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by Mike Schiller

25 Jan 2009

Who needs new franchises when the old ones keep kicking?

A couple of old NES-initiated franchises are releasing the latest iterations of their respective series this week, and both deserve to be recognized as quality for their respective genres, despite the niche audience that both cater to.

Rygar, on the NES, was a flawed but still brilliant little stroke of adventure-platforming, a game that favored exploration over the constant jump-hack-jump games of its day.  It flawlessly followed the Metroid formula of guarded exploration, making areas viewable but unexplorable until certain items and power-ups were found, and its graphic style was distinct on a system where “distinct” was a difficult adjective to master.  If not for an archaic RPG-style grind ‘n level-up system that artificially and unnecessarily lengthened gameplay in a game that could not be saved in any way (there wasn’t even a password system), it might have been remembered as one of the great, long-remembered NES games.  Plus, it introduced the Diskarmor, something like a combination of a circular saw blade and a yo-yo, a weapon whose (eventual) versatility makes it an awfully desirable bit of gear.  Here’s Rygar in 1987…

And here he is today, getting his God of War on against the



Look, Rygar may have been why my first NES died.  I left that thing on for a week just trying to make it through the game (which I never actually accomplished).  I still have a soft spot for the guy, and I know that one day…one day soon…I shall beat a Rygar game.  Maybe this week’s Wii release of Rygar: The Battle of Argus will be the one.

On the less action-oriented side is Nobunaga’s Ambition, a strategy game that’s been churning out release after release for 22 years while managing the unenviable feat of being utterly ignored by the mainstream gaming press for most of that time.  I remember that the first one got something of a push in Nintendo Power, and despite my own interest in deeper gameplay experiences (triggered by Dragon Warrior), the lack of anyting resembling monsters or flashy graphics steered me away from it.  While I’m not the only one it put off, as it’s certainly sold enough copies to be a viable franchise for over 20 years, I haven’t met anyone who’s played a single game in the series.  Have you?  Let me know it the comments!  I want to know you people exist.

Nobunaga’s Ambition has gone through a bit of an overhaul as well, but incredibly, it’s still recognizable as Nobunaga’s Ambition here in 2009, in its most recent incarnation.  Here’s the 1987 version of Nobunaga’s Ambition:

And this is Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle, on the PS2:

I can’t imagine, if you’re into the whole historically-based strategy game thing, that you’ll be disappointed by this one.  Can we hand it a Lifetime Achievement Award yet?

What are you playing this week?  My copy of the Ultimate Shooting Collection shows up on Tuesday, so I know what I’m doing.  Check out the list of releases, and trailers for Rygar: The Battle of Argus and Nobunaga’s Ambition: Iron Triangle after the jump.

by Bill Gibron

25 Jan 2009

It’s hard to reinvent archetypes. By their very nature, they are so representative of a concept or idea that they tend to wholly define it. This is especially true in horror films. A vampire is a vampire, no matter how you dress it up, romanticize it, or otherwise reconfigure its thirst for blood. Same with werewolves, ghosts, serial killers, and most importantly, zombies. The undead have a certain set of inherent limitations that make them simultaneously the most and least creepy villains around. Their hunger for human flesh is definitely disturbing. Their relatively slow rate of attack can, on occasion, be almost laughable. Of course, when filmmakers try to overhaul the genre, they only work in style, or speed. They never consider substance. That, oddly enough is where the 1981 fright flick Dead & Buried finds its freshness.

In the small town of Potter’s Bluff, some unsavory things have been going on. Anyone new to the remote coastal locale is immediately struck by how run down, gloomy, and inhospitable it seems. Of course, they don’t get to savor that reality for long since the citizenry appears intent on killing anyone who happens to wander by. As the sheriff in this insignificant postage stamp of a burg, Dan Gillis is starting to worry. The dead bodies keep turning up, and he’s finding it harder and harder to explain their deaths. Even worse, it appears that some of these corpses are “arriving” back up in the town - the same people, but with new personalities. All signs point to oddball mortician William Dobbs, and his unusual obsession with the funereal process. But the problem may be bigger for the underhanded lawman - it may have its roots right in his own home.

Without giving most of the major plot points away, Dead & Buried is one exceedingly creepy experience. It’s a gruesome, slightly gory take on the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers/Night of the Living Dead dynamic. Clearly, without spoiling the experience, Potter’s Bluff is unstuck in time. The overall look of the city is dirty, unkempt, and rotting. Everywhere, little hints at what actually could be happening are just visible in the corner of the frames (store shelves inundated with cobwebs, boarded up buildings in supposedly active areas). The population appears to be living in a combination of eras. Some - like the local diner staff and the gas station crew - are carved out of the late ‘40s/‘50s. Others appear like fantasy version of various decades, a queer combination of Victorian and contemporary, old world New England and new world modernity.

Jammed in the middle of this mystery our the two leads, James Farentino and Jack Albertson. The former plays Sheriff Gillis like it’s the last act of some hyperactive Hamlet. Every gesture is over the top, every line reading threatening to chew off what’s left of the scenery. The latter’s William Dobbs, however, is a faultless interpretation of unsuspecting evil. We’re not used to seeing Albertson like this - bizarre, obscure, intense. It’s one of those head spinning turns that changes your perspective on an actor. While Farentino can come across as incredibly hammy, his co-stars studied performance keeps things in check. Elsewhere, the cast is filled out with familiar ‘80s faces like Melody Anderson (as Gillis’ weird wife), Barry Corbin, and in a minor role, future Freddy Krueger Robert Englund. Thanks to the rest of the mostly no-name company, Dead & Buried keeps its sense of ambiguity.

Yet what stands out today - and even more so thanks to Blue Underground’s revamped Blu-ray version of the title - is how moody and atmospheric the film is, both internally and externally. As part of the three (!!!) commentary tracks available, cinematographer Steve Poster discusses the unusual look the he, the director Gary Sherman and their movie hoped to achieve. Supervising the remastering of the print onto the high definition format, he made sure that the low lighting, rampant grain, purposeful darkness, and overall gritty tone were meticulously maintained. While some may argue with this approach, it does give the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image a truly unearthly feel. Dead & Buried may not look like some brand spanking new Hollywood horror film - and that, apparently, was the intention all along.

It’s also interesting to hear director Sherman speak about the film. His track provides insights into how the movie changed from script to screen (he intended a black comedy), and why he shied away for standard fright film conventions. Of course, he also teases fans with a long lost “director’s cut” which, of course, cannot be located today. Along with added information from co-writer Ronald Shusett and various featurettes presenting the late Stan Winston, co-writer Dan O’Bannon, and the aforementioned Mr. Englund, we discover the truth behind Dead & Buried‘s avant-garde designs. Even with a brand new pair of 7.1 lossless soundtracks (DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD) which attempt to add immersive atmosphere and direction to the production design, it’s what’s in the frame that counts - and what’s there is wonderful.

In fact, calling Dead & Buried a “forgotten” film belies what Sherman, Shusett, and O’Bannon created. Who could ever shake the image of a long hypodermic needle piercing an eyeball? A man tied up and burned alive in a fishing net? A family terrorized by a gang of grim townsfolk while holed up in an abandoned ‘haunted’ house? Or what about the denouement which mixes terror, romance, sadness, and satisfaction all in one? Clearly, anyone who has overlooked this movie before has done so for one inexplicable reason - they haven’t seen it.

