A Personal Piece of Magic: Perna Studios APs

Last Fall I wrote about the wonderful card sets available from Perna Studios,  and now I’d like to focus on/share an associated part of the sets: Artist’s Proofs (APs). Sketch cards are a often used form of “chase card” for art related collectible card sets, where the various artists involved in a set get blank cards with the card set’s printed back and create one of a kind art directly on the cards, which are then inserted randomly in card packs. The skills shown in painting and drawing on such a small workspace and the amount of detail achieved is incredible.

AP sketch cards are a similar creation. Artists sometimes get a few of these blank cards designated as Artist Proofs to sell themselves and create specifically for the purchaser (with subject matter appropriate to the related set and subject to publisher approval). As directly commissioned art the prices are generally higher than buying packs/sets in trade off for getting to choose the artist and having input into the subject/design.

The wonderful painted pieces Ingrid Hardy does on these relatively tiny trading cards always amazes me, and the first AP I got was from her for the Classic Fairy Tales set and features Red Riding Hood. It’s absolutely gorgeous and I can’t imagine a better design. I tend to be rather unspecific when commissioning these cards, usually just asking for a particular subject and letting the artist go from there. I’ve always been extremely pleased with the results.

It can be fun to get APs from different artists reflecting the same general subject. I collect grim reaper art when it comes to the Hallowe’en sets, so had both Ingrid Hardy and Kokkinakis Achilleas do APs featuring him for Hallowe’en 2. Both are fantastic representations capturing a sense of foreboding, with Ingrid’s reaper having an atmospheric, looming edge to it and Kokkinakis’ an active feel showcasing the dynamic style and coloring his work is know for.

I’d already gotten some excellent grim reaper sketch cards from Hallowe’en 2 by Alexis Hill and Peejay Catacutan, so went in different directions with their APs. I find Alexis’s style absolutely perfect for the halloween theme and the witch AP I got from her is a wonderful addition to all the gorgeous sketch cards I have of hers from the set.

With Peejay I floated the general idea of either a succubus or a witch, and he sent me a few pencil rough ideas. I loved the above succubus design as well as his imaginative idea to do a Japanese folklore inspired witch so much I commissioned both, and the final cards brought those rough ideas to life gloriously.

Depending on the set, the permitted subjects can be rather wide or extremely specific. For example, Classic Fairy Tales and Hallowe’en 2 allowed anything related to the titular theme (within normal Perna guidelines), while Spellcasters 2 had a subtheme of specific magical creatures, so all cards (base, sketch, inserts, and APs) from that set had to feature mermaids, unicorns, elves, fairies, or dragons. In either case, there is plenty of room for individual style and visions and both the variety and quality of work Pernas’ chosen artists produce is incredible.

I wrote about being a longtime fan of Juri Chinchilla in Beautiful Dreams, and I was lucky enough to get one of her APs from Spellcasters II. She did a great piece of art for a metal insert for the set that she referred to as “evil mermaid.” Inspired by that work, I requested an “evil fairy” for my AP, and received the gorgeous card above titled Red Moon. Juri’s soft yet vibrant colors are breathtaking, and I adore the fact that even leaning against a skull and clearly planning something sinister, her fairy still has a touch of cuteness to it.

The entire concept of evil fairies amuses me greatly, and so has become my theme for other APs for Spellcasters II, including the dark, regal looking fairy Peejay drew above that has a wonderful layered effect with the skull providing a visual second set of wings. I have two more coming, from the previously mentioned Ingrid Hardy and Alexis Hill. Can’t wait. 🙂

The coloring and detail on Norvien Basio’s cards in general is incredible, and my jaw literally dropped when I saw the vibrant mermaid AP he did for me.

Sometimes artists will choose their own subject for an AP and sell the completed pieces rather than commission the card. Such was the case with the butterfly fairy I got from Sean Pence. This couldn’t have been a more perfect card for me if I had requested the subject, showing a delicate, serene subject with Sean’s trademark ability to draw exquisite, realistic feeling faces even within a fantasy setting.

 

Of course there are MANY more phenomenal artists featured in Perna Studios’ sets and anyone with an interest in high quality fantastical art collectibles should definitely check out their offerings and/or check in with the artists about commissioning an AP.

 

 

Android: Mainframe Board Game First Impressions

Mainframe is a nice little abstract game themed in the Android Universe.

