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Nanatsu no taizai (2014)
Average at best
What starts out as a surprisingly imaginative and seemingly subversive action anime gradually devolves into brainless, drawn out action and tired clichés. Oh well.
The show starts out promisingly: the setup is a bit different from your typical fantasy in having wanted fugitives as its main characters, and the colourful cast featuring members like a 30-foot woman and a talking pig give the impression that the show has more creative ideas to come. Some of the character backstories are surprisingly deep and well realized, and partly manage to stay away from the most tired clichés. The moral ambiguity about who's the actual villain of the story also gives a good impression, which is further reinforced by the main character being, in honest, a prick.
Sadly the show starts a steady downward slide in quality less than 10 episodes in, and never recovers from that: The action scenes become more ridiculous and drawn out. If you're not a fan of fight scenes where characters shout out the names of their techniques like they're playing Final Fantasy, you're not going to like this anime. The story becomes just another good guys vs. bad guys plot. Things that initially raise intrigue are either rushed, never explained, or drop out of the story seemingly entirely. The pacing suffers a severe dip in quality as the old "having a long conversation in the middle of a fight" storytelling rears its ugly head. A few plot elements and characters appear seemingly out of nowhere towards the end, and vanish just as quickly. One things that does get better is the constant, pandering fan service which is relentless in the first episodes, and gladly almost entirely absent from the last episodes. But that's not a positive, that's a negative that slowly becomes a zero.
The Seven Deadly sins is ultimately a disappointing series, and a classic case of wasted potential. If fantasy shounen action is your thing, there's things to like here. The animation's certainly not bad, and there are some creative powers introduced that keep the action interesting for some time. But if you're not a fan of this particular genre, watching more than the first 8 or so episodes is hard to recommend.
The Lego Movie (2014)
Everything is indeed awesome
I'd be surprised if anyone saw this coming. The Lego Movie is quite simply unlike anything seen in a long while: rip-roaringly hilarious, gorgeous to look at, imaginative beyond belief, a great parody of worn out "chose one" clichés and also rather poignant and touching.
The first thing one has to mention is the animation. Not only does it look like an amateur stop-motion film with a $500 million budget, but the amount of detail and creativity put into the visuals is just staggering. At times there's so much going on the screen it's almost overwhelming, yet if you look closely you can see that every single thing is comprised of recognizable Lego parts. The various ways the world shifts, breaks, is constructed again, falls apart and moves around is simply a joy to watch. The implementation of real-world objects into the otherwise plastic world is certain to get huge laughs out of anyone, especially the revelation about the ominous superweapon "Kragle". The result is a film that looks unlike anything we've seen before.
The script is a roller-coaster ride of hilarious gag after another. The jokes come at you so fast you can't catch them all in one viewing, and blink-and-you'll-miss-it side gags clutter the screen. No running gag wears out its welcome, no joke is overplayed or overemphasised. The characters are all funny and likable with enough personality to them to fill up multiple movies on their own. Batman especially is a riotous parody of the grim, dark versions of the Caped Crusader we've been stuck with for nearly a decade. And due to Lego having rights for nearly every IP imaginable, you won't be able to guess which mega-franchise is going to turn up next.
Despite all this high praise, there are a couple of minor issues. During its third act the tone of the film starts moving to a more serious and emotional direction, which to me didn't work as well as the rapid fire comedy of the rest of the film. The voicework is great for the most part, but amidst all the others it becomes rather apparent that Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson are live, not voice actors. It's not that their performances are bad, they just seem rather flat and lifeless in comparison to the rest of the cast.
The Lego movie is a downright masterpiece, there's no two ways about it. Incredible visuals and animation combined with a hilarious script, dazzling creativity and good characters make it one of the best and most original animated films in a long time. Some minor hindrances can do very little to drag it down, and the end result is fantastic.
The emperor has no clothes
With a plot full of holes like Swiss cheese, setting and setup that will confuse even the staunchest long-time fans, script on the level of a bad fan fiction, countless disrepancies and abandoned plot lines from the first two movies and characterization taking 180-degree turns every two seconds, Evangelion 3.0 is an utter mess at best, and an open insult to movie watchers at worst. It's a colossal failure as its own story, as a follow-up, as a remake and a movie in general that renders the previous two movies and all their accomplishments completely pointless.
Almost nothing from the previous films is resolved in any meaningful way: Shinji's relationships with his friends and slowly growing confidence, Kaji's shady dealings with NERV, the Key of Nebuchadnezzar, Rei coming out of her shell, Asuka warming up to people, the growing threat of Angel attacks and much more are completely abandoned and forgotten about. In their place we get an endless barrage of new terms and plot elements which the characters talk about, but none of which are ever adequately explained or established. The first 30 minutes consist of nothing but action scenes with only the tiniest amount of context or setup, just a bunch of flashy stuff for the viewer to look at.
The characters have taken a total nosedive. Mari, who had a strange foreboding about her in 2.0 is reduced to a mere sidekick with no meaning. Despite the 14-year gap, Asuka is still her old bratty self despite now being 28 years old. The justification for her and Mari not having aged is so ridiculous you have to wonder if the writers are actually pulling a prank. Misato is so far removed from her previous persona she might as well be an entirely new character. Rei's character actually regresses, as all her development from the previous movies is rendered nonexistent, and is never properly explained how. Gendo has become a caricature of himself. In the original series he had an enigmatic presence and there were hints of his deeper motives, but here there's nothing under the surface: he's just a cartoon villain, practically twirling his moustache and cackling "JUST AS PLANNED".
