Stephen reviews: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)

ghostintheshell2_1Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence [イノセンス GHOST IN THE SHELL (仮題)] (2004)

Starring Akio Ohtsuka, Kōichi Yamadera, Atsuko Tanaka, Tamio Ohki, Yutaka Nakano, Naoto Takenaka, Yoshiko Sakakibara

Directed by Mamoru Oshii


While the first Ghost in the Shell dealt primarily with mental identity, the “ghost” of the title, Innocence deals more with the physical robot body, the “shell” in this analogy. In that sense, it completes the theme nicely and is the perfect direction for the series to take. This time the police case is investigating a series of crazed robots that have killed their owners. This immediately made me think of Boomers from the Bubblegum Crisis/AD Police series, but like the first film, Innocence is so full of philosophical discussion on the definition of life and the distinction between man and machine that it stands apart from most anything else dealing with psycho robots.

It’s certainly an ambitious goal to make a sequel to such a complex and well-made film as Ghost in the Shell, and although I have a number of issues with it, it didn’t do a terrible job. Mostly what bugs me is what really just comes with the territory in a mid 2000s anime; it’s chock full of obnoxious and very obvious CG. When set next to the original, there is just no comparison between the natural grace of handcrafted animation and the jarring, stiff feel of CG. What makes this more annoying to me is that the moments that don’t rely on CG look fantastic, which only emphasizes how ugly the CG is. Much of the film does look amazing, and it just makes me bemoan the fact that the entire film wasn’t made so well.

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Cube Zero (2004)

cubezero2Starring Zachary Bennett, David Huband, Stephanie Moore, Martin Roach, Terri Hawkes, Richard McMillan, Mike ‘Nug’ Nahrgang, Tony Munch, Michael Riley, Joshua Peace, Diego Klattenhoff

Directed by Ernie Barbarash

Expectations: Low, but higher than I had for the second one.

On the general scale:

On the B-movie scale:


Jesus Christ. Are the events of Cube Zero really what was going on behind the scenes this whole time? My mind simply cannot comprehend this fact, and as soon as this review is over I’m going to do my best attempt at a home lobotomy to forget everything I stored in my short-term memory about the film; I’ve got a wire hanger all ready to go. This film is a case-in-point example of why things shrouded in mystery will always trump an explanation. Despite some valiant efforts on the filmmaker’s part to resurrect the spirit and visuals of the original film, Cube Zero is a total dog of a movie.

But this wasn’t always my opinion. Cube Zero starts off incredibly strong, delivering one of the best trap kills in the entire series, bested only by the first film’s opening kill. The kill here is acid in nature, but instead of the quick face-melt like the one in Cube, this is some kind of slow-burn acid that the victim first thinks is water. Lulled into a false sense of security, the guy drinks as much of the liquid as he can suck off his drenched fingers, only to eventually notice his deteriorating skin and realize that yes, indeed, he has sprung a trap. What follows is one of the best full-body, skin-peeling disintegrations I’ve seen in a film. It’s truly a thing of beauty.

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AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

Starring Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova, Lance Henriksen, Ewen Bremner, Colin Salmon, Tommy Flanagan, Joseph Rye, Agathe de La Boulaye, Carsten Norgaard, Sam Troughton

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Expectations: Super low. There’s no way this can be good.

On the general scale:

On the B-movie scale:


Yes, you saw those stars right. No one messed with my graphics. Against all odds, AVP is a highly enjoyable film. It successfully brings together the elements necessary, all while still feeling somewhat connected to the Alien and Predator franchises. I wouldn’t call it canonical, and it definitely doesn’t feel like it matches up with previously established timelines, but when you’re dealing with a film that hinges on two killer aliens battling for supremacy, none of those things should matter. There’s some shit in this movie that is so audacious that I have no choice but to give it a hearty laugh and enjoy the shit out of it. I’d love to say what my favorite of these moments was, but the big reveal is kind of a big deal in the film, so I wouldn’t want to rob anyone of the pleasure it delivers.

In terms of story, AVP is mostly clichéd, mercenary filmmaking. This works to the advantage of AVP as our minds aren’t bogged down trying to understand some heady plot. We also don’t need to worry about remembering the characters, as they don’t really matter either. What does matter is that scientists at the Weyland corporation have picked up a strange heat signature in the ice in Antarctica, and they quickly determine it’s emanating from a pyramid 2,000 feet under the surface of the water. So Lance Henriksen, playing some ancestor of Bishop’s creator, brings together a kick-ass team to go investigate it. As expected, shit goes down something fierce and the audience is there to lap it up every step of the way.

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Three… Extremes (2004)

Three… Extremes [三更2] (2004)

Starring Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Lee Byung-Heon, Lim Won-Hee, Gang Hye-Jung, Kyoko Hasegawa, Atsuro Watabe, Mai Suzuki, Yuu Suzuki

Directed by Fruit Chan (Dumplings), Park Chan-Wook (Cut), Takashi Miike (Box)

Expectations: High. Good talent involved.


I’m a fan of extremes. It’s in my nature to like pushed boundaries and things outside the prescribed normal edges of taste. So when, just a minute or so into the first short, there is a shot so extreme and insane in its ability to shock and repulse that I’m ripped out of my haze and thrown headlong into wild fits of uncontrollable gasping and cringing, I am impressed. This is exactly what happened at the beginning of Three… Extremes, the sequel to the overall underwhelming Three.