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Players take the role of one of six possible runners (hackers) trying to secure the most of an infiltrated mainframe for themselves. Players place nodes (tokens) on an 8×6 board and try to enclose their nodes with barriers by executing programs (playing cards) both from a generic supply available to all players and from a hand of a few unique cards representing their particular runner’s abilities. Programs generally add, move, or swap nodes and partitions to/on the board. Endgame scoring depends on how large your enclosures are and how many of your tokens are inside each.

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The theme is well done, adding some flavor to what’s strictly speaking a pure abstract in gameplay. The characters have a nice bit of backstory that ties to their cards, such as one being an intrusion expert and thus having “programs” that generally revolve around manipulating “entry points” (nodes). The facts that you play with three of your character’s five special cards in any given game and that there are more different characters (six) than max players (four) seem like they’ll add a good amount to replayability.  There seems to be a decent amount of depth for how simple and easy to learn the rules are.

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The board seemed a little big for two players, but it was workable and with numerous cards that can reposition nodes the board layout changes often so the size isn’t that big a deal. I feel like things will be much tighter and harder to adapt to with more players though, and am extremely intrigued to play that way.

 

Overall

Fast to learn, fast to play, more thematic than most abstracts, and fun. Great addition to the gaming closet.

Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward Review

The Nonary Game returns…

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I loved 999, but hadn’t played this sequel yet due to glitching issues with the 3DS version. With the third game out and me now having a Vita, I decided to go back to this to finish the trilogy in order.

The general setup is largely the same, with nine people kidnapped and forced to play a life and death game at the whim of their captor, who is hinted to be posing as one of the nine. Once again the game is a combination of almost visual novel type story sections and adventure game style puzzle sections. There’s a very different feel to this versus 999, but the atmosphere is still appropriately dark and foreboding and things come together pretty well. The puzzles are good, the characters nicely varied and reasonably engaging, and the narrative compelling. When the game first came out I wasn’t a fan of the change in visual style from the first game, but I found now I barely even noticed. The game looked good and the graphics were appropriate.

The plot is intriguing, and makes good use of the branching aspect. I found the philosophical incorporations of both the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Schrodinger’s Cat quite interesting, but I’ll admit I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff in general. There’s a TON going on as things progress. Magnitudes more so than in 999. It leads to an end with almost too many twists, but I was fine with it overall (although I have mixed feelings about what this all means as a follow up to 999). The parallel branching nature does undermine some of the drama, as the Ally/Betray choices don’t have the same kind of impact when you eventually have to go back and choose the other.

There were a couple instances of “carrying the idiot ball,” but otherwise the characters’ reactions and motivations fit well among branches. A couple of things (mostly related to game’s workings) were left implied when they should have been made explicit, which is kind of surprising given all the exposition in parts. There were also a few instances of wasted potential, such as a clever development that should have had big implications but is instead used only when it’s introduced and never mentioned again, and a character who oddly fades into the background at points where they could/should have been important.

While not being quite as tight as 999 nor reaching the same heights, Virtue’s Last Reward is an excellent sequel that is more ambitious than its predecessor and largely succeeds on the grander scale. I don’t know that I entirely like where this is all going story-wise, but I am definitely fully invested in seeing how it turns out. Bring on Zero Time Dilemma.

 

Japan Cuts 2016: Flying Colors, Kako: My Sullen Past, and Emi-Abi Reviews

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2016 ran from July 14th through July 24th. These were the last three movies I saw as part of this year’s screenings. My thoughts on last year’s festival can be read starting here.

Check out my thoughts on other films from this year in posts about Bitter Honey and Lowlife Love,  Nagasaki: Memories of My Son and Bakuman, and The Shell Collector and Being Good.

 

Flying Colors

“Once you achieve the impossible, you can do anything.”

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Sayaka is a social butterfly content to scrape by in dead last place among the students at a high school that guarantees admittance into its partner college to all who attend. But when an unusual cram school teacher sets her sights on one of the most prestigious colleges in Japan, years of being called worthless combine with the surprise of having someone believe in her to make Sayaka determined to prove everyone who thinks she has no chance wrong.

Flying Colors is a wonderful story about pursuing dreams and attempting to defy expectations. Structured brilliantly, the movie starts by providing some strong background scenes of Sayaka’s scholastic past to set up how she ended up in her starting status quo, content to know nothing. Her complete lack of shame about being stupid while not resenting those smarter than her is one of the big comedic hooks early on, and cements her as a lovable doofus that the audience is happy to cheer for. Kasumi Arimura plays the part perfectly, and the pairing with Sayaka’s unconventional teacher who knows how to encourage poor students to start to enjoy learning is not only hilarious but also gives the film its core. Their shared enthusiasm about Sayaka getting the slightest things right early on provide outrageously funny scenes. The various ways in which the teacher played by Atsushi Ito brings out the best in his band of misfits and genuinely sees their potential and cares about their success and improvement is phenomenal.