But the change of setting is undoubtedly the thing that shoots this film in the leg and then some. So many questions rise and are never answered that the viewer is completely lost. The last 20 minutes will be spent in utter confusion as the viewer tries to grasp even the flimsiest straw of what is supposed to be going on, and why it should mean anything. Bombastic music playing over certain scenes is the only signal of something meaningful happening, but since the setting is so unestablished the viewer is just left thinking "I guess that's important because the characters act like it is, but why should I care?"
Perhaps the only saving qualities of this film are the music and the animation, both of which are great and work to put together some rather impressive action scenes. But that makes it only so much worse when you think what other projects this clearly great amount of talent could have been used for, rather than this 90-minute fart in the audience's face. At one point Fuyutsuki, the one character who gives the only direct exposition in the film, says "'Tis a wretched role I'm playing" to himself. It's almost if he's meta talking about his character having been reduced to a useless exposition device.
Add to all this meaningless shoutouts to the original like recycled shots from the series and Gendo's new choice of eyewear, occasional pseudo-philosophical lines which don't mean anything and some completely out of place piano playing scenes that add nothing to the story and you have an indulgent, incomprehensible, poorly told, plot less, pretentious, forced mess that doesn't even have a proper ending. Stuff explodes, characters talk about things you don't understand, Shinji sulks, some piano playing, stuff explodes again and then the movie just stops. Nothing has been achieved, learned or accomplished and you just don't care.
The Legend of Korra (2012)
After 2 seasons still seems to be finding its stride
The Legend Of Korra is a good follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender despite its far more numerous flaws. Gladly great animation, interesting expansion of the world and a clear sense of identity keep it from sliding into mediocrity.
The most notable thing about Korra is its nearly feature film-level animation. This show rivals the best anime series out there in terms of animation, and no expense has been spared. The martial-arts styled bending is even more energetic and dynamic and sometimes you can just wonder at the choreography and smoothness of the animation.
Another point in Korra's favor is that it dares to separate itself clearly from its predecessor. The feeling and atmosphere resemble more that of a 1920's urban story than the high-fantasy affectations of The Last Airbender. Much darker and more complex themes like civil unrest, segregation, revolution and betrayal are introduced and reinforce the show's more grown up feel. The series also never feels like a rehash or retread of TLA, but rather develops its own stories without cheap gimmicks or tricks
The characters are mostly good, with some sour apples thrown in the middle. In the second season the writing can seem downright poor at times in making some baffling characterization decisions. Gladly those are mostly balanced out by some greatly entertaining additions like Varrick, who has cemented himself as a clear fan favorite. Korra herself strengthens the show's sense of being its own thing while also being a hair-pullingly irritating character at times. Unlike Aang, who was calm, contemplative and pacifist, Korra is hot-headed, eager and active, and this doesn't always work in her favor.
By far the biggest issues in the series are the writing and pacing. With so many different writers it can sometimes feel as if the show is trying to go into two opposite directions at once, with some episodes being great and some being downright terrible. Characterization hasn't so far been entirely consistent with some characters doing some absolutely idiotic decisions during the second season. The pacing ranges from airtight to completely meandering, which makes the show feel inconsistent. The result is a show which when works, works excellently, but when it doesn't, you can clearly see why.
Korra feels like a show that has yet to find its greatest strengths. It has a very solid foundation and moments of absolute brilliance, but has yet to grasp them in full. With the third season, "Change", waiting yet to be released, I'm curious to see where this show is going next.
Recommendation: If you're an Avatar fan and on the fence about watching this, do it. The ride is still very thrilling, despite the occasional bumps.
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005)
They don't make them like they used to... but neither did they ever make them like this before
Avatar is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon kind of series that is up there with Batman: The Animated Series and Animaniacs as one of the greatest kids' cartoon shows ever. With a wildly colourful world, sprawling mythology, lovable and multidimensional characters, sharp writing and a level of maturity extremely rarely seen in kids' shows, it's a flat-out masterpiece.
The characters grow and change over time in believable and significant ways. The tone always stays consistent. The comedy is laugh-out loud funny without resorting to low-brow humor or adult jokes. The stakes rise every season, yet the show never devolves into brainless action. The writing is very sharp and manages to explore complex and unusual themes like broken families, finding one's way in life, loss, responsibility and escapism not often seen in kids' shows.
The show's main cast consists of well-rounded and believable characters with distinct personalities and flaws, and they all are interesting in their own ways. The series spends a lot of time exploring their pasts and finding out how they turned out the way they are. Some characters don't quite reach this level, but to count that as a major flaw would be just nitpicking.
What separates Avatar even further from the majority of cartoon series is its overarching story with a clear goal and villain defined from almost the word go. Yet this setup never wears itself out during the three seasons, instead taking its time in raising the stakes. Some episodes around two thirds into the series go to really dark places and you'll find yourself thinking "Did that just happen in a kids' show?" The action scenes are very exciting and creative, taking place in places like underground caves, on top of mountains and on zeppelins.
Unfortunately, the show doