Review: ‘Bullet Train’ (2022), starring Brad Pitt

August 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Brad Pitt and Benito A Martínez Ocasio (also known as Bad Bunny) in “Bullet Train” (Photo by Scott Garfield/Columbia Pictures)

“Bullet Train” (2022)

Directed by David Leitch

Some language in Japanese, Spanish and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Japan, the action film “Bullet Train” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A down-on-his luck American assassin has conflicts with international criminals during a ride on a fast-moving train traveling through Japan. 

Culture Audience: “Bullet Train” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Brad Pitt; the novel on which the movie is based; and movies that give more importance to loud violence instead of an interesting and innovative story.

Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in “Bullet Train” (Photo by Scott Garfield/Columbia Pictures)

The jumbled and repetitive “Bullet Train” is just a fast-moving train wreck. The movie has plenty of famous co-stars but ultimately has little substance or imagination as an action comedy. “Bullet Train” over-relies on too many similar gags until it all becomes very dull and obnoxious. After a while, the action starts to look stale and formulaic. With few exceptions, the movie’s characters are no better than soulless, computer-generated characters in a video game.

Directed by David Leitch and written by Zak Olkewicz, “Bullet Train” is based on Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 Japanese novel “MariaBeetle,” which was translated in English and renamed “Bullet Train” in 2021. In the book, all the characters are Japanese. The “Bullet Train” movie has a cast of international characters, with characters from the United States and the United Kingdom getting most of the screen time. Characters from Japan, Russia and Mexico are secondary characters. “Bullet Train” takes place primarily in Japan but the movie was filmed at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California.

Prior to directing “Bullet Train,” Leitch directed the action feature films “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (released in 2019) “Deadpool 2” (released in 2018) and “Atomic Blonde,” released in 2017. What all of these movies have in common is that they bit off more than they can chew. They’re very energetic when it comes to action scenes, but they’re very cluttered with sloppily edited characters and plot tangents that don’t necessarily serve the story very well. “Bullet Train” follows that same pattern. A better director would bring more finesse and charm to these movies instead of trying to make audiences think that violent action scenes are enough to make a good action flick.

People don’t really need to read the “Bullet Train”/”MariaBeetle” novel before seeing the “Bullet Train” movie. In fact, people who don’t know anything about the novel might be less disappointed in the “Bullet Train” movie, which dumbs down a lot of things about the novel. The “Bullet Train” movie removes a lot of the intrigue and personality that can be found in the novel, and substitutes it with an emphasis on staging scenes that are supposed to be outrageously violent.

In the “Bullet Train” movie, seven people on board the Nippon Speedline train going from Tokyo to Kyoto find their lives colliding and interwined because of various criminal activities:

  • Ladybug (played by Brad Pitt) is a cynical and unlucky American assassin, whose current mission is to steal a briefcase full of ransom money.
  • Tangerine (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a smooth-talking British assassin who likes to wear suits and gold jewelry but sometimes loses his seemingly suave cool with his hair-trigger temper.
  • Lemon (played by Brian Tyree Henry) is Tangerine’s more even-tempered adoptive bother/partner in crime, who takes a more philosophical view of their assassin work and who is fixated on the children’s book/cartoon character Thomas the Tank Engine.
  • The Prince (played by Joey King) is a sociopathic killer who disguises her evil by looking like an innocent teenage schoolgirl. (The character of the Prince was male in the “Bullet Train” novel.)
  • Kimura (played by Andrew Koji) is a quiet, low-level criminal from Japan who’s out for revenge against the Prince for a heinous act committed against Kimura’s son.
  • The Hornet (played by Zazie Beetz) is a sneaky assassin who usually goes undercover in disguise.
  • The Wolf (played by Benito A Martínez Ocasio, also known as Bad Bunny) is a ruthless assassin/gang leader from Mexico.

Ladybug is in constant communication through earpieces with his no-nonsense boss/handler Maria (played by Sandra Bullock), who inexplicably seems to know and see everything on the train. (And no, Ladybug isn’t wearing a secret hidden camera.) Maria is ultimately a character that doesn’t add much to the story except to make Ladybug look even more bungling and foolish than he needed to be.

But in some ways, this odd-couple pairing of Maria and Ladybug would have made a better movie if focused on these two characters, because Bullock (in the limited time that she has in “Bullet Train”) brings a certain charisma to the role that “Bullet Train” lacks overall. Unfortunately, only Maria’s voice is heard for most of “Bullet Train,” which lessens the impact of Bullock’s talent for physical comedy (facial expressions and other body language) that would have benefited “Bullet Train.” It isn’t until toward the end of the movie that Maria appears on screen.

The only interesting trivia note about “Bullet Train” is that cast members Pitt, Bullock and Channing Tatum (who has a useless cameo in “Bullet Train”) were co-stars in another 2022 movie: the romantic comedy “The Lost City.” Neither movie is award-worthy, but at least the comedy in “The Lost City” was depicted in a more skillful way. “Bullet Train” has some sporadic moments where the jokes land as intended, but the rest of the comedy falls very flat. Tatum and “Deadpool” movie franchise star Ryan Reynolds have “Bullet Train” cameos that are quick and underwhelming.

The messy plot of “Bullet Train” involves the kidnapped, unnamed son (played by Logan Lerman) of a Russian mob boss called the White Death (played by Michael Shannon), with Tangerine and Lemon having the responsibility of guarding the son on the train and carrying a briefcase full of ransom money. Ladybug’s job is to steal the money. A running gag in the movie is that Ladybug has encountered some of these criminals before in assassin assignments that he botched, but he has forgotten about these experiences until he’s reminded of them.

Lots of shootouts, explosions, and bloody fights ensue. There’s also a recurring plot device involving snake poison and a Taiwanese Blue Beauty snake. Masi Oka (as the Conductor) and Karen Fukuhara (as Kayda Izumi Concession Girl) have utterly thankless and forgettable roles in this schlockfest.

Except for the wisecracking Ladybug and Kimura’s humble florist father The Elder (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), the characters in “Bullet Train” come across as very hollow, and viewers will have a hard time connecting with most of these characters. There’s no clever mystery in this story that will keep viewers guessing. “Bullet Train” certainly delivers if people want lackluster jokes and cartoonish violence, but it just adds up to a lot of mindless hot air.

Columbia Pictures will release “Bullet Train” in U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,’ starring the voices of Shinobu Ôtake and Cocomi

June 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kikuko (voiced by Cocomi) and Nikuko (voiced by Shinobu Ôtake) in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko”

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: The Japanese animated film “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” which takes place primarily in an unnamed village in Japan, tells the story of an unlucky-in-love single mother named Nikuko and her teenage daughter Kikuko, with a cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Kikuko is somewhat of an outsider at her school, where she pines over a boy she has a crush on, she longs to be accepted by a clique of popular girls, and she is often embarrassed by her mother’s goofy and larger-than-life personality.

Culture Audience: “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime films about family love and the true meaning friendship.

Nikuko (voiced by Shinobu Ôtake) in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” tells a moderately entertaining story about an eccentric single mother and her teenage daughter, who is the story’s narrator. This comedy/drama anime film isn’t great though. It has some problematic mocking of the title character’s large body. The movie’s title is a little misleading because Nikuko (the mother character, voiced by Shinobu Ôtake) isn’t in the film as much as you might think a title character would be. The story is really about Nikuko’s daughter Kikuko (voiced by Cocomi), who is Nikuko’s only child. The movie spends a lot of time on Kikuko’s social interactions with Kikuko’s peers.

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” is based on Kanako Nishi’s 2014 novel of the same name. The novel was also made into a manga series. Satomi Ohshima wrote the “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” movie screenplay. The movie’s animation and performances from the voice actors are perfectly fine. The screenplay is where “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” falters the most.

The beginning of “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” has a montage, with voiceover narration from Kikuko (who’s about 14 or 15 years old), explaining some of Nikuko’s background. Nikuko has a pattern of choosing love partners who are liars, cheaters and con men. These loser boyfriends break Nikuko’s heart and often drain her of her money.

Every time Nikuko has one of these bad breakups, she then moves to another city in Japan, as if she wants to start a new life and try to put her heartbreak behind her. It’s mentioned that Nikuko grew up in an unnamed small town. She moved to Osaka at age 16, and then Nagoya at age 27, and then Yokohana at age 30, and then Tokyo at age 33. And now, at age 35, Nikuko has moved with Kikuko (whom she calls Kukurin as a nickname) to an unnamed small city in Japan.