Expertly interwoven with the humor and Sayaka’s educational journey is a touching family drama centered around her father’s projection of his own dream of big time baseball success onto Sayaka’s brother and the complete lack of support any of the women in the family get from him. Sayaka’s mother and her complete devotion to her children anchor the film, with Yo Yoshia giving an extraordinary supporting performance as someone who truly wants nothing more than her children’s happiness. The drama is genuinely emotional without ever getting overly sappy or melodramatic, and adds a perhaps unexpected amount of heart beneath all the humor.

As I’m sure is clear at this point I loved just about everything about this film. Easily one of my favorites of the festival.

 

Kako: My Sullen Past

“Isn’t everybody lonely? Alone or even if you’re with family.”

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High schooler Kako spends her summer days bored out of her mind, listlessly going through the motions of helping in her family’s restaurant and staring at a local river looking for a crocodile she knows isn’t there. Then her activist, long thought dead aunt shows back up on the family doorstep.

Japan Cuts has been my first introduction to the incredible talent of Fumi Nikaido, and it was fascinating to see her here playing such a different character from Akako in Bitter Honey. Akako popped off the screen with an infectious playfulness and a larger than life feel. Kako is compelling in a different way, with apparent apathy arising from her boredom completely infusing her body language and making her susceptible to insatiable curiosity about her mysterious aunt. The flatness Nikaido achieves in Kako’s everyday actions and personality makes it all the more intriguing when she takes interest in anything. The contrast in the two characters and the skill with which she plays both highlights her versatility and why she’s such a highly regarded and awarded actress even at such a young age.

The feelings and sounds of summer come across well, and appropriately compliment the film’s odd tone, which examines the slow yet relentless passage of time in the lives of Kako and her family.  Boredom is portrayed as so pervasive its relief is more important to the characters than even the well being of others. The disaffected nature of both Kako and her aunt’s personalities adds humor to some very dark moments in a way that generally works, yet still feels strange when the viewer realizes what they just laughed at.

There’s a lot simmering just underneath the surface of the depicted events, both in theme and in production. Such as the significance of Kako’s interactions with her aunt’s mysterious companion, or the facts that Kako’s baby sister remains unnamed, is constantly commented upon for how little she moves, and is clearly played by a doll if the viewer looks closely at the bundle of blankets.

There are aspects of Kako: My Sullen Past that I really liked and aspects that I didn’t. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it as a whole, but it was well made and acted, and quite interesting. I’m glad I saw it.

 

Emi-Abi

“… if you can make me laugh.”

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During the Q&A following the world premiere of Emi-Abi at Japan Cuts, director Kensaku Watanabe explained his desire when making the film to show genuine comedy yet constantly undercut it with dramatic and somber elements. He really succeeds in this goal, giving his story of a comedian trying to move on after the loss of his partner a tone that constantly switches and balances between light hearted comedy and deeper, sadder themes.

The plot progression was solid, but not at all as I expected. The film is extremely flashback heavy, focusing a lot on deceased partner Unno, what happened the night of his passing, and a surprisingly well developed romantic story involving him and a young fan. Unno steals the movie from his surviving partner Jitsudo, who is well portrayed but while we understand and sympathize with his grief we never really feel it, making nearly every character in the film more sympathetic than the supposed main character trying to find his new path in life.

The entire supporting cast was quite good, but I was especially impressed with what Haru Kuroki did as Jitsudo’s manager, making the most of a small role as someone totally devoted to seeing Jitsudo at his best once again despite the tragedy.

I found parts of Emi-Abi disjointed and the balance of characters a bit off, but it’s a decent film overall made with a specific vision in mind and supported with strong acting.

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Fantastic festival overall as usual from Japan Society Film. Definitely check out some of these great movies as you are able.

Japan Cuts 2016: The Shell Collector and Being Good Reviews

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2016 started on July 14th and is running through July 24th. My thoughts on last year’s festival can be read starting here.

My thoughts on Bitter Honey and Lowlife Love can be read here, and those on Nagasaki: Memories of My Son and Bakuman here.

 

The Shell Collector

“Being alone is intimate.”