Three… Extremes once again brings together three Asian directors from different countries and lets them loose to deliver whatever their hearts desire. First up is Dumplings from Hong Kong’s Fruit Chan, the director of one of my favorite Hong Kong films, Made in Hong Kong. But as much as I like that movie, I’ve never seen anything else from him, so I started Dumplings with a palpable excitement. Chan didn’t let me down either, as he quickly grabbed hold of the reins and never let go. This is easily the most extreme tale, which is somewhat disappointing because it’s first, but Chan is also the least well-known of the three directors here, so just like a nightclub line-up, it makes sense to place his film first. But it’s really a shame when your opener blows you away, and that’s exactly what Fruit Chan does to both Park Chan-Wook and Takashi Miike.

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Stephen reviews: Blade of the Phantom Master: Shin Angyo Onshi (2004)

Blade of the Phantom Master: Shin Angyo Onshi [新暗行御史, Shin Angyō Onshi, 신암행어사, Shin amhaengosa] (2004)
AKA New Royal Secret Commissioner, Phantom Master: Dark Hero from the Ruined Empire

Starring Keiji Fujiwara, Sanae Kobayashi, Ryusei Nakao, Romi Park, Jun Fukushima

Directed by Joji Shimura & Ahn Tae-gun


I have a bit of an oddity here. Unlike most anime, Blade of the Phantom Master is based upon a Korean comic book series rather than a Japanese one. Its setting and visual style therefore reflect a slightly different feel than other anime. The most noticeable way this shows is with the obviously Korean sounding names. I can only wonder what kind of meaning was lost in an English translation of a Japanese adaptation of a Korean story, but I can’t do much more than call it a curiosity and wish I was more familiar with the Korean folktales that inspired it. The voice acting was originally recorded in both Japanese and Korean, and considering its Korean roots I would have preferred to watch that version, but for some dumb reason the American DVD release only retained the Japanese language track.

More unfortunate about its creation is that it was made after CG began insinuating itself into anime. From the very beginning, the film makes it clear that CG is going to play a heavy part of the production. This immediately made me regret choosing this for my next review, and there are several scenes that are just flat out ruined by it. Nothing sucks the fun out of an action sequence like making it with CG. The movie surprised me, however, by not relying on CG as much as I thought it would. It still has plenty of bad moments, but it also has plenty of decent scenes that don’t use any CG or only a slight bit that I could ignore. The CG is mostly used outside of the actual combat, which goes a long way toward making it more bearable. There’s also some good stuff in this film, and I wound up having a mostly pleasant experience watching this.

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Stephen reviews: The Place Promised In Our Early Days (2004)

The Place Promised In Our Early Days [雲のむこう、約束の場所, Kumo no Mukou, Yakusoku no Basho] (2004)
AKA Beyond the Clouds, The Promised Place

Starring Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara, Yuuka Nanri, Kazuhiko Inoue, Risa Mizuno, Unshou Ishizuka

Directed by Makoto Shinkai


Even after watching Shinkai’s earlier short, Voices of a Distant Star, I never expected this film to be science fiction. The posters, promotional art, and even the visuals of the film itself all seem like an everyday setting without anything bizarre. I did expect the same emotional focus that Voices had, and it certainly delivers on that front. For the first few minutes of the movie, my expectations held true. The main character, Hiroki, narrates the opening, looking back at his high school days when he shared two things with his best friend, Takuya. The first was a crush on the same girl in their class, Sayuri. But when he gets to their second common interest, I realized this film was not going quite where I had expected.

Their shared dream was to build a plane that would take them across the border, to the massive tower of Ezo which stretches up into the sky and out of sight. It’s a tower so tall that until the climactic reveal the end of the film you never see the top. It stretches up like the Tower of Babel, and even in faraway Tokyo the tower can be seen, still looming above everything. It’s a symbol of the characters’ aspirations, and a reminder of the dreams they never realized. Beyond simple symbolism, the tower is also a science lab to research alternate realities; that was when I realized this wasn’t just a love story. It is every bit as fantastical as Voices, taking a scientific concept and combining it with very human emotions to tell an intriguing story.

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Stephen reviews: Kakurenbo (2004)

Kakurenbo [カクレンボ] (2004)
AKA Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek

Starring Junko Takeuchi, Makoto Ueki, Masami Suzuki, Ryo Naito, Mika Ishibashi, Akiko Kobayashi

Directed by Syuhei Morita


I think someone tried to follow the hype over Voices of a Distant Star and throw out another short indie anime. Kakurenbo however doesn’t quite meet that level of quality. It’s a half-hour horror film that draws a parallel between the children’s game of hide and seek and the basic horror concept of victims being chased around by monsters. This is furthered by the Japanese language. In English, the player that searches for the other kids is simply called “it.” Stephen King associations aside, it doesn’t really sound very scary. But the Japanese word for that player is “oni,” which translates to “demon” in English. Suddenly the idea of bloodthirsty demons chasing children around becomes a lot more apparent, and that’s pretty much the plot of this film.

There’s not much to distinguish the plot from any number of other horror films. There’s a bunch of kids that go off to the neighboring town to play hide and seek, only to find that they really are being chased around by demons, and the poor fools get picked off one by one. The main character is looking for his sister who vanished when playing the game before, and his buddy tags along to help out. The plot is fairly predictable, and if I delved any more into it, it would probably spoil everything, assuming I haven’t already. However, I did find the explanation for the ending to be interesting, even if the ending itself was obvious.

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