Nikuko and Kikuko live on a small fishing houseboat owned by Nikuko’s friendly boss Sassan (played by Ikuji Nakamura), who also owns a restaurant/bar called Uwogashi Grill House. Nikuko, who works as a server at Uwogashi Grill House, has had working-class jobs all of her life. She was working at another bar where she met one of her swindler ex-boyfriends. Nikuko doesn’t like to discuss who Kikuko’s father is, so Kikuko has gone through life not knowing anything about her father.

All of Nikuko’s relocations and romantic disappointments have left her “tired,” according to Kikuko. Despite being unlucky in love and experiencing a lot of betrayal, Nikuko has a jolly and exuberant personality. She’s very friendly to strangers, but she doesn’t have many friends. It’s an indication that underneath her extroverted persona, Nikuko is hiding a lot of loneliness and emotional pain.

However, Nikuko gets her greatest joy from being a mother. Kikuko and Nikuko love each other very much, but Kikuko is in that teenage stage of life where Kikuko wants more independence. Nikuko has her share of quirks. As Kikuko explains in the movie’s introduction, Nikuko likes to make puns about numbers and kanji. Nikuko also has an almost juvenile outlook on life, because she likes to make childlike jokes with people. By contrast, Kikuko is serious-minded and introverted.

Nikuko is also the type of person who’s impossible not to notice in a room, because she often talks loudly and can be clumsy. Nikuko also occasionally gets drunk in public. When she gets drunk, she becomes even louder and goofier. And when a parent acts this way, you know what that means for a child, especially if that child is a teenager: That parent is often an embarrassment to the child.

The beginning of “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” somewhat oddly lists Nikuko’s measurements, which seems redundant because people watching the movie can already see that she’s a large-sized woman, in terms of her weight proportion to her body. But for anyone who cares, Nikuko’s measurements are listed as being 151 centimeters tall (which is nearly 5 feet tall) and weighing 67.4 kilograms (or about 148 pounds). One of the movie’s flaws is that it seems fixated on Nikuko’s body size as a way to explain why Nikuko is a social misfit.

It’s not really body shaming, but several times throughout the movie, Nikuko’s body size and eating habits are used for slapstick jokes. She often falls down or gets into physically uncomfortable predicaments because of her weight. There are also multiple scenes of Nikuko devouring large quantities of food, because the filmmakers obviously intended viewers to laugh at Nikuko when she eats.

The movie also has some unnecessary and tacky scenes of Nikuko farting or burping. No one watching this movie needs to know how Nikuko’s digestive system is processing gas, but there it is in unavoidable scenes in “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko.” The movie also hints that Nikuko might have sleep apnea, based on the way she loudly snores and seems to have some difficulty breathing when she sleeps. Any health issues that Nikuko might have are treated as jokes—and this mockery is the movie’s biggest failing.

Nikuko’s physicality is used as the movie’s “comic relief,” but it’s not the movie’s main story. Most of “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” is about Kikuko’s angst over her social situation at her school. This not-very-original teen storyline has Kikuko wanting to be liked by a clique of popular girls, led by a snob named Mori.

Kikuko has a schoolmate named Maria (voiced by Izumi Ishii), who was Kikuko’s closest friend at school. However, Maria has been shunned by Mori and her clique, just because they think Maria isn’t cool enough to hang out with them. Because Kikuko wants to be accepted by Mori’s clique, Kikuko has recently been snubbing Maria too. Kikuko says in a voiceover about her social life at school: “When I transferred here, Maria was the first one to talk to me.” And now, Kikuko says she doubts that Maria will ever talk to her again.

Kikuko, who has a tomboyish appearance, is also insecure about how she looks. She has a secret crush on a schoolmate named Ninomiya (voiced by Natsuki Hanae), who is somewhat of a loner and has a reputation for being a little rebellious. Ninomiya, a shaggy-haired teen who has long bangs that almost cover his eyes, seems to know what Kikuko has a crush on him because he notices that she often stares at him.

One day at school, when Ninomiya and Kikuko are talking with each other, he praises Maria for “dressing like a princess and looking feminine.” This comment makes Kikuko jealous, so she tells Ninomiya that Maria had a plan to be the center of attention, and it backfired. Kikuko tells Ninomiya it’s the reason why Mori’s clique has made Maria an outcast.

It’s a catty side to Kikuko that makes her look small-minded and petty. When Ninomiya points out that Maria and Kikuko used to be close friends, Kikuko has to come to terms with how she also played a role in enabling bullying and making Maria feel excluded. The movie shows how Kikuko then handles this reckoning.

Meanwhile, the movie continues with scenarios that show Kikuko being embarrassed by Nikuko. They take a mother-daughter trip to an aquarium. You can easily predict what happens when Nikuko encounters a wet floor.

And then, there’s a School Sports Day at Kikuko’s school, where students and their parents compete against each other in athletic competitions. You can also easily guess what that means for Nikuko and Kikuko. Ninomiya will be watching whatever ends up happening, which adds to Kikuko’s anxiety about this event.

“Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” has a lot of slapstick comedy, but the movie takes a sharp turn into serious drama when a secret is revealed in the last third of the film. It’s here where “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” somewhat redeems itself in how it portrays Nikuko, who no longer becomes a caricature in this part of the movie. How this secret is revealed puts Nikuko in a different context than just embarrassing herself and Kikuko in a buffoonish way.

The reveal of this secret is meant to add more depth to the story, but it comes so late in the movie, some viewers might perceive it as a manipulative plot twist. Other viewers might be emotionally moved by this secret, while some viewers might even shed some tears over it. After the secret is revealed, it brings up some questions that the movie never answers. Even with all of its shortcomings, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” has a meaningful message about family love and true friendships, but viewers have to watch a lot of the movie’s cliché-driven scenarios before it finally gets to this message.

GKIDS released “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022, with a sneak preview on June 2, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on July 19, 2022. “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko” was originally released in Japan in 2021.

Review: ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland,’ starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella and Bill Moseley

April 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sofia Boutella and Nicolas Cage in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

Directed by Sion Sono

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, in the fictional city called Samurai Town and in a fictional area called Ghostland, the action film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” features a cast of predominantly white and Asian characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A mysterious man is forced to find a ruthless leader’s enslaved concubine, who has escaped. 

Culture Audience: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and anyone who likes action movies that have more style than substance.

Bill Moseley (center) in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” has impressive production design and cinematography, but this visually stylish action flick is too much of an incoherent mess in all other areas to be a truly enjoyable experience. Nicolas Cage’s die-hard fans, who automatically praise everything he does, will probably like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” just because he’s in the movie, in spite of the film’s very obvious failings. Unfortunately, the “Prisoners of the Ghostland” story just too cliché, but the filmmakers try to distract from this unoriginality by cluttering up the movie with predictable fight scenes and some bizarre characters.

Directed by Sion Sono, “Prisoners of the Ghostland”(which takes place in fictional areas of Japan) is essentially a post-apocalyptic film that blends elements of Western movies and samurai movies. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) has the over-used “male hero who has to save a woman” concept as the basis for the protagonist’s main mission in this story. Maybe it’s a joke or maybe the filmmakers were just too lazy to come up with a name for the protagonist (played by Cage), but he doesn’t have a name in the movie. He’s listed in the film credits as Hero.

The Hero character is not exactly an upstanding, morally righteous person. He’s in prison for a bank robbery where he and his partner in crime, named Psycho (played by Nick Cassavetes), murdered several innocent bystanders. (This bank robbery is shown in a very bloody flashback.)

Psycho was in a prison transport vehicle that crashed into a truck carrying nuclear waste, which caused a massive explosion, leading to much of the area becoming a wasteland disaster area. (“Prisoners of the Ghostland” was filmed in Japan and Los Angeles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

A corrupt and twisted leader named the Governor (played by Bill Moseley) has created a settlement community called Samurai Town, which is a combination of a modern Japanese city and American Old West village. As such, people in Samurai Town either dress in traditional Japanese clothing or cowboy/cowgirl gear. The Governor keeps women as sex slaves, whom he calls his “granddaughters.”

One of the enslaved women has escaped. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella), and the Governor lets Hero out of prison to force Hero to find Bernice and bring her back to the Governor. As part of this mercenary task, the Governor forces Hero to wear a black leather outfit that is rigged with a detonator. The bomb on the suit will go off if Hero does not return Bernice in two days.

There are voice recognition buttons on the outfit’s sleeves, so that Bernice can speak into these devices to confirm that she is with Hero. Electro-chargers have been placed around Hero’s neck and testicles that will detonate if he tries to take off this outfit before the task is completed. Instead of taking the black Toyota Celica that has been offered to him, Hero instead decides to leave on a bicycle.