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In The Shell Collector Japan Cuts 2016 recipient of the Cut Above award Lily Franky plays an elderly blind man who has isolated himself from society and spends his time collecting shells along the beach. The opening of the movie has a serene quality as it shows his everyday life and events that bring a trouble woman unexpectedly into it. From there the movie’s tone and direction changes a couple times, dealing with escalating events and consequences arising from the intersection of the old man’s hobby and a mysterious disease affecting the islands around his reclusive home.

The entire movie is incredibly well acted and directed to convey a real feeling of blindness of the main character. Little touches regarding the way he searches for his shells and finds his way around his home really sell the concept, which is so important to the way the plot unfolds. Excellent cinematography featuring fantastic locations and great integration of art, props, etc heighten the atmosphere and impact of the film expertly.

The themes are abstract, and I’m still not sure quite what to make of the film as a whole. I realize it was bound by being an adaptation of a short story and is quite faithful to the source material from what I understand, but I wanted something more/different from story. The early portion of the film was my favorite, and it seemed there was great potential to continue in that same vein throughout.

The Q&A afterward with the director, the producer, and star Lily Franky was interesting and once again the moderator had great questions and asked the question I had in mind. Franky’s sense of humor was off-color and a little inappropriate at times, but overall this was another good Q&A.

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Overall I think I liked The Shell Collector, although some parts quite a bit more than others. I didn’t find it great in total, but parts of it certainly were and it was certainly a good film.

 

Being Good

“I don’t know how to be good.”

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Being good tackles numerous related difficult societal issues regarding forms of abuse and ingrained standards, attitudes, and expectations that facilitate these tragic situations. It’s a poignant, raw look at both these difficult situations as well as some of the obstructions to dealing  with them.

The key to the movie is the careful touch with which this delicate subject matter is presented. The film does not shy away from illustrating the harshness of the problems being addressed in a blunt manner, but it is done with a point and completely without sensationalism and none of the scenes ever feel the least bit exploitive. Abuse is sadly a part of the lives of the characters, and it needs to be shown matter of factly in order for the audience to understand its nature and depth, and for the characters to be able to contemplate what to do about it.

This of course makes parts of the film (extremely) hard to watch, but the important things the story has to say about abuse make these scenes both worth watching and indispensable to the film. The most important thing is that there are glimmers of hope and genuine efforts and desire from certain characters to break these cycles. These are stories that don’t just present an upsetting status quo, they express a wish for things to be better.

Through three parallel stories in the same town, Being Good tackles subjects ranging from a young school teacher trying to learn how to deal with bullying within his classroom as well as trying to help a student he suspects is being abused, to a mother who disciplines her child through violence and hates herself for it, to society’s attitudes towards the metal ill and how it changes with the person’s age, to some of the emotional realities of raising an autistic child. This variety of related issues and the skill with which they were integrated together into a single film are incredibly impressive. Each of the three parallel tales are balanced perfectly, without any characters, stories, or themes feeling shortchanged and with all of them receiving equal and appropriate weight.

That the director was able to bring all of this together is amazing. Being Good is an adaptation of three short stories from a collection of five. Making everything work in the balanced manner I described without losing any of the underlying messages or their impact is a huge accomplishment. The acting is equally superb, both from the adults grappling with moral dilemmas and feelings of bitter realities beyond their control, and from child actors tasked with communicating heart wrenching emotional distress. I found this film just phenomenally made from top to bottom.

The Q&A with director Mipo O following the screening was illuminating, as she covered topics ranging from how this film differed from her other movies, to the process of adapting these stories and approaching the subject matter, to the care with which certain scenes needed to be approached, specifically in making sure the child actors were not suffering emotion distress themselves in the process of having to portray it.

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Being Good is a masterpiece, and may very well be the best film of an extremely strong Japan Cuts Festival this year.

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So these were two more unique and thought provoking films featured during the festival. Will be back with more a couple more reviews as Japan Cuts concludes. 🙂

A Year and Counting…

It’s the one year anniversary for Derailments of Thought. Time flies.

I had been writing book and game reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and BGG for a few years, but had in the back of my mind expanding to a space where I wasn’t as constrained by format or content. I’ve really enjoyed writing here, from my standard reading reviews to more varied posts about art, food, wrestling, etc. I posted 213 posts during the year (most of which were new writing), which boggles my mind.

