point to the album on every level, Zankoku na Tenshi no Thesis is it, followed pretty closely by none other than Makafushigi Adventure. I wish that I could properly explain just how awkward and half-baked their take on the original Dragon Ball opening tune was, but it's just such a mess that it's only saving grace is that It Still Mops The Floor With Harmony Gold's Lame Attempt. I'm also no fan of their cover for Great Mazinger's theme, but the substantially better Mazinger Z theme before it almost makes it a wash. Ai wo Torimodose!! - some questionable translation choices aside - is, actually, pretty goddamn great, and I'm still confused about how awesome the Yuke Tiger Mask ballad/speed metal fusion was. The good outweighs the bad, but the stilted translations and consistently over-processed vocals make even the highlights feel a bit less charming than they probably should. Pegasus Fantasy is pretty decent, too, but this was probably the song that had to be tweaked the least from its original to still be a growling rock monstrosity, so that shouldn't surprise anyone. Ganbare Dokaben is a decent thrash re-imagining of an embarrassingly dated 70s tune, but Yuke Yuke Hyuma might be the albums most impressive achievement; it took the Already Epic Original Tune which sounds like a cross between a death-march requiem and a communist hymnal and turned it into a piece of guitar based assault that'll rape every single hole you let it close to. Trust me, the nose bleedings are totally worth it on this one.

I expected to hate this album, I really did, but in the end I'm just... really, really frustrated. There's clearly some talent and passion behind what was conceived as a novelty for the increasingly small Ironime merchandise market, but - well, let's just let the two faces of Animetal speak for themselves.


Animetal USA

...keep in mind that THIS is the alternative. Don't click that unless you're severely inebriated.

Is it worth it as an album purchase unto itself, if you just sorta' dig them animoo cartoons, or have a couple metal albums hidden amongst the Lady Gaga and Puffy MP3s? No, probably not. But if you're a big enough fan of Saint Seiya, Space Battleship Yamato, Dragon Ball or any other title on the disc that you'd actually want to hear them sardonically butchered into middle-to-high quality speed metal... baby, have at. You can get it straight from the source for A Third Less Than I Paid For It, and if you're the sort of person who'd rather pay for MP3's, it's even cheaper to download the whole album via Amazon. I'd balk at the prices an import would typically cost, but at roughly a buck a track for the North American release, it's hard to be sour about any of the less impressive tracks for more than a minute or two.

For whatever reason, the US "Special Edition" drops both the Kinniku Man and Kagaku Ninja-tai Gatchaman themes from the Japanese release of the self-titled album, but swaps in the Touch theme and JAM PROJECT Medley from their second, as of this writing Japan-only album. You also get a the English and (for now anyway... goddamn bonus tracks!) Japanese language versions of Give Lee Give Lee Rock Lee SD Naruto opening, featuring Mister Anisong himself Kageyama goddamn Hironobu. These were actually released as a single in Japan, so it's nice to have them, even if it's at the cost of some Gatchaman and Kinnikuman goodness... and let's face it, Americans are substantially more likely to know who goddamn Rock Lee is than anyone from the Science Ninja Team.

I'm sure as hell not going to import the follow-up album, not at $50 shipped, but if it gets a cheaper US release... heck, why not?  I mean, for crying out loud, it's got a masculine power ballad version of Ai wo Oboete Imasu ka? on it. If you know what that song is, you know that you suddenly need to know what it sounds like. I know I do. Just not for more than $12 this time.

Do you remember?

Oh yeah, TOTALLY UNRELATED and everything, but Sentai Filmworks now has the US rights to the Detroit Metal City OVAs. Awesome. They've got Seikon no Qwaser, too, but being the only motherfuckers to release a censored TV broadcast version on DVD in a dog's age, I ain't getting excited just yet...