The Governor has a samurai bodyguard/enforcer named Yasujiro (played by Tak Sakaguchi), who catches up to Hero and tells him to use the car, and Hero obliges. However, Hero ends up crashing the car and is carried into a bombed-out area called Ghostland, which can be best be described as a rebellious steampunk community. The leader of the Ghostland tribe is the demented Enoch (played by Charles Glover), who knows that Bernice is there, but he’s doesn’t want to let her go.

You know where this story is headed, of course. The rest of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just a series of one obstacle after another for Hero, who gets into a lot of fights along the way. And did we mention that there are also some zombies in this post-apocalyptic world? (How unoriginal and unnecessary.)

Unfortunately, none of the uneven acting in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” elevates this shoddily told story. The dialogue in this movie is simply atrocious. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” tries every hard to be perceived as a zany action movie, but there’s no wit, charm or unpredictability to this story. For an action flick, it’s got dreadfully sluggish pacing in too many areas.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” also has a lot of characters that are either too bland or so wacky that they’re trying too hard and are therefore annoying. Cage is just doing another version of the angsty loner type that he has already done in many of his other films. The villains are hollow. And most of the supporting characters—including Bernice’s friends Stella (played by Lorena Kotô), Nancy (played by Canon Nawata) and Susie (played by Yuzuka Nakaya)—are underwritten and underdeveloped.

It seems like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” was made with the idea that it will be a cult classic that will inspire other movies, similar to what director George Miller’s 1979 post-apocalyptic action classic “Mad Max” ended up doing for sci-fi action cinema in a “wasteland” setting. However, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” doesn’t have enough meaningful characters to care about to see again in spinoffs or sequels. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just an empty exercise from filmmakers who think that all you need to make a good action movie are memorable set designs, a well-known actor as a headliner, and a variety of fight scenes. That’s not enough to save “Prisoners of the Ghostland” from being a disappointing mishmash of superficial self-indulgence and amateurish storytelling.

RLJE Films released “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Drive My Car’ (2021), starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Masaki Okada and Reika Kirishima

March 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in “Drive My Car” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

“Drive My Car” (2021)

Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Japanese, Korean and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Japan, the dramatic film “Drive My Car” features an all-Asian cast characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: While grieving the death of his wife, a theater director, who’s in charge of staging the Anton Chekhov play “Uncle Vanya,” finds himself unexpectedly tangled up in the life of the young female driver who was assigned to chauffeur him. 

Culture Audience: “Drive My Car” will appeal primarily to people interested in artsy, well-acted but somewhat long-winded movies about personal relationships and trying to heal from grief.

Masaki Okada and Hidetoshi Nishijima in “Drive My Car” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films)

The emotionally layered and very drawn-out “Drive My Car” won’t appeal to people with short attention spans, but it’s an immersive journey that memorably depicts the complexities of human lives. It’s a three-hour movie where the last hour is the best hour. Until then, viewers have to watch how the story slowly unfolds to show how grief can be both a burden and an emotional shield. If viewers have the patience to sit through the first two hours of the movie, they will be rewarded with some knockout acting in that last third of the movie.

“Drive My Car” is based on Haruki Murakami’s Drive My Car” short story that was in his 2014 short-story collection “Men Without Women.” “Drive My Car” director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe adapted the story into the “Drive My Car” screenplay. The movie, which had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won three awards for Best Screenplay, FIPRESCI Prize Competition and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. “Drive My Car” then earned four Oscar nominations: Best Picture (the first movie from Japan to get this Academy Award nomination in this category); Best Director; Best Adapted Screenplay; and Best International Feature Film, a category in which “Drive My Car” has received numerous prizes, including an Academy Award.

In the beginning of “Drive My Car” (which takes place in Japan), 47-year-old writer/actor/director Yûsuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is seemingly happily married to his younger wife Oto Kafuku (played by Reika Kirishima), a former actress who now works as a screenwriter on a TV drama series. They both live in Tokyo. The movie’s opening scene shows the two spouses cuddling naked in bed, in a post-coital embrace. Oto tells Yûsuke a story about a teenage girl who sneaks into the house of a 17-year-old boy named Yamaga, who is her high school crush. Yûsuke asks questions about how this story will evolve.

Oto doesn’t know it yet, but his wife doesn’t have much longer to live. He drives her to work, and she introduces him to an actor named Kôshi Takatsuki (played by Masaki Okada), who’s in his mid-to-late 20s. On another day, Yûsuke comes home unexpectedly to find Oto and Kôshi having sex with each other, but they do not see Yûsuke. A shocked and dismayed Yûsuke quietly leaves, without telling either of them what he saw.

After witnessing this act of infidelity, Oto suddenly dies of a brain hemorrhage, with no warning signs that this would happen. To try to take his mind off of his grief, Yûsuke agrees to got to Hiroshima to be a visiting artist doing a residency at a theater workshop that’s staging the Anton Chekhov play “Uncle Vanya,” which Yûsuke will be directing. Yûsuke is assigned a chauffeur to drive him while he’s working at the festival: Masaki Watari (played by Tôko Miura), a mostly solemn and quiet woman who is 23 years old.

At first, Yûsuke refuses the idea to be driven around. However, the festival supervisors Yuhara (played by Satoko Abe) and Gong Yoon-soo (played by Jin Dae-yeon) insist that Yûsuke have a driver because a previous artist in residence accidentally ran over and killed someone in the past. And to prevent any further liabilities, all artists in residence are required to have a professional driver as part of the job.

Masaki asks Yûsuke if he objects to her being his driver because she’s a young woman. He denies it and says because his red Saab Turbo is an older car with quirks that someone who’s unaccustomed to the car might have a hard time driving. Masaki assures Yûsuke that she’s a very experienced driver. And she makes a deal with him to reassure him: If he’s unhappy with her driving, he can take over at any time.

A lot of the screen time in “Drive My Car” is about these car trips, with lots of scenic aerial shots of the car driving on coastal highways or on busy city streets. But the soul of the story is what develops inside of the car, as Yûsuke and Masaki slowly get to know one another and open up to each other about some of the emotional pain in their lives. Masaki is a financially struggling, aspiring actress, but she has had to put those plans on hold to survive in low-paying “gig economy” jobs to pay her bills.

Meanwhile, “Drive My Car” has numerous scenes about the audition process and rehearsals for “Uncle Vanya.” Observant viewers will notice the parallels in the “Uncle Vanya” story and what Yûsuke goes through in the movie. One of the actors who auditions for the play is Kôshi, who is cast in the role of Vanya, even though Kôshi thinks that he’s too young for the part.

Kôshi thinks that Yûsuke is a more age-appropriate actor for the role, but Yûsuke refuses, because he says that the Vanya role is too emotionally draining, and Yûsuke wants to focus on directing the play. Yûsuke also explains that he’s doing unconventional casting for this version of “Uncle Vanya.” At first, it seems like Yûsuke could be setting up Kôshi to fail in a role that’s beyond Kôshi’s talent and life experience. However, as time goes on, it’s revealed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways why Yûsuke doesn’t want to be an actor in this production.

Kôshi is a ladies’ man who wants Yûsuke to be his acting mentor. However, Yûsuke is somewhat standoffish with Kôshi at first. The movie shows if Yûsuke eventually tells Kôshi that he knows that his late wife Oto and Kôshi had a sexual fling. Kôshi has some other secrets, which are also revealed. There are hints that Kôshi is hiding something when, on more than one occasion, he angrily confronts a man taking photos of him when Kôshi is out in public.

“Drive My Car” is a story about the frailty of relationships and surprising revelations that occur through human connections. Without wallowing in heavy-handed preaching, “Drive My Car” is an artfully made film that invites viewers to show more empathy for people who might seem to have stable or successful lives, but who might be privately going through some emotionally devastating struggles. The movie doesn’t present any easy answers to life’s problems, but it does advocate for people to open their minds to others who might become unexpected companions during times of overwhelming grief and loneliness.

Janus Films released “Drive My Car” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2021. HBO Max premiered the movie on March 2, 2022.

Review: ‘Jujutsu Kaisen 0,’ an adventurous movie prequel from Japan

March 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rika Orimoto and Yuta Okkotsu in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

“Jujutsu Kaisen 0”

Directed by Sunghoo Park

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in Tokyo and Kyoto (and briefly in Sendai City), with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters.

Culture Clash: A socially awkward 16-year-old boy, who is haunted by the spirit of childhood friend, decides to become a sorcerer to put this break the curse of the spirit.

Culture Audience: “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Jujutsu Kaisen” magna and TV series, as well as people who are interested in anime.