Some pretty predictable breakdown stats:

~37% reading reviews (22% of total manga, 12% comics and 3% prose)
~26% wrestling related
~14% gaming related (10% boardgames, 4% videogames)
~12% mystery box reviews
~8% movie reviews
~3% other

I actually feel like the wrestling percentage should be higher, but that’s probably because those reviews tend to be much longer than the reading reviews so they compromise a larger portion of my actual writing than they do post count.

It’s been interesting / fun to write this year’s Japan Cuts reviews, as my reviews for last year’s festival were pretty much the first things I wrote for this.

Anyway, here’s to many more random ramblings from me to come. 🙂

Japan Cuts 2016: Nagasaki: Memories of My Son and Bakuman Reviews

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2016 started on July 14th and is running through July 24th. My thoughts on last year’s festival can be read starting here.

My thoughts on Bitter Honey and Lowlife Love can be read here.

 

Nagasaki: Memories of My Son

“Of course I’m not ok. I’m dead.”

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Nagasaki: Memories of My Son is the story of those left behind after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. It’s a tightly focused, personal tale centered on the mother and fiance of a medical student killed in the attack and their daily lives three years after his death.

The skill on display in every aspect of the film’s construction and the seamlessness with which they come together is phenomenal. From the striking opening scenes alternating between the cockpit of the bomber and the son staring his day and going to class, to clever techniques surrounding Kazunari Ninomiya’s status as a ghost and use of flashbacks, to an absolutely haunting score and  breathtaking performances, it’s all amazing. The composer of the exquisite music featured in the film gave a nice introduction for the screening.

Incredibly beautifully shot and acted, the film provides a powerful and touching personal story while giving an ongoing glimpse of life during and after the war that all feels natural and real. Universal themes of loss and moving on are explored both in general and with specific ties to the bombing, and difficult subjects like survivor’s guilt and jealousy are handled with a deft and genuine feel. Numerous scenes are absolutely devastating in their emotional impact, yet the love underlying all the feelings of loss is given equal weight and woven throughout the movie perfectly. I wanted something slightly different from the ending, but it was extremely fitting as it was none the less.

Though completely different approaches to the material, the film was somewhat reminiscent of the equally incredible manga Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. Both are powerful examinations of the effect of the atomic bomb on everyday people’s lives.

Though a period tale of the ripples of a specific horrific event, the themes and story are impressively timeless. Simultaneously heart breaking and heart warming, I’ve never been so content to cry so much. Nagasaki: Memories of My Son lives in the shadow on tragedy, but contains an inextinguishable light at its core. Highest possible recommendation.

Bakuman

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The live action movie adaptation of a manga about making manga.

Featuring two high school students who decide to team up with the goal of getting published in the premiere manga magazine in Japan, Bakuman using innovative filmmaking techniques and expert touches of comedy to provide a wonderful adaptation of the story of their quest while giving great insight into the industry the characters love. The focus on the often overlooked difficulties of both making art and turning it into something commercially viable, shining a light on the creative aspects and associated hard work and harsh realities on competition in entertainment fields as well as on the editorial process, is fascinating.

The visual style and feel of the movie is phenomenal, with a multitude of imaginative ways of representing the writing and drawing processes in striking, engaging ways which are further enhanced by pitch perfect comedic acting that makes it impossible not to get pulled in for the ride. Though overused, the phrase “love letter to the industry” exactly describes how this film represents the creation of manga, though it pulls no punches with the hardships involved.

There are key dramatic moments, and the general tone is so light and breezy they hit like a tons of bricks and their impact is felt throughout the film. The romance aspect felt short changed and it needed more time devoted for the developments to play out properly, but everything else came together strongly and overall this was an amazingly high quality not only as an adaptation, but as a film in general.

The director made a surprise appearance and his short Q&A after the screening was extremely interesting, talking about the changes made in changing mediums, some of the nods and references to other manga, and the impressive amount of work the actors put into being able to do the drawing scenes.

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Fantastic stuff. Will be back with more reviews as Japan Cuts continues. 🙂

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms Review

Beautiful and heart-wrenching. Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is a masterpiece of tragedy, despair, hope, and life.

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Nothing happens in a vacuum. Even insignificant events can have ripple effects that reach impossibly far from their center. The bombing of Hiroshima in World War II was an extremely significant, and tragic, event. The immediate effects were obvious, and frightening. But it’s the less obvious ripples that Fumiyo Kouno relates to us in these incredible stories.

