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by Jay Seaver

"The movie's no punishment, though it sometimes lasts an eternity."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's fitting that this animated (in every sense of the word) adaptation of Sin-ichi Hiromoto's manga "Hells Angels" is produced by a company called Madhouse, because it frequently seems the result of throwing in everything, plus the kitchen sink, plus any other sinks that a room full of lunatics could think up. It's charming as well, but gets most of its energy from sheer inventiveness.

We open with Linne Amagame racing off to her first day at a new school, promising her mother that she'll make a thousand friends. She is, as always, frantic and running late, her blue hair an unkempt mess. Linne only has time to make one friend before darting out in the road to save a kitty. Next thing she knows, she and the cat are in Hell, but in this movie's crazy mythology, hell isn't a place of torment. Well, maybe a little - it's a high school, where souls take monstrous forms as they learn what's necessary for their next lives; Linne's new friends Kiki, Wolfie, and Stealer fit vaguely in the vampire, werewolf, and zombie categories. Something weird is going on, though, even by Hell High standards - Linne and the student council (including hunky president Ryu Kotou) still have human form and bleed when injured, suggesting that they are not actually dead. What is Principal Helvis up to?

The recent trend in big-budget American animation has been toward smoothness - every pixel in the frame is given equal consideration, with characters and props often looking more like the output of a CAD/CAM program than an artist's pencil. Japan hasn't been immune, but it does still manage to push something like Hells out every once in a while. The characters in Hells are often drawn with thick lines, distort as they move, and many likely would not be able to stand if they existed in the real world. Sometimes the coloring can't keep up with the line art.

That's no surprise; those of us in the audience are occasionally going to feel worn out, too: Despite running nearly a full two hours and adapting a relatively short series, Hells occasionally feels like it's cramming everything in. Some new crazy thing, whether it be a visual, an idea, or just a bit of delusional optimism from its blue-haired heroine, pops up every thirty seconds or so. This is the sort of movie where an awkward pause in the conversation will be broken by an explosion off in the distance; a demonic version of Elvis runs a high school; inspiration is taken from the Book of Genesis, merged with the idea of reincarnation, and twisted into something almost unrecognizable; and an offhand interjection of "panties!" can be a hilarious, self-deprecating bit of comedy. It's dizzying, but delightful, for ninety minutes, at least.

And then it's as if the filmmakers are utterly ignorant of the concept of "enough"; the thing just won't end! They're still pumping out creative and astonishing visuals, but the movie is all but dry on ideas; the final metaphysical battle blasts through multiple logical endpoints, and eventually gets repetitive: "You have to believe!" "I believe!" "I have doubts!" "Nooooooooo!!!!..." "You have to believe!" And so on. There's a real strong vibe of "weren't we just here five minutes ago?" throughout the last half hour.

That's a little bit maddening, not just in and of itself, but because the film has established a very enjoyable cast. Linne is a ton of fun as the cute, unflappably nice heroine, and one of the most appealing qualities of the movie is that she doesn't change that much when the film takes a more action-oriented turn and we learn more about what's special about her. The supporting cast is also a blast, though, and most of them - from Linne's mother to Kiki, Wolife, and Stealer to Ryu and the other student council members to the other students to characters who pop up in deus ex machina fashion at the end - all have distinctive visual designs and personalities, but most also feel like they have more story than we get to see.

As complaints about movies go, though, "has more good stuff than can fit" is a minor one. "Hells" is a movie whose primary sin is gluttony, trying to grab every nifty idea that a bunch of talented people have. Fortunately, the rest of the movie is so much fun that an overextended final battle can't cripple it too much - it still deserves a high recommendation.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19298&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/07/09 15:19:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yoshinobu Yamakawa

Written by

  Misato Fukuen
  Daisuke Kishio
  Fumihiko Tachiki

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