To watch Dead & Buried (on Blu-ray or standard DVD) today is to experience a true attempt at reinventing a cinematic variety. For the most part, zombies are decaying reflections of our current cultural crisis, a monster made relevant by an almost egotistical need to see ourselves in even the most dire of biological straights. When viewed more clearly, and with the clarity of hindsight, this is Dead & Buried‘s core concept. It’s also why it deserves its disregarded gemstone status. 

by Bill Gibron

24 Jan 2009

Quick - what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Sonny Chiba? Martial arts? Japanese bad-assness? The Street Fighter? A nominal name check in True Romance? An actual role in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill? Or maybe images of a feudal East come to mind, a territory on the verge of technological breakthroughs and industrial progress, and a small village terrorized by a thriving metal concern and a 900 lb killer bear? What, you say? The other ideas are definitely Chiba-like in perspective, but what does a period piece about a murderous animal and a group of mercenaries trying to destroy it have to do with the international superstar?

Actually, everything, since in 1990 Chiba directed his first (and to date only) film, Remains: Beautiful Heroes. Later retitled Yellow Fangs, the unusual effort became one of the most important movies in Chiba’s lengthy resume - for all the wrong reasons. After making more than 120 movies, the well known man of action decided to step behind the lens. A true labor of love, he hoped Remains would open up another avenue of expression for his mythic career. But it didn’t. As a result of the film’s failure, the legend had to sell almost all his assets, including his famed training school, the Japanese Action Club. Once you see the film, however, it’s easy to understand why fans failed to support Chiba’s idiosyncratic project

Instead of dealing with mobsters, street toughs, and the inevitable high flying fisticuffs that breaks out between them both, Chiba channeled the tale (based on an actual incident) of Red Spots, a massive bruin that terrorized a rural Hokkaido around the turn of the century. Concentrating its wrath on the local female population, the village hunters found their concerted efforts to trap it almost futile. Tossing in a love story between a young warrior and a girl out to avenge her parent’s death, Chiba’s choice flaunted convention.

The connection to the JAC was also obvious, right from the beginning. In fact, Yellow Fangs opens with a credit sequence recognition “in commemoration of the 20th anniversary” of the famed actor’s school. Many of the leads - Henry Sanada, Hiroyuki Nagato - were associated with or students of Chiba. Sadly, when the film eventually flopped at the box office, Chiba was forced to liquidate the club (he financed most of the movie himself) and head off to Hollywood to earn an easy (and much needed) paycheck. Today, he has even changed his professional name to “Rindō Wachinaga” to avoid further association with his action past. 

It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs failed, for it truly shows what Chiba could do with a camera. It’s a movie that’s large in scope, but very human in its dramatics. While some might see the synopsis and think of an Asian exploitation effort ala William Girdler’s Jaws rip-off Grizzly (1976), this is a much more serious, much more somber experience. There are no major stunt sequences, no real reliance on fighting skills or kung fu styles to sell the story. Instead, we get a sly social commentary which pits the traditional ways of Ancient Japan vs. the encroaching threat of modern society (ie, a copper mining concern). There’s also an underhanded take on the paternalistic nature of the country both then and now.

Chiba takes a big cinematic risk right off the bat, offering up an initial bear attack that is quite gruesome, followed by the introduction of the hunters, and then an extended, almost hour long flashback. During this time, we learn of the longstanding relationship between friends Eiji and Yuki, the government’s desire to keep the locals in line, and the gender-based rift which causes all sides to clash. There is a lot of exposition here, as well as some of the most beautiful shots of the winter/spring Japanese countryside ever captured on film. Chiba may be a wonder with his actors, but his framing and composition are extraordinary.

There are several themes at work here - old world values up vs. the encroaching progress, the battle of the sexes between powerless women and their too controlling men, the violent need of nature to put man in its place, etc. All throughout the narrative, Chiba stops the adventure to give characters a chance to reflect. There is a lot of regret in this film - regret for relying on the hunters to stop the slaughter, regret from Eiji that he hasn’t made his feelings known to Yuki, regret from her regarding the fate of her family. But at its core, Yellow Fangs is really just a mystical monster movie, a film where evil is given a sinister spiritual façade, before turning into folklore.