This collection has three parts: Town of Evening Calm, and Country of Cherry Blossoms 1 and 2. Town is the story of a young woman living in Hiroshima 10 years after the bombing. Country part 1 is set 33 years later and features her brother and his children, particularly his daughter. Country part 2 follows the same characters 17 years later. Through them we see the long lasting effects of the bomb. Kouno lets them rise from the story naturally, illuminating both the obvious and more subtle effects with great finesse.

As you might imagine these are tales heavily shadowed with sadness, fear and melancholy, but that is as it should be. Town and Country is set in real times and examines how everyday life was changed forever by a single horrible moment. That it manages to do so in a way that resonates authenticity, from characters and happenings that feel real to art that perfectly enhances the emotions pouring forth, is an unbelievable accomplishment.

A masterpiece in every possible way, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms should be on every adult’s reading list.

Evolve 64 Live Thoughts

July 16, 2016 in Queens, NY

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La Boom is packed with another big crowd. Lenny Lenard opens up thanking the WWE for allowing Evolve to host CWC spotlight matches, but is interrupted by Stokely Hathaway who says one of them is off as TJP isn’t wrestling tonight so he can rest up for tomorrow’s potential title match.

The other promised spotlight match is first, with Johnny Gargano  vs. Cedric Alexander. In a nice touch this was presented the same way as the CWC matches, with the prematch rules confirmation and handshake, and the post match MMA style winner announcement. This was phenomenal and the very definition of a hot opener. All night the CWC competitors all looked like they had taken things up a notch since last I saw them just a few months ago. Alexander looked great here and kept up with Gargano, who’s on the roll of his life. Brilliant choice to start the show with.

After Alexander leaves Drew Galloway ambushes Gargano and grabs a chair. Ethan Page comes out to protect Johnny and takes the beating in his place. Drew Gulak comes out to attack Galloway and presumably start their match as Gargano and Page are helped out, but he’s ambushed by  a returning Chuck Taylor!!!

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Catch Point saves and “Dustin” is introduced by Galloway as someone else who resents Evolve and having to carry Johnny Gargano. They challenge Gulak and Williams to put the tag belts up later on and we have a new main event. Of note: Matt Riddle did not come out to save fellow Catch Point members from the vicious heels, but uberheels TJP and Hathaway did.

Next was a Four-way Fray, with Chris Dickinson (replacing Tracy Williams) vs. Fred Yehi vs. Tony Nese vs. Darby Allin. Allin gets tossed over the tope rope into a summersault splat on the floor, hitting his legs on the barricade on the way down. Couldn’t see Allin on the floor from my vantage by the other competitors, particularly Neese, were reacting in shock. When Allin later eventually pull himself up and join the match it was a hero’s ovation from the crowd. He later did a trust fall from the top to the outside onto Dickinson and Yehi. This stuff is getting him over, but seems a bit too reckless.

Fun, faced paced match with strong performances from all four, with Allin as the crazy underdog, Dickinson throwing everyone around with power moves, and Neese and Yehi picking their spots to take prime advantage of openings as they appeared. Neese in particular was hitting on all cylinders here, and got the win with an opportune 450 on a laid out Allin while Dickinson recovered from hitting the youngster with a Razor’s Edge off the top. Everyone shook hands and showed respect to Allin after the match.

Ethan Page came out selling effects from his earlier beating to face tryout seminar participant Wheeler Yuta. It’s a good role for Page, allowing him to rack up wins in between big matches while using his experience to help develop the new roster hopefuls. Fired up from Galloway’s actions earlier, Page shows his aggressive side and dismantles Yuta, ending with the package piledriver. Afterwards Page cuts a strong promo directed at Gargano explaining that Johnny’s a man without any support in Evolve and needs to forgive Page and accept him as backup. I dread where I think this ends up, but Page has been killing this angle so far.

 

Jigsaw  made a surprise return and gets TJP’s abandoned spot against Zach Sabre Jr. He looks to have gotten even better is his time away, and kept up with Sabre well with some great back and forth submission wrestling during which they twisted each other in ways the human body isn’t meant to go. Like Gargano, Sabre’s just in the zone right now. Great little match despite being the epitome of foregone conclusion.

Matt Riddle is just way too charismatic and talented for the crowd to boo, particularly in NYC where we love our villains, so he gets big cheers as he mockingly comes out wearing Thatcher’s Evolve Title. He faces another heel traditionally cheered in NY in the returning Roderick Strong, who gets a huge ovation. Despite his skills Roderick usually doesn’t click with me for some reason, but he had a great match here with Riddle. The two cocky competitors taunting each other, Strong’s aggressive approach to the match, and Riddle’s continued… well, evolution as a young wrestler all came together nicely. Big submission victory for Riddle to keep him rolling over everyone on his way to a no-holds-barred title shot against Thatcher in August. Show of respect handshake after the match, which again shouldn’t be happening with Riddle.