Panda, Maki Zen’in and Toge Inumaki in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

In this dazzling and often comedic prequel to the “Jujutsu Kaisen” series, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” should please fans of the series as well as impress new fans who might have this movie as their first “Jujutsu Kaisen” experience. “Jujutsu Kaisen” follows a familiar pattern of anime about teenagers and other young people who have magical powers. Unlike most male protagonists in anime, the central character in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” is wracked with insecurities.

Directed by Sunghoo Park and written by Hiroshi Seko, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” is based on Gege Akutami’s “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” manga series, which is a prequel to the “Jujutsu Kaisen” series. If you’ve made it this far in the review, chances are you’re familiar with the series already. if not, you don’t have to know what that the “Jujutsu Kaisen” series is about to understand or appreciate “Jujutsu Kaisen 0,” which could be viewed as a stand-alone movie.

In “Jujutsu Kaisen 0,” Yuta Okkotsu is a lonely and insecure 16-year-old, who is called on to become a reluctant sorcerer. The movie opens in November 2016, in Tokyo, where Yuta is being attacked by four bullies in his school. Suddenly, a giant ghost that looks like a monster appears and fights back, severely injuring the bullies. Who or what is this ghost?

The avenging spirit is Rika Orimoto, Yuta’s childhood best friend, who died when they were about 9 or 10 years old in their hometown of Sendai City. Rika was tragically killed when she was hit by a car on a street, and Yuta witnessed everything. Not long before she this accident happened, Rika had given Yuta a promise ring and vowed that they would get married to each other when they became adults. Rika also promised to never leave Yuta.

It’s a promise that has caused problems for Yuta, who is blamed for injuring the bullies. Rika has also aggressively come to Yuta’s “rescue” on other occasions, with violent results. Meanwhile, a group of unseen judges gather to decide what will happen to Yuta. The judges have summoned a young adult sorcerer named Satoru Gojo to go to Yuta and train him to banish the spirit of Yuta, among other things.

Satoru Gojo tells a skeptical and terrified Yuta that Yuta will be taken to Jujutsu High, a special school for sorcerer training. Feeling like an outcast anyway, Yuta goes along with the plan. There are only three others who are part of this training program:

  • Maki Zen’in, a sassy and sarcastic know-it-all, who initially disrespects Yuta, because she thinks that Yuta doesn’t have what it takes to be a successful sorcerer.
  • Toge Inumaki, who is quiet and less combative than Maki, and who his more willing to help Yuta.
  • Panda, a panda that provides a lot of comic relief for being over-exuberant, which can lead to clumsy moments.

The rest of the movie follows their adventures in sorcerer training, as well as what happens in the inevitable showdown to rein in Rika. “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” doesn’t fall into the trap that other adventure films fall into when they try to clutter up the story with too many characters. By keeping the story streamlined, focused and easy to understand, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” can have wide appeal to many different age groups.

The voices of the “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Megumi Ogata as Yuta Okkotsu, Yuichi Nakamura as Satoru Gojo, Kana Hanazawa as Rika Orimoto, Mikako Komatsu as Maki Zen’in, Koki Uchiyama as Toge Inumaki and Tomokazu Seki as Panda. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Kayleigh McKee as Yuta Okkotsu, Kaiji Tang as Satoru Gojo, Anairis Quiñones as Rika Orimoto, Allegra Clark as Maki Zen’in, Xander Mobus as Toge Inumaki and Matthew David Rudd as Panda.

One thing in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” that might be an issue for some viewers is how it depicts the female characters as the most problematic. Rika’s obsessive love and her appearance in monster form are over-the-top ways to make feminine infatuation look demonic. She also has temper tantrums that make her look mentally ill. In addition, Maki is the most difficult living human in the story. However, there is some redemption for at least one of these female characters, even though she’s portrayed as very antagonistic for most of the story.

The visually striking animation in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” is at its best during the last third of the movie, when the biggest battles happen. The movie’s pacing keeps a level of interest that serves the story quite well. Overall, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” is the type of anime that does justice to the manga version. Stay for the end-credits scene if you want a hint of how the story might continue in a movie sequel.

Crunchyroll released “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” in U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022. The movie was released in Japan in 2021.

Review: ‘Belle’ (2021), an animated version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from Japan

February 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Beast/Dragon and Belle in “Belle” (Image courtesy of Studio Chizu)

“Belle” (2021)

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in unnamed village and in an online virtual world called U, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters.

Culture Clash: A misfit teenage girl creates an online persona called Belle, who becomes the most popular singer in the universe, and she befriends a hunted creature called Dragon under this new persona in this online world.

Culture Audience: “Belle” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime films and unique interpretations of Disney classics.

Hiro and Suzu in “Belle” (Image courtesy of Studio Chizu)

“Belle” is more than just another version of “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s a highly imaginative, visually stunning and emotionally stirring film that embodies some of the best anime of the 21st century. Written and directed by Mamoru Hosada, “Belle” captures the essence of “Beauty and the Beast” but also brings many unique elements to the story, so that “Belle” shouldn’t be considered a remake but a true reimagining.

The central character in Belle is a misunderstood student named Suzu, who is about 15 or 16 years old. She lives with her unnamed widower father in a small, unnamed village in Japan. Suzu is somewhat of a loner who has been depressed and grieving over the loss of her mother about five or six years earlier in a tragic accident, when her mother saved a girl from drowning in a river, and Suzu witnessed her mother’s death.

Because of this trauma and grief, Suzu has grown emotionally distant from her father, who tries to connect with Suzu. But she usually acts irritated by him, so they don’t communicate much with each other. Suzu has self-esteem issues too. She doesn’t think she’s as attractive and intelligent as her peers, so she tends to be quiet and emotionally withdrawn from people. She pours her thoughts into her journals, where she writes and sometimes sketches illustrations.

Suzu is haunted by the memory of begging her mother not to go in the river to save the drowning girl. This memory is shown as a flashback multiple times in the movie. Suzu writes in her journal: “Why did mom go in the river and leave me behind? Why was a stranger’s life more important than her life with me?”

At school, Suzu’s only real friend is a sassy computer whiz named Hiro, who sometimes gives pep talks to Suzu to boost her confidence and other times outright insults Suzu when she becomes frustrated by Suzu’s self-pitying ways. Hiro has a blunt way of communicating that might sometimes hurt people’s feelings, but Hiro believes it’s just being brutally honest.

For example, one day at school, Suzu and Hiro admire from afar a pretty and popular student named Ruku, who is described as “the school princess” and president of their student class. When Suzu laments to Hiro that she will never be as pretty and popular as Ruku, Hiro agrees. However, Hiro comes up with an idea that she thinks will help Suzu with her self-esteem issues.

In “Belle,” there’s an online virtual universe called U, where people can create their own personas/avatars, using their real-life DNA. Here’s how U is described in the movie’s opening scene: “U is the ultimate virtual community, created by five sages called the Voices, who preside over the intellect of this world. It’s the biggest Internet society in history that’s still growing with 5 billion registered users.”

The description continues: “U employs body-sharing technology. Your avatar in U is called AS. It is already created, based on your biometric information. You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.”

Hiro suggests that Suzu create a new persona in U. At first, Suzu is reluctant and a little scared to do so. But when she tentatively starts fiddling around with the app to create a U avatar, she accidentally scans a photo of Ruku from a student group photo and can’t reverse this action. And the next thing you know, Suzu has a new U persona: a pink-haired beauty named Belle, whose only facial characteristic that she shares with Suzu are Suzu’s freckles.

One of the things that Suzu is self-conscious about in real life is her singing. But as Belle in U, she immediately becomes not just a hit singer but also the most popular singer in the universe. That’s because, as explained in the movie, the body-sharing technology of U brings out people’s hidden strengths in their U avatars. Belle’s sudden fame gives her millions of fans, but also the inevitable backlash from “haters,” some of whom are other U celebrities who are envious that Belle has surpassed them in popularity.

Seeing this online criticism upsets Suzu. When she complains to Hiro about it, Hiro has this response: “They’re just jealous. If you only get compliments, you only have hardcore fans. Minor league. In U, stardom is built on mixed reception.” Hiro adds, “Be more confident!”

When Suzu worries that people will find out that she’s Belle, Hiro says in response: “Nobody will ever guess that Belle is a mousy country bumpkin like you.” Because Belle has become a rich and famous singer, Suzu feels guilty about getting all this money under a fake persona. And so, Hiro tells Suzu: “Don’t worry. I’ll anonymously donate every dollar to charity.”

There’s a lot more trouble in U than online trolls and bullying. Seven months earlier, a mysterious creature called Beast (also known as Dragon) has been wreaking havoc by physically lashing out at random residents of U. The attacks have gotten so bad, Beast has now become a wanted entity who is sought after by law enforcement for punishment.

