Laserblast Blu-ray & DVD: Sky Crawlers, Land of the Lost, etc

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Science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles run hot and cold when it comes to home video releases each Tuesday, and this week is definitely cold – at least in terms of numbers. However, as the old cliche goes, if Donald Trump walks into a bar the average net work of everyone in the bar goes up several million dollars. The  Donald Trump of DVD and Blu-ray releases this week is THE SKY CRAWLERS, the latest anime extravaganza from Mamoru Oshii (GHOST IN THE SHELL). That title alone is enough to make us breathless with anticipation for a trip to the video story: After a frestival screening of the film late last year, our own Dan Person wrote that SKY CRAWLERS is Oshii’s “best work since the original GHOST IN THE SHELL, and proof positive of anime’s unique ability to excite and enlighten.”
THE SKY CRAWLERS flies into stores on DVD and Blu-ray, both of which feature the original Japanese dialogue with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. The widescreen aspect ratio is 1.77. Extras consist of three documentaries, presented in high-def: one about location scouting used to help manufacture the physical environment ultimately achieved in animation; one about the sound design; and one featuring an interview with Mamoru Oshii. Additionally, the Blu-ray disc includes a BD Live feature.
The rest of the week’s sci-fi, fantasy, and horror home video releases consist of a handful of oldies and a few direct-to-video titles…
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Cashing in on next week’s release of the big-budget theatrical version of LAND OF THE LOST, starring Will Ferrell, Hollywood pumps out the original TV show on DVD in LAND OF THE LOST: THE COMPLETE SERIES and LAND OF THE LOST: COMPLETE SERIES (LIMITED EDITION GIFT SET). The later packs the discs inside a recreation of the old “Land of the Lost” lunch box that no friend of mine was ever un-cool enough to own.
Other oldies are back on the shelves thanks to Blu-ray upgrades: CHILDREN OF MEN and FIELD OF DREAMS.
If you’re desperate to see something new, there are some DTV flicks out there, but only the documentary HARLAN ELLISON: DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH– a look at the iconoclastic speculative fiction author – promises much intellectual heft. THE DEVIL’S TOMB – an action-adventure horror film starring Cuba Gooding Jr. – makes us wonder why Hollywood can’t find a decent role for the Oscar-winning actor to play in a big-budget theatrical film. THE LOST TREASURE OF THE GRAND CANYON answers the question “Whatver happened to Shannen Doherty?” And MEGASHARK VERSUS GIANT OCTOPUS sounds just ridiculous enough to entice our interest. (We just pray to God that the eventual face off was achieved with bad CGI rather than by putting two real animals together in a tank.)

Check out this week’s DVD and Blu-ray releases below, or find more in the Cinefantastique Online store.

Sky Crawlers – Anime Film Review

The Sky Crawlers
The Sky Crawlers

Did Terrence Malick suddenly acquire a taste for animation? You’d think so from the lush, elegiac feel of THE SKY CRAWLERS. Set in an indeterminate future-past (HD TV and flatscreen computers? Yup. Prop planes and classic cars as well? You betcha), the film tells the story of Yuichi (voiced by Ryo Kase), a young fighter pilot who contends with the perils of aerial combat (including one formidable enemy called “The Teacher”) while trying to sort out the meaning of life on the ground. That the air-bound battles are portrayed in stunning, near-palpable CG and then contrasted with quiet, delicate scenes in which the pilot ponders his existence and tentatively courts Suito (Rinko Kikuchi), the air base’s female commander, suggests the fine hand of a director who can distill beauty from strikingly disparate situations.
The Immortal Warriors
The Immortal Warriors

It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this is clearly the work of Mamoru Oshii, anime’s master of sublime mystery. Yuichi isn’t just young, he’s ageless, one of a group of immortal “kildren” locked in a permanent childhood that can only be escaped through violent death. In fact, the bulk of the air corps, including Suito, shares Yuichi’s condition, and thereby hangs the film’s central conundrum. The war — a battle whose goals are not readily apparent — is corporate-sponsored, and treated almost as a sporting event by the general public (in one astringent sequence, Yuichi gives a group of effusive tourists a tour of the air base, posing for photos as if he was the hometown champion). The base itself seems oddly isolated — as the battles continue and the character interactions take on a strangely recursive nature (SKY CRAWLERS’ narrative approach turns out not to be as distant from GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE as one might first suppose), questions begin to arise about whether the combatants exist to justify the war, or vice versa.
The War That Never Was and Always Will Be: A Retro-Future Attack Formation
The War That Never Was and Always Will Be: A Retro-Future Attack Formation

In an introduction recorded specifically for the film’s Lincoln Center debut, Oshii emphasized that his vision of unending childhood extended far beyond the film’s war-bound setting. I presume he’s leaving us to suss out whether the film’s ultimate goal is to address the conversation that’s currently going on in Japan about a pop culture that seems willfully determined to invoke emotional regression (helloooooo, Takashi Murakami!), or if the aim is towards something larger. (That the pilots speak English in combat, as do most civilians, seems to suggest associations with Japan immediately post WWII — a topic Oshii has addressed before.)
Beneath the Warrior's Mask: A Moment of Vulnerability
Beneath the Mask: The Warrior Exposed