Riddle grabbed a mic and taunts Thatcher after the match, which brought out the champ. Recent booking of Thatcher and his methodical style are starting to turn the crowd against him, and combined with the latter’s aforementioned charisma the crowd actually cheers when Riddle rubs the title belt on his crotch in disrespect. Hathaway interrupts their confrontation to question Riddle about where he was while the rest of Catch Point was “defending the company” earlier, demand Riddle shine the belt up for TJP’s eventual victory tomorrow (more crotch rubbing from Riddle to big laughs/applause), and challenge him to a match in September against TJP. Riddle is clearly a heel getting cheered because of how good he is, but the rest of Catch Point are playing half face/half heel characters that drive me crazy. I don’t mind the group having both, but Hathaway and TJP in particular are legitimately over as heels now and having Hathaway talk about “defending the company” is so ridiculously counter-productive.

Riddle accepts the challenge, reminds everyone that Thatcher promised to hurt anyone who touches the title, then throws it to Hathaway. Thatcher pretends to understand it wasn’t Hathaway’s intention/fault, but then grabs his hand and “breaks his finger” to Riddle’s amusement on the outside. However as Riddle starts to head back music hits and out comes the night’s challenger for the Evolve title, Marty Scurll. Great triple face off considering Scurll wrestles Riddle the next day. Scurll’s look is awesome, coming out with small sunglasses, an umbrella, and a white fur coat. Riddle sneaks back in the ring because he “forgot what’s his” and leaves with the belt, prompting an odd stare from the challenger and an amused one from Thatcher.

“Hush little Tatcher, don’t say a thing. I’m gonna hurt you with my chick-en wing.” Like Riddle, Marty Scrull is way too charismatic to be booed in NYC and the crowd is firmly behind the Villain in this match, with Timothy Thatcher getting all the boos. One heckler in the front row got particularly annoying shouting out variations telling Thatcher he sucks every other minute. Your valiant champion running a gauntlet of heels to prove he deserves his title should not be getting that kind of reaction if booked properly. While this wasn’t quite what it could have been, I enjoyed it. Scurll targeted the arm to set up his trademark finish that beat Thatcher last time they faced, and Thatcher weathered the storm for another successful defense (to tremendous boos when Scurll tapped).

TJP rushed the ring afterward but the rest of Catch Point holds him off, while Riddle just perches on a corner and chuckles. Gulak gets in Thatcher’s face, but appears to want to be sportsman like about their mutual hatred. This dynamic of Gulak, Yehi, and Williams being driven faces in a group with antagonistic, in-it-for-themselves heels TJP and Riddle would be really awesome if Gulak and Williams had explicitly turned face at some point and if there weren’t weird things like Hathaway’s earlier comments. TJP eventually gets by his stablemates to cheap shot Thatcher with a kick that drops the champ. Gulak looks annoyed with TJP and Riddle smiles wider.

Drew Galloway and Dustin come out as Thatcher leaves for their match for the Evolve Tag Team Titles against Drew Gulak and Tracy Williams (c). Galloway is playing a great resentful heel trying to bring down Evolve from within and Dustin slid right into the role beside him perfectly. This was the serious, chip-on-his-shoulder heel Chuckie T we all wanted to see during his feud with Gargano a few years back. Interesting to see former Gentlemen’s Club partners Dustin and Gulak go at it. Solid main event that as expected once the surprise challenge was laid out saw new Tag Champions crowned. Galloway and Dustin just shred it on the mic afterwards, talking about how Galloway was going to rip the heart out of Evolve the next night by defeating Gargano and in August they’d be at full strength with them, Chris Hero, Cody Rhodes, and ECIII. Dustin asked where all the fans where when he was left off shows. “Chuck Taylor is dead, you morons killed him.”

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Overall

Despite my criticisms of the approach to some of the booking, the stories being told are compelling overall and as usual Evolve delivered plenty of fantastic in ring action. This was a great card top to bottom with diverse matches and a big surprise return that lead to intriguing developments heading into the rest of the summer shows. The pace was kept up nicely as angles intertwined and matches led directly into other match. Fun show definitely worth catching the replay for.