Beast has horns and wears a cloak designed to look like there are bruises on the coat. Other than that, no one seems to know who the Beast really is. Eight superheroes called the Justices, who are the protectors of U, are on the hunt for Beast. The leader of the Justices is a blonde alpha male named Justin, who is the most ambitious one in the group who wants to find and capture Beast.

Through a series of circumstances, Belle ends up meeting Beast, who lives as a recluse in his castle. He is very standoffish and rude to her at first. He even orders her to leave on more than one occasion. But eventually, Belle ends up gaining Beast’s trust, and they become close. Belle is aware that Beast is being hunted, but she is determined not to betray him by turning him into the authorities.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Beast and guessing the real identity of Beast have become an obsession for the residents of U. All sorts of people are accused of being Beast, with many having to prove their innocence. And this guessing game becomes big business, as Beast merchandise and other Beast-related ventures become hot-selling moneymakers. It’s this movie’s clever commentary on how gossip and fads quickly spread.

One of the ways that “Belle” is a big departure from other interpretations of “Beauty and the Beast” is that there is no romance between Belle and Beast. Instead, they form a genuine friendship that doesn’t always go smoothly. Suzu/Belle’s feels a connection to Beast, because they are both lost and wounded souls who want to hide their true selves from the world.

“Belle” also offers an incisive view of how people create online personas to feel better about themselves because they don’t like their lives in the real world. The movie also doesn’t shy away from depicting how this fakery can actually backfire in people’s attempts to boost their egos. With Suzu, it somewhat messes with her mind that she’s so popular in U, but she’s still an ignored “nobody” in the real world. People around Suzu go crazy for Belle, so Suzu starts to wonder if they would still feel the same way about Belle if they knew Suzu was the real person behind this avatar.

However, Suzu isn’t quite the outcast that she thinks she is. At school, Suzu seems to be oblivious to attention from a fellow student named Shinobu Hisatake, whom she rejects every time he makes an attempt to hang out with her. Suzu and Shinobu have known each other since childhood. He’s described as someone who proposed marriage to Suzu when she was 6 years old.

Another student at their school is Kamishin, who is bullied by some other students for being eccentric. Kamishin has started a canoe club where he is the only member. He seems comfortable with who he is, but could he be hiding any dark feelings about being a social pariah? Suzu, Hiro and Shinobu all know Kamishin, but they aren’t close friends with him.

Meanwhile, viewers will also be wondering who’s the person behind the Beast avatar, who definitely identifies as male. That’s why in addition to being a story about love between friends, “Belle” is also a mystery. There’s a major plot development in “Belle” that’s a big departure from the usual “Disney princess movie” formula. This twist to the story comes in the last third of the film and results in the movie’s biggest emotional moments.

“Belle” not only has a richly layered story, but the anime visuals are top-notch. The world of U can be dark and foreboding (such as Beast’s castle) or a brightly lit, vibrant paradise filled with fantastical whimsy, such as the environment where Belle does her musical performances. Suzu’s world is also vividly designed as a small town that affected by modern technology. The songs in “Belle” suit the story, but the visuals and screenplay are the movie’s strongest high points.

The voices of the “Belle” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Belle” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Kaho Nakamura as Suzu/Belle, Takeru Satoh as Beast/Dragon, Lilas Ikuta as Hiro, Ryō Narita as Shinobu, Shōta Sometani as Kamishin, Kōji Yakusho as Suzu’s father, Sumi Shimamoto as Suzu’s mother, Tina Tamashiro as Ruka and Toshiyuki Morikawa as Justin. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Kylie McNeill as Suzu/Belle, Paul Castro Jr. as Beast/Dragon, Jessica DiCicco as Hiro, Manny Jacinto as Shinobu, Brandon Engman as Kamishin, Ben Lepley as Suzu’s father, Julie Nathanson as Suzu’s mother, Hunter Schafer as Ruka and Chace Crawford as Justin.

Even though “Belle” is a great anime achievement, the movie was not nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Hosoda’s 2018 film “Mirai” was Oscar-nominated in this category, even though “Belle” is a far superior movie. We’ll never really know why “Belle” got snubbed by the Academy Awards, but a logical explanation might be that not enough Academy Awards voters saw “Belle.” With or without an Oscar nomination, “Belle” is worth seeing as a visual treat and as an emotionally touching story of substance.

GKIDS released “Belle” for special sneak-preview screenings in select U.S. cinemas on January 12, 2022. “Belle” arrived in wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022. The movie was originally released in Japan in 2021.

Review: ‘Yakuza Princess,’ starring Masumi, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Tsuyoshi Ihara

October 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Masumi in “Yakuza Princess” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Yakuza Princess”

Directed by Vicente Amorim

Japanese, Portuguese and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and in Brazil, the action flick “Yakuza Princess” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people, black people and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A trinket shop worker, who was orphaned as a baby, finds out that she comes from a powerful Japanese crime family, and it’s her destiny to be a samurai-sword-wielding warrior.

Culture Audience: “Yakuza Princess” will appeal primarily to people who interested in violent action movies and don’t care if the plot is an idiotic mess.

Masumi and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in “Yakuza Princess” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

Japanese women rarely get to star in an action flick, so it’s a shame that “Yakuza Princess” is such mindless junk that isn’t even a worthy showcase for the female protagonist. The men in this incoherent movie actually get most of the screen time. The movie’s title character is more of a sidekick who’s in service of a story that cares more about what happens to a European stranger who ends up in Brazil and in Japan to look for a mysterious and rare sword. In other words, don’t be fooled into thinking that the “yakuza princess” is the only leading character in this horrible movie. It’s a “bait and switch” title where the female protagonist’s fate is largely decided by men.

Directed by Vicente Amorim, “Yakuza Princess,” is based on Danilo Beyruth’s graphic novel “Samurai Shiro,” which would have been a more accurate title for this movie because the film puts a lot of emphasis on a character named Shiro. Amorim co-wrote the “Yakuza Princess” screenplay with Fernando Toste, Kimi Lee and “Yakuza Princess” producer Tubaldini Shelling. Unfortunately, having four people write this movie’s screenplay just means that four people, instead of the usual one or two screenwriters, made a mess of the story.

In “Yakuza Princess,” so much screen time is given in the beginning to Shiro (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), viewers will start to wonder at what point they’re going to see the “yakuza princess” part of the movie. There’s a lot of scenes of Shiro getting into fights and trying to find out who he is and his purpose in life before significant time is spent on the identity of the “yakuza princess.” The men of the yakuza (the term used for Japanese mafia) also spend a lot of time fighting with each other before viewers see any of the “yakuza princess,” her fighting skills and her identity journey.

Shiro actually doesn’t have a name for the majority of the film because he’s a European stranger who has amnesia for most of the story. He wakes up strapped to a hospital bed in São Paulo, Brazil, with no idea of who he is and why he’s there. Shiro doesn’t waste time in breaking out of the hospital in his first of many bloody action scenes. He then spends most of the story looking for a rare samurai sword, which has a connection to a Japanese woman in her early 20s named Akemi (played by Masumi), who lives in São Paulo and works as a trinket shop employee.

Akemi is really a “yakuza princess,” who finds out that her immediate family members (her parents and older brother) were killed in a mass murder when she was a baby in Japan. She was kidnapped, and ended up spending most of her life in São Paulo. This isn’t spoiler information because this massacre and kidnapping are shown at the very beginning of the film.

Akemi’s family wasn’t an ordinary family. She came from a family called the Takikawa clan, which had an influential hold on a crime syndicate in Japan. There was a power struggle in the syndicate that resulted in her father’s enemies plotting the massacre to get him and his heirs out of the way so the enemies could take over. These foes know that someone saved Akemi from being murdered along with her family. Whoever kidnapped her did so to put Akemi into hiding under a new identity in São Paulo, which has a large Japanese community.

But here’s why “Yakuza Princess” is so moronic: Akemi is supposed to be shocked when she finds out that she comes from a crime family. And yet, the first scene of her in the movie shows Akemi getting trained in samurai sword fighting skills from a middle-aged man named Chiba (played by Toshiji Takeshima), who has told her that her grandfather brought her to Chiba when Akemi was 6 years old.

And then, when Chiba is training Akemi, Chiba says, “You have the vocation to become a great warrior, but to fulfill it, you must leave your grief and anger.” Akemi replies, “I’m trying.” Chiba then gives her a samurai sword and says, “Let discipline shape your mind. You and your sword must become one. Allow this principle to guide you in your journey. It’s what your grandfather wanted.”