Even with its strange combination of thrills and thought-provoking, Chiba illustrates his real feel for the art of cinema. He understands the subtleties of the medium, and uses his lens as both an insular and reflective device. When the bear attacks, he uses every trick in the book to hide the less than impressive “man in suit” effects. Elsewhere, he was not afraid to hold on close-ups, the actors allowed time to dig deep and deliver powerful, and quite personal, performances. There is an indebtedness to the Shaw Brothers, with many of the locations having a slick, soundstage quality, and by working with friends and well wishers, you can see the amount of drive and determination the cast and crew felt for this project. It’s as if they knew a lot of their idol’s reputation - professional and financial - was riding on it.

Perhaps that’s why, indirectly, Yellow Fangs feels so sad. You can sense a kind of finality in the project, a real indication that Chiba believed he was creating some manner of art with this elevated campfire tale. It’s no surprise then that, up until recently, the actor has stayed away from the director’s chair. But this past year, Chiba changes his mind. His latest creation is the upcoming drama Za Toichi, supposedly centering on illegal loans where 10% interest is charged ever ten days (the title is short for ‘tooka de ichiwari’). While still “in production”, it will be interesting to see what he brings to this far more modern tale. What’s clear from Yellow Fangs is that, when he wants to be, Sonny Chiba is a sensational filmmaker. Too bad it took 28 years to discover that fact.

by tjmHolden

23 Jan 2009

So, I’m sitting in my office the other day, sorting through the mail that has accumulated during my hiatus, and the phone rings. On the other end comes a male voice—polite, businesslike (well, actually, now that I reconstruct it: with the slightest trace of excruciatingly self-satisfied, condescension)—and a conversation ensues. In translation it went something like this:

Me: “Holden here.” He: “Mr. Holden?” Me: “Yes, that’s me.” He: “I’m Tanaka of the Japanese Automotive Federation—JAF?—and I am calling about your membership.” Me: “Yes?” He: “Mr. Holden, did you receive our fax to you?”

I was actually in the process of considering that very same fax at that very moment. It being lumped in with the stack of mail that I was trying to catch up on. Of course, it being written in Japanese, I was according it the level of attention that I normally devote to missives in Japanese—which is to say, it was floating around the bottom of the pile.


Me: “Yes, I actually have it in my hands at the moment.”

(well, in a round-about sort of fashion).

He: “Then, as you know, Mr. Holden, we were unable to complete your annual renewal.”

Which goes to show: you learn something new every day.

by Mike Deane

23 Jan 2009

Work All Week

Work All Week

The third single put out by the Mekons is “Work All Week”, an anti-materialist anthem disguised as a love song.  Like “Where Were You”, it’s a song that reveals its true identity after repeated listens (you’ll have to get this song on your own as copyright does not allow me to post the original version, only the 2004 folk reggae version).  Though the song can, at first, seem to be a typical love and marriage tune, upon closer examination it bears that signature post punk cynicism and satire.  In most love songs the object of the speaker is to woo their potential partner, or to express their love/devotion/affection in some way, “Work All Week” shows that love and marriage seem to be impossible without killing yourself trying to make the money to buy the materials which signify happiness.  In a love song the object of the speaker’s affection is a person, in “Work All Week” the object of the speaker’s affection is the objects needed to barter for love.

The songs starts with a ‘70s-sounding “oriental” riff straight out of Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting”, then moves into a lilting chord progression that’s a bit out of time with the drums.  An excellent bass run fills in the simple chord progression and gives a good background to the misleading lyrics.  The refrain of “I work all week” is a constant reminder that most things that the speaker discusses are impossible without constant labour. 

The first lyric is straight forward enough: “I work all week to buy a ring / I work all week / Extra hours to get real gold / I’ll buy you anything / You know I’ll buy you anything / I work all week / Not put off by signs saying sold.”  Love is supplanted with a ring—there’s no mention of who he’s buying the ring for or what the ring symbolizes, the goal of working seems to be the acquisition of a ring made of real gold.  The song is boastful when the speaker says “You know I’ll buy you anything”, as if these possessions are enough, the cost of love is the value of his person.

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