Can’t wait to see Riddle vs Scurll on the next one.

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In my awesome new Bro t-shirt meeting incredible rising star Matt Riddle.

Japan Cuts 2016: Bitter Honey and Lowlife Love Reviews

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2016 started on July 14th and is running through July 24th. My thoughts on last year’s festival can be read starting here.

My first viewings this year were the two films shown on Friday July 15th.

Bitter Honey

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So here we have a love story of sorts featuring an aging writer, a goldfish come to life as a young woman, and a ghost. Yet the superb acting and careful mix of comedy and drama make the absurd premise work and present an engaging narrative to follow along with.

Fumi Nikaido’s Akako pops right off the screen with an energy that’s contagious. Her playfulness gives the movie its heart and gratefully lightens its heavy themes. The movie’s wardrobe and background visuals enhance the focus on her, with her vibrant red dresses standing out as much as her infectious personality against the more subdued world around her. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, capturing the emotion behind the depicted events and conveying even the most ridiculous elements with total commitment and conviction.

I’m not sure everything came together quite perfectly, as certain aspects could have been better addressed/explained and I’m positive I didn’t catch nearly all of the symbolism and significance of some scenes (mostly those involving the mysterious upper floor of the author’s home). The author is intentionally unlikable in numerous ways, which could have been softened a little to better effect. I understand his characterization was an important part of the movie, but a couple of things could have been scaled back without losing that element and at the same time adding some extra empathy to the events that unfold. That said there’s just enough about him to sympathize with to keep the audience engaged.

As a side note, I also feel the often quoted movie summary (which was also paraphrased for us during the screening’s introduction) explaining that the ghost of the writer’s former lover “helps Akako realize her own desires, activating her agency and frustrating the one-sided male fantasy the writer is so keen to continue” over simplifies things a bit too much and somewhat shortchanges the ghost’s (played by Yoko Maki) nuanced role and intentions as well as the way the themes arise in the movie.  I won’t go into detail to avoid major spoilers, but while the statement isn’t wrong per se the movie I saw didn’t quite feel fairly described by it.

Bitter Honey is an extremely odd movie where a strong center and phenomenal acting beneath the surreal elements and absurd premise make it all work splendidly. Despite a few imperfections I really enjoyed this and it leaves the viewer with a lot of interesting things to think about. And even with a great supporting cast and a strong narrative as draws, I have to agree with other reviewers that Fumi Nikaido’s performance alone was easily worth the price of admission.

Lowlife Love

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On the opposite end of the spectrum from the playfulness of Bitter Honey is an extremely dark tale about a bunch of lowlifes who dream of success in the film industry. This is the story of horrible people trying to survive in/break into a horrible industry, yet is played for comedy about half the time.

Lowlife Love is definitely not a bad movie. Far from it. It’s extremely well shot and acted, to the point where it’s very easy to get caught up in everything at an emotional level. This makes certain scenes incredibly powerful, to the point where I felt like I had been gut punched a few times and was extremely angry at what was happening during others. Any film that can evoke those kind of reactions is impressive. But there was nothing to counter it. The audience is deprived even the slightest glimmers of hope. This was brutally hard to watch in parts and the valve was never released, as the attempted humor was as relentlessly bleak as everything else and felt out of place and uncomfortable rather than lightening the mood to any lasting effect.

The film has a misogynist edge to its female characters, and I was pleased when the moderator asked the director/writer about the portrayal of women during the Q&A. He explained it not as a conscious choice that he was going to approach the female characters that way, but that he was illustrating the harsh realities of the film industry in Japan. I understand this to an extent, but if this was meant to be an expose of sorts then certain tonal aspects and plot points are quite incongruous to that. Also the explanation rings a little hollow considering one female character exists in the film simply to repeatedly remind us how much of an ass the main character is, and another solely for sex related jokes who is later revealed to be underage.

I understand that these are not supposed to be good people and we are supposed to cheer for their success despite that, and the film does manage to infuse that feeling overall. But there are things that undermine that aspect too, and the single character that remains likable and uncorrupted is given practically no spotlight or story throughout the film.

Again Lowlife Love is well done on a technical level and there are stories worth telling and things worth thinking about here, but they fall short of their potential in the execution and the movie is just so depressing I can’t possibly recommend it. It deserved to be screened, but I can’t say I liked it.

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Q&A with producer Adam Torel, director Eiji Uchida, and actor Denden after the screening

 

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Will be back with more reviews as Japan Cuts continues. 🙂