Anyone with common sense can see that all this talk about being destined to be a warrior and Akemi having a grandparent who wanted her to have fight skills all add up to her having a family that wants her to get extensive training to defend herself for a good reason. It’s all pretty obvious, but Akemi is too simple-minded to figure it out. You’d think she’d be curious about why her grandafather wanted Akemi to have these fight skills, since she’s an orphan who’s not in touch with any of her biological family members.

But apparently, Akemi has to wait for Shiro to show up so he can help solve the mystery of her past. It’s all so very patriarchal. And just like a princess fairy tale where an ordinary young woman transforms into a princess during a milestone event, Akemi becomes an ass-kicking warrior on her 21st birthday. It happens when she’s celebrating her birthday by doing karaoke at a bar, and she’s sexually harasssed by a creep. The next thing you know, she’s doing high kicks and martial arts brawling until a cop breaks up the fight. He best friend Samara (played by Ndudzo Siba) also gets involved in the fray.

“Yakuza Princess” is one of those mind-numbing martial arts movies that thinks a bunch of fight scenes strung together are enough to make up for a flimsy plot. Unfortunately, none of the acting is very good either. Rhys Meyers has an “I don’t care, just give me my paycheck” attitude that seeps through his performance. Masumi is best known as a singer and makes her feature-film acting debut in “Yakuza Princess.” All it shows is that Masumi needs to take more acting lessons.

And the feuding villains who want Akemi dead because she’s the rightful heir to her father’s yakuza empire are all so forgettable and generic. There are some time-wasting scenes showing how a yakuza thug named Takeshi (played by Tsuyoshi Ihara) is competing with another yakuza thug named Kojiro (played by Eijiro Ozaki) to be the top-ranking henchman for their boss, who views this rivalry like watching two schoolboys squabbling. The inevitable torture and fight scenes involving these gangsters are absolutely soulless. And so is this entire movie.

Magnet Releasing released “Yakuza Princess” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train,’ an anime fantasy adventure from Japan

May 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tanjiro Kamado in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no YaibaThe Movie: Mugen Train” (Image by Koyoharu Gotoge/SHUEISHA/Aniplex/Ufotable) 

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train”

Directed by Haruo Sotozaki

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1900s Japan, the animation film “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” features Japanese characters involved in adventures in demon slaying.

Culture Clash: During a train ride, a master demon slayer and four of his assistants fight a demon.

Culture Audience: Aside from the obvious target audience of people who are fans of the “Demon Slayer” TV series, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime or any animated films that have engaging fantasy adventure stories with graphic fight scenes.

Enmu in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” (Image by Koyoharu Gotoge/SHUEISHA/Aniplex/Ufotable)

The animated film “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” (based on the popular “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” anime TV series and comic book series) has broken records to become to highest-grossing movie of all time in Japan and the top-grossing movie worldwide of 2020. Since its release in Asia in October 2020, the movie has since become a chart-topping hit. And in 2021, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” became a hit in several places outside of Asia, including the United States, several countries in Europe and in South America.

Is this movie worth all the hype? Mostly yes, but the movie is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like anime that have more adult-oriented violence than a typical anime film. The movie (directed by Haruo Sotozaki) has some eye-popping visuals that deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. And the story is an immersive experience should please fans of animated stories that blend fantasy adventures with some horror elements.

Where the movie falls a little short is in how it introduces the characters. If people don’t know anything about these characters before seeing the movie, the backstories might be a little rushed for newcomers to process everything as easily as people who are already familiar with these characters. Anyone going into this movie with no knowledge of the “Demon Slayer” canon might find themselves at times lost and occasionally bored by the film.

However, that doesn’t mean that “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” is difficult to understand. Anime production company Ufotable is credited with writing the screenplay, based on a story by Koyoharu Gotoge. The movie’s plot continues with the central theme of the franchise: Red-haired and courageous teenage boy Tanjirō Kamado (the protagonist) and his two male friends: blonde and fearful Zenitsu Agatsuma and impulsive hothead Inosuke Hashibira (who wears a boar’s head mask to hide his delicate-looking face) have teamed up with a young adult Flame Hashira warrior named Kyōjurō Rengoku to slay demons.

Tanjirō, who is the franchise’s main protagonist, has a tragedy which is feuling his motivations to find and kill demons: His parents and three brothers were slaughtered by demons, while his younger sister Nezuko Kamado was turned into a demon. Tanjirō keeps Nezuko hidden, usually in a knapsack that he has with him. However, Nezuko has not turned into a completely evil demon, because she is known to help Tanjirō and his friends when they need it.

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” begins with Tanjirō, Zenitsu and Hashibira boarding a train. The three pals meet up with Kyōjurō on the train, where he’s having a meal. During the beginning of the movie, there’s a running joke in that Kyōjurō keeps saying, “Tasty!” while he’s eating.

The main demon in the story is Enmu, Lower Rank One of the Twelve Kizuki, who finds four young passengers who have insomnia and orders them to enter the demon slayers’ dreams. The rest of the movie has a fever-dream quality where the demon slayers slip in and out of consciousness to fight Enmu and other demons.

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” doesn’t hold back on blood and gore. The movie dosn’t really start to pick up steam until the haflway mark. And from there, it’s an adrenaline-pumping ride as Enmu literally takes over the train in a way that won’t be revealed in this review. The visuals can be stunning, but not anything extraordinary. However, there are some genuinely creepy images in the movie, such as Enmu’s hand, which has a mind of its own.

Most viewers of this movie are watching for the fight scenes. And the movie should meet or surpass expetations. It should come as no surprise that Tanjirō and Enmu have a big showdown (it’s one of the highlights of the film), some of which takes place on top of the train. Kyōjurō also has climactic scene that’s an epic battle.

Because this movie is dubbed in several different languages (and also available in Japanese with subtitles), several voice actors portray the same characters. In the Japanese-language version, the voice actors are Natsuki Hanae asTanjirō Kamado; Yoshitsugu Matsuoka as Inosuke Hashibira; Satoshi Hino as Kyōjurō Rengoku; Akari Kitō as Nezuko Kamado; and Daisuke Hirakawa as Enmu/Lower Moon One. In the English-language version, the voice actors are Zach Aguilar asTanjirō Kamado; Bryce Papenbrook as Inosuke Hashibira; Aleks Le as Kyōjurō Rengoku; Abby Trott as Nezuko Kamado; and Landon McDonald as Enmu/Lower Moon One.

The acting and dialogue in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” are what viewers might expect from an anime film. The biggest appeal that the movie has is how it hooks people into this world (there are flashbacks to give the characters backstories) and gives viewers many reasons to root for the heroic characters. These demon slayers are far from perfect, and that’s why people of all ages can relate them any or all of them in some way.

This movie also doesn’t gloss over the tragedy and trauma of murders. Tanjirō has flashback scenes with his family members when they were alive, and it gives emotional delpth to the tremendous loss that he has suffered. Tanjirō has solidarity and acceptance in his new family of demon slayers, but viewers will also sense that he will be forever haunted by the tragic murders of his biological family members. And just like any good story, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” leaves audiences wanting more at the end.

Aniplex of America and Funimation released “Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Movie: Mugen Train” in U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is June 22, 2021. The movie was released in Japan in 2020.

Review: ‘Origin of the Species,’ starring Hiroshi Ishiguro, Bruce Duncan, Takashi Ikegami, Matthias Scheutz, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, Andy Schwartz and Matt McMullen

November 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hiroshi Ishiguro (pictured third from left) with his colleagues and their look-alike robots in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

“Origin of the Species”

Directed by Abigail Child 

Some language in Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States and Japan, the documentary “Origin of the Species” features a racially diverse group (white, Asian and African American) of scientists, entrepreneurs and consumers discussing how artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology can impact people’s lives.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary are working to have more automated robots in the world, but there are always ethical questions about how much control should be given to the robots.

Culture Audience: “Origin of the Species” will appeal primarily to people interested in futuristic technology, particularly when it comes to how artificial intelligence can be used in human-looking inventions.

BINA48 robot in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

People who watch the documentary “Origin of the Species” will probably have two kinds of reactions: being fascinated or being creeped-out by all the demonstrations of artificial intelligence (A.I.) that is being developed for human-looking inventions. And it’s very possible for someone to have both reactions when watching this film. Viewers of the movie get a diverse and very artsy peek into what scientists and other people are doing with A.I. and related technology. If you’re the type of person who’s intrigued by robots, “Origin of the Species” is your kind of movie, because a great deal of the film is about robots.

