Sunday, February 1, 2009

L Change the World

L Change the World (2006) Hideo Nakata

I admit to having gone through an uncharacteristic (for me) love affair with all things Death Note. Mind you, the usual rule of thumb is that if I like a property it is doomed to be a failure, universally hated or leave people scratching their heads. Not so here! Death Note was a phenomenon in its native Japan, banned in China and controversial but hugely popular in the US.

I quite enjoyed Death Note I and II (see Shock Cinema Magazine #33) and was excited when one of my birthday gifts turned out to be the third film in the franchise. Some movie-savvy friends who attended a very early US screening of L reported back that it was "boring" and "confusing, and granted, if you haven't seen the other Death Note films or read the manga, no doubt that is an apt reaction to this complex, ongoing story line. The L novel, which was not written by either of the creators of the manga, is the only book in the series that I have not read, so I can't speak for the adaptation in this case. The first two films strayed from the manga but not to the detriment of the story telling, my guess is that the same methods were employed here. I'm not a hardcore fan who thinks an great adaptation is a pedantically accurate one.

The production values and cartoony CGI elements are the same high quality as the previous films, as is the acting. While I still feel the best performances of the series came in the form of Yagami Light and his police chief father (both rolls diminished here to video footage in the backgrounds), Quirky detective L is at top form, acting weird, being a jerk and eating enough sugar to make even a hard core junk-food addict swear off sweets for good. That Ken'ichi Matsuyama can actually carry a film without the benefit of more seasoned performers surrounding him (Tatsuya Fujiwara starred in Battle Royal before playing Light as well as a host of other projects for a fairly young guy, and Takeshi Kaga is a legend) makes me more interested to see him in the upcoming Detroit Metal City. Shunji Fujiura returns briefly as Watari, the Alfred to L's Bruce Wayne, before being dispatched much the way he was in Death Note II.

This story takes place just after film two ends. L, "the world's greatest detective" has twenty days left to live (it has to do with the way he solved the mystery of the first two films, I won't try to explain) and yet there is a weaponized virus on the loose and a group of eco-terrorists that must be stopped before his time is up! Worked into this mix is a small Thai boy-genius who is immune to the bio-weapon plague, a teenybopper who's father is a brilliant Virologist, and said virologist's sexy co-worker Dr Kujo (and ultimately the baddy of the story) played by Youki Kudoh -- the Karaoke belting kid of Sogo Ishi's 'Crazy Family' - all grown up and lovely (but still crazy!). Since this plot is not driven by the Death Note device, the weird-shit-factor in the form of the CGI Shinigami are kept to minimum, a cameo even, which is a shame because I really got a kick out of Ryuk's excellent voice actor, Shido Nakamura. Be warned that, as the rule in third sequels, the kids factory in pretty heavy -- not Mad Max Beyond Tunderdome heavy, but still... Also, it seems odd to tack such a happy, positive message to a series that is characteristic for projecting an ugly, cynical view of the human race and stars a character who you know perfectly well is doomed because you saw him die in the previous film. Hmmm. Director Nakata (Honogurai mizu no soko kara- Dark Water, Ringu), does what he can with the material and keeps it moving along - no small feat considering it clocks in over two hours long - but certainly not his most dynamic attempt either. One does get the feeling this veteran horror film director relished the flesh-eating-virus scenes. Nice cinematography by Tokusho Kimura (Ju-on, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure) ties the visuals together. Certainly an entertaining addition, but really this is aimed at the Death Note fans, newcomers would do better to start elsewhere.

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