While I know there are people out there who will be disinclined to indulge the director his customary, read-between-the-lines approach to delivering subtext (one critic previously called INNOCENCE “motionless,” an accusation that, to the best of my memory, hasn’t been leveled at a film since the first STAR TREK feature), others who are willing to engage Oshii on his own terms — which of course includes the contention that Basset hounds are the Greatest Things on Earth — will be in for an experience both dynamic and startlingly intimate. The aerial sequences demonstrate how the director’s long-time animation team, Production I.G, continues to push its dominance in digital animation: Despite the fantastical nature of the aircraft — ranging from football-field-sized flying wing bombers all the way down to one-pilot attack planes with rear-mounted, nested propellers (I imagine Oshii calling Hayao Miyazaki at two in the morning to cackle wickedly into the receiver before hanging up) — the dogfights have an immediacy and believability that the producers of FLYBOYS could only dream of. That action is neatly contrasted by drama that grows in intensity as the characters begin to fully comprehend their situation: Towards the end of the film, Oshii stages more and more confrontations so that the participants address the camera directly, allowing us to glimpse past the warrior’s stoicism into fears and vulnerabilities that are almost painful to behold.
The effect is closer to Kurosawa than GUNDAM — pop adventure, yes, but smart, and unafraid of inviting the audience’s active engagement. THE SKY CRAWLERS finds Oshii bringing all his strengths as humanistic storyteller and anime visionary to the fore. It’s his best work since the original GHOST IN THE SHELL, and proof positive of anime’s unique ability to excite and enlighten.
The Sky Crawlers (Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; 121 mins.) Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Voice Cast: Ryo Kase, Rinko Kikuchi, Shosuke Tanihara.

Ghost in the Shell 2 – Innocence (2004) – Anime Film Review

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE is not only one of the greatest achievements in the history of anime; it is absolutely without doubt one of the most visually stunning films ever made. Much like AKIRA in the 1980s, this is the film that sets the standard by which all others of its kind are judged – and usually found wanting. Writer-director Mamoru Oshii picks the story up from where he left off in 1995’s GHOST IN THE SHELL, which was about an elite unit called Section 9 that handled politically related criminal cases. Most of the agents in the unit are cyber-enhanced – not only physical but also mentally – to the point that some question remains as to how much, if any, humanity is left. (The title is a reference to this phantom of human personal identity.)
The sequel is a new story featuring some of the same characters from the original, and it lives up to – and in many ways exceeds – its progenitor, both in terms of story and visuals. During the ensuing years, the field of computer-generated animation has advanced by light years, and it shows here. Much of the movie looks far more magnificent than many live-action special effects films that rely on CGI. (The opening title sequence, portraying the creation of a “gynoid” [a female android], is worth the price of admission alone.)

Much of the time, the film feels like a cross between I, ROBOT and SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, except that it’s much better than both of those films combined. Like ROBOT, the new GHOST film deals with the implications of manufactured life taking on the characteristics of its human creators. As in SKY CAPTAIN, the film intends to wow audiences with each new spectacular image that flies across the screen (there are even several similar sequences, such as the final act underwater stealth approach to infiltrate the villains’ lair). Unlike SKY CAPTAIN’s director Kevin Conran, however, Oshii knows how to make his images count. Each one is choreographed for maximum impact, and he knows how to use just enough of them to make his point, and then quit. (For example, a fight scene between two cyber-enhanced characters takes place in a brief few shots, instead of dragging out for five minutes; but you won’t feel short-changed in the least.)
There are also numerous other visual and literary reference points. The cyberpunk feel of the futuristic cityscapes and flying machines recalls BLADE RUNNER. The emphasis on high-toned literary quotations (Milton, the Bible, Shelly, et all) recalls the philosophical ambitions of the MATRIX sequels, but Oshii pulls it off far better.
In a way, Oshii’s murder-mystery plot is just a hook on which to hang his philosophical musings. Based on the manga of the same name, the premise is that a new model of gynoid is turning homicidal, killing its owners and then self-destructing. This gives plenty of leeway to discuss issues like nature of consciousness and reality: What separates humans from the artificial life they create? Are people themselves really just organic machines?
For most of its length, these ideas support and enhance the story, giving a feeling that the movie is dealing with a profound topic without getting bogged down by it. In the last reel, however, the dialogue does get extremely dense, and you may find yourself wishing that you were reading a book instead, so that you could pause after each new dialogue passage to digest the concepts.
By the end, the resolution of the mystery has almost come to be beside the point, as Oshii seems more intent on wrestling with his philosophical questions. It’s a slight let down, but you have to give the man points for his ambition and integrity. GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE is a piece of cyberpunk science-fiction that dares to take on heady issues in an entertaining, popular way; uncompromised by fear of alienating its audience, it’s a richly detailed and thought-provoking achievement that stands head and shoulders not only above American animated films but also above most live-action science-fiction films. Quite simply, it ranks among the best movies of its kind ever made.

In a brilliant visual joke, the tough-guy cybercop proves that he still has a spark of humanity because he loves his bassett hound

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (Inosensu: Kôkaku Kidôtai, 2004). Written & directed by Mamoru Oshii, from the manga by Masamume Shirow. Voices: Akio Otsuka, Atsuko Tanaka, Koichi Yamadera, Tamio Oki.

Ghost in the Shell (1995) – Anime Film Review

Existential angst in the form of cyberpunk anime from Japan. A form of artificial intelligence has become self aware, and now it`s seeking a way to escape from cyberspace into the real world. Ironically, the special forces tracking it down are formerly human beings whose bodies and brains have been so enhanced with modern technology that it`s hard to say how much of their humanity is left. The film explores weighty issues like: What is identity? Can artificial intelligence have a soul? Consequently, it often feels closer in spirit to an art house film than to a typical science fiction thriller, despite the great action scenes. Unfortunately, the story occasionally sags under the weight of its philosophical speculation. Nevertheless, this is an exciting effort, with an interesting premise, a strong plot, and involving characters. It ranks among the best animated features ever from Japan, easily on par with the best that live-action science fiction has to offer. Read More