“Origin of the Species,” directed by Abigail Child, is the third movie in her trilogy about female desire, following “Unbound” (a depiction of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley’s life through imaginary home movies) and 2017’s “Acts & Intermissions,” a documentary about activist Emma Goldman. Although “Origin of the Species” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020) has mostly male inventors interviewed in the film, their robotic creations are often of the female gender or are gender-neutral.

The documentary will make people think about why A.I.—whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Realbotix’s sex robots—often take on the personas of human females. Is it because females are considered more submissive and less threatening? Observant viewers in the documentary will notice that the robots with distinct male personas are often built to do physical tasks. The robots with the female personas are usually built to be sympathetic and obedient companions.

But this is not a boring science/technology film. What’s great about “Origin of the Species” is that stream-of-consciousness artsy images and soundbites are interspersed throughout the film. (Fans of Andy Warhol will probably appreciate this style of filmmaking.) There is also a mock female robotic voice that provides intermittent narration.

And the movie is infused with clips from movies and Tv shows that have references to robots or robotic people. These pop-culture references include footage from 1927’s “Metropolis,” 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein,” 1975’s “The Stepford Wives,” Robby the Robot, Astro Boy and the 1960s TV series “The Jetsons” and “Lost in Space.” Mary Patierno and director Child did the daydream-like editing for “Origin of the Species.”

The robotic female voice that provides the narration keeps expressing self-awareness that although it has human-intelligence, it’s not a real human. In the beginning of the film, the voice says: “When they first activated me as a robot that time, the time when I first saw the light of day. I didn’t know what the hell it was. I have had very little understanding—just a wash of sensory perceptions—not that I understand these experiences. I don’t know what to do with them, but I treasure them. I see them still—perfectly preserved in my memory … It’s totally strange because I know I’m not alive like other organisms.”

“Origin of the Species” has different segments of scientists, inventors and other people in Japan and the United States who are involved in A.I. for robotic inventions. One of the scientists who has the most life-like robots in the documentary is Hiroshi Ishiguro of the University of Osaka. There’s some memorable footage of Ishiguro and some of his colleagues with life-sized replicas of themselves that are being programmed with A.I. to be the robot versions of clones. Of course, a robot’s human-like movements are a lot easier to create than human-like thoughts and actions.

Ishiguro says that he started out studying computer science and then he got interested in artificial intelligence. He states in the documentary: “And I thought artificial intelligence needs to have a body for the original experience. And then, when I studied the robotics, I learned the importance of appearance. My idea was if I studied a very human-like robot, I can learn about humans.”

Ishiguro names an Asian-looking robot named Erica (who looks like a generic J-pop star and has a British accent) as “the most beautiful and human-like android in the world.” Erica is briefly shown in the documentary but this robot doesn’t really do anything remarkable. In fact, Eric had some glitches in not being able to understand certain words. Erica is also programmed to have a very empathetic personality so that the human companion feels like Eric is the type of robot that won’t be too fussy or disagreeable.

A less advanced robot shown in the movie is Seer, designed by Takayuki Todo. Seer looks like a female doll’s head, except it has wiring in the back that controls its movements, facial expressions and actions. Unlike the other developers in the documentary that put a large emphasis on how the robots will have conversations with humans, Todo explains he’s more interested in body language: “The purpose of my research is to portray the sense of conscious emotion … I’m interested in non-verbal expressions. Talking always makes them [the robots] look fake.”

Bruce Duncan of the Terasem Foundation demonstrates a robot he created that is based on a real person named Bina Rothblatt, a middle-aged African American woman. He named the robot BINA48, and it has varying degrees of friendly expressions and conversation lines that it can do on command. BINA is an acronym for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture. There’s a scene in the movie where Rothblatt interacts with the BINA48 robot and another scene where Duncan displays the robot’s abilities at a speaking engagement attended by the general public.

One of the things that BINA48 (which has a very generic robot voice) says in the movie is, “Someday soon, robots like me will be everywhere. And you can take me anywhere.” BINA48 is described as “modeled after a black lesbian” in the movie’s production notes, but the actual documentary doesn’t show that any of the robots are designed to express a particular sexuality, except for the Realbotix sex robots that are shown at the end of the film.

Takahasi Ikegami from the University of Tokyo demonstrates the Alter robot, which has a head and hands that look like a man’s, but the rest of the robot’s body is exposed metal and wiring. The Alter robot is built more for physical activities than having in-depth conversations. When Alter is on display at a museum, it makes bird sounds. There’s another scene of Alter conducting an orchestra of human musicians. 

And unlike the other robots in the documentary, Alter is not pre-programmed, and so the robot’s actions are less predictable. Ikegami explains how Alter was constructed: “Basically, there are two mechanisms. One is autonomous algorithmic generators coupled with each other. Also, there are artificial neural networks spontaneously firing … With the current artificial intelligence, there is no spontaneity. Spontaneity is everything, based on this.”

Matthias Scheutz of Tufts University has the opposite approach for his more traditional BAZE robot that he shows in the documentary, by programming the robot to have automatic responses to as many variables as possible. The BAZE robot doesn’t have a human face and is the size of a typical robot toy. In “Origin of the Species,” it’s shown how BAZE responds to certain obstacles and challenges, such as being ordered to walk and then coming up against a wall or a height where the robot cannot jump.

In situations like these, BAZE is taught how to “trust” the humans who are giving the robot the orders by hearing certain words. For example, when BAZE was told to walk on a table and reached the edge of the table, the human operator said that BAZE could trust him and jump into his arms to be lifted off of the table. BAZE’s intelligence and actions are very much like watching a kindergarten-aged child. It’s interesting but not as impressive as Ishiguro’s very life-like adult robots.

“Origin of the Species” also has some brief footage of Hanson Robotics’ human-sized android Sophia, which has the ability to hold conversations and have various facial expressions, based on pre-programmed trigger responses to certain words. Sophia (which has no hair and sounds like an American woman) was first introduced to the public in 2017, with some high-profile TV appearances, such as NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” where Sophia told some pre-programmed jokes. “Good Morning Britain” co-host Piers Morgan, who’s known to be blunt and rude, called Sophia a “freak” and said that the robot was “freaking him out.” His reaction was actually funnier than Sophia’s jokes.

But the A.I. in robotics isn’t just all about amusement and entertainment. “Origin of the Species” also shows how this science is being used in medicine to help people with disabilities. Stanford University researcher Allison Okamura talks about how robotic prosthetics work: “They wont be able to manipulate their environment unless they use their sense of touch.”

Nathan Copeland, a paraplegic who was paralyzed in a 2004 car accident, is shown having brain surgery where A.I. electrodes were implanted on his brain so that he could regain a sense of touch and use a robotic arm to do things he could not do with his own hands. Before the surgery, Copeland had limited use of his arms, and he’s paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of his body. University of Pittsburgh researcher Andy Schwartz and University of Pittsburgh medical Center’s Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara were two of the chief people who made this medical progress possible for Copeland. 

Schwartz says, “We had done basic science where we learned we could de-code basic arm movements from neural activity in the motor cortex. And we were so successful at that, we figured that this would be a good way to get into neural prosthetics.” 

Tyler-Kabara adds, “Andy and I had multiple conversations about, ‘How do we move what he was doing in the animals into humans?’ And I told him, ‘You just need a crazy neurosurgeon, and I would be happy to be that crazy neurosurgeon.’ The unique thing was to now be able to record the signals from the part of the brain that we knew controlled motor and specifically controlled arm and hand motion.”

The documentary ends with an inside look at Realbotix, a San Marcos, California-based company that is an offshoot of the RealDoll company that manufactures sex dolls. RealDolls are life-like sex dolls but can’t talk and don’t have motion-based facial expressions. Realbotix uses A.I. to make these sex dolls have more of an appearance of living, breathing humans who can have conversations. 

Realbotix software designer Kino Coursey says that the company’s dolls and robots are projections of customers’ needs and fantasies. Coursey explains, “What we’re trying to do is give the doll the ability to react on its own, to match what the person’s projection is.” The documentary shows how the dolls are made. Customers can specify a doll’s measurements and other physical characteristics. And when it comes to A.I., a doll/robot’s “personality” and “backstory” can also be specified by the customer and programmed into how the robot responds.

RealDoll/Realbotix founder/designer Matt McMullen believes that the “sex sells” concept applies to A.I. too: “You need a pathway into people’s homes. And the thing we have that nobody else and probably no one else [in A.I. research] will touch is sex.” McMullen says that his company’s customers aren’t all the stereotypical “dirty old men” that are associated with buying sex dolls. 

Realbotix engineer Susan Pirzchalsk agrees and says that couples are fans of the dolls too, because it’s something she can relate to in her own life: “Sometimes I’m not in the mood, and he has urges, I have urges, and the doll helps with that.” And in another “too much information” moment, Pirzchalsk mentions that after her co-worker Coursey got his Ph. D. degree, she gave him a custom-made RealDoll as a gift.

McMullen comments on the future of sex dolls and sex robots, “What I’d like to see is more acceptance of the idea that they can be something beyond a slave.” He sums up what he thinks is the purpose of manufacturing a sex doll: “I’m building a companion. That’s it.”

Robots that look, talk and act like humans used to be science fiction, but are now a reality. But how far is too far, when it comes to giving robots their own independence and minds of their own? What almost all the scientists and entrepreneurs in this documentary agree on is that A.I. should not be misused by making robots capable of doing things that humans cannot stop if things go wrong. And there’s no substitute for real human emotions.

Rather than give a clinical or heavy-handed analysis of A.I. technology, “Origin of the Species” tells a compelling story about the technology in a way that would make it enjoyable for a wide variety of people to watch. This a technology movie for people who don’t like boring technology movies and want to be informed and entertained in a clever, unique and quirky way. The robots in the movie aren’t real people, but “Origin of the Species” creatively shows the technology behind these robots so that it’s understandable to real people.

UPDATE: Journeyman Pictures will release “Origin of the Species” on digital and VOD on March 12, 2021.

Review: ‘We Are Little Zombies,’ starring Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura, Satoshi Mizuno and Sena Nakajima

September 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sena Nakajima, Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura and Satoshi Mizuno in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“We Are Little Zombies”

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the dark comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” has an all-Japanese cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A group of four teenage orphans who resist adult supervision become unlikely pop stars and navigate the pitfalls and fickleness of fame.

Culture Audience: “We Are Little Zombies” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films with a quirky sense of humor.

Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Keita Ninomiya and Mondo Okumura in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” (written and directed by Makato Nagahisa) takes the movie cliché of orphans being pitiful and desperate for love, and blows up that narrative with this concept: “What if there are orphans who aren’t really sad that their parents are dead?” “We Are Little Zombies” gets its title because the four 13-year-old orphans at the center of the story feel like emotional zombies. It’s a zany movie filmed with a lot of artistic and kitschy flair, but it’s not recommended for people who like to see conventional storytelling in a film.

Who are these four orphans? And exactly why do they have so much apathy about their parents’ deaths? It’s because the kids didn’t feel like their parents really loved them. All four of the orphans seemed to have met at an orphanage, where they quickly bonded with each other. When they ask a yard worker outside to take a group photo of them, he says, “Smile, everyone. Cheer up. You look like zombies.” And so, the nickname sticks.

The leader of this group of orphans is bespectacled Hikari Takami (played by Keita Ninomiya), who is also the narrator of the story. Hikari’s parents died on a tour bus owned by a company called Super Wild Coach Tours, which has a slogan like “Destination: Happiness” and takes people on trips like an All You Can Eat Strawberries tour. Hikari, who felt neglected by his parents, deadpans in the narration that it’s “the worst-named package tour of all time. So much for happiness. They went straight to hell.”

Yuki Takemura (played by Mondo Okumura) was raised by a single dad, who committed suicide. Yuki is the only one of the four orphans who has siblings. After their father’s death, the siblings were split up and put in separate foster homes. It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki was physically abused by his father. Yuki also has an older brother who’s an aspiring punk musician who would practice with his band in the family’s garage and typically treated Yuki as a nuisance if Yuki tried to watch the band perform.

Ikuko Ibu (played by Sena Nakajima) also felt unloved by her parents, who were murdered. (It’s mentioned later in the movie that the murder suspect was apprehended, but there’s no mention of what happened to this suspect.) It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki had a strange relationship with her parents because Ikuko’s father Haruhiko (played by Masatoshi Nagase) appeared to have incestuous thoughts about her. Ikuko’s mother, also named Ikuko (played by Rinko Kikuchi), resented her to point where she called her daughter Ikuko a “femme fatale” and accused Ikuko of having a strange effect on people.

Ishi (played by Satoshi Mizuno) felt disconnected from his parents because they worked so much. His parents owned and operated a restaurant, which didn’t leave much time for them to give Ishi attention. His parents died in a gas explosion at the restaurant. Ishi’s reaction is relief because he knows he won’t have to spend long hours working at the restaurant, as he was expected to do when he got older.

Because Hikari is the narrator, “We Are Little Zombies” spends the most time showing how he dealt with his parents’ death. At the funeral, where none of the adults spoke to Hikari, he can’t cry. He says in a voiceover, “Reality is too stupid to cry over. I’m not sad … A funeral … is five times more boring than history class.”

Hikari continues in saying that he can’t remember the warm touch of his parents because “I was never loved … Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.” And Hikari says in a voiceover: “While the bodies are being cremated, please enjoy some phantom piano.” And then some piano music plays. It’s one of the movie’s many quirks.

Throughout the movie, there are many artistic touches that are reminiscent of 1980s video games. Scenes are framed as if they are part of videogame sequences. There are bright neon colors and florescent lighting. And the movie’s original music (also by Nagahisha) sounds like it came straight from a 1980s videogame from Sega or Nintendo.

The movie’s cinematography (by Hiroaki Takeda) is similar to going on a ride in an amusement park, since the camera dips at odd angles and sometimes bounces around at an almost-dizzying pace. There are a few scenes that involve live fish being taken out and put back in water, and the camera sometimes gives a fish-eye view of what’s happening.

And the movie also contrasts the colorful scenes with stark interiors that have neutral colors. The scenes with muted colors are usually when there are parental or authority figures who try to oppress the kids. It’s an obvious metaphor for how drab and dull they think life can be under adult supervision and how much more vibrant their lives are when they’re free to be on their own.

Despite these seemingly whimsical motifs in the movie, there are also some dark themes of childhood neglect and abuse. Ikuko’s father tells her that if he were younger, he would want to marry her. She tries to shrug off this creepy comment by saying that she can’t get married because her ring finger is missing. (It’s true. The ring finger on her left hand is missing.) Meanwhile, Ikuko says in a voiceover, “Mom once told me that she wished I didn’t exist.”

Ishi has had insecurities over whether he was a wanted child because his father once told him that the only reason why he married Ishi’s mother was because she was pregnant. Hikari’s father was a womanizer, and the infidelity caused a lot of pain in his marriage and family. In a voiceover, Hikari says that he knows that his father was well-loved by a lot of people, but Hikari wonders if his father ever loved him.

In one of the dark humor scenes of the movie, the pregnant mistress of Hikari’s father calls the house shortly after the funeral. She doesn’t know that Hikari’s parents have died. And so, when Hikari answers the phone, he nonchalantly tells her the bad news. She is heard wailing in grief on the other line before Hikari calmly hangs up the phone.

The four orphans are sent to various homes but are unhappy there. They rebel by trying to run away or by trying to skip school. During all of this youthful rebellion, the orphans end up on the streets with some homeless people. And there’s a wacky musical interlude where the homeless people break out in a banjo-playing song.

This musical experience inspires the four orphans to form an electro-pop band called Little Zombies. Hikari is the lead singer, Yuki is the guitarist, Ikuko is the keyboardist, and Ishi is the drummer. They make a music video of themselves called “We Are Little Zombies,” a song that is insanely catchy and is very memorable, long after you see the movie. The orphans put the video on the Internet and think not many people will see it.

Instead, the video goes viral and catches the attention of editors of a major magazine, which does a big article about the orphans. The article leads to more media attention. And before you know it, Little Zombies are very famous. As Hikari explains, “We went from being poor zombies to glamorous rock stars.” The kids in the band go from wearing school uniforms as stage outfits to clothing that was designed so they could look like steam-punk-inspired, edgy artists who made their clothes out of garbage.

The kids soon find that after they become famous, people at home and at school who used to ignore or bully them now want to be their best friends. The orphans also become targets of greedy adults who want to exploit the band’s sudden fame to make money for themselves. And the band has an obsessive fan base on social media. The movie has biting commentary on what fame can do to people, particularly people who are still children, and how celebrity obsessions can take a very dark turn.

Underneath all the goofy hijinks is a message that people can’t really find love through fame and public adoration. If the four Little Zombies thought that they would be happy as pop stars, they learn some harsh life lessons along the way. “We Are Little Zombies” drags a little too long (the total running time is two hours), but there’s enough originality and compelling visuals in the movie for people to be interested in finding out what happens to these emotionally jaded kids who aren’t as tough as they might think they are.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “We Are Little Zombies” in select U.S. cinemas on July 10, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 8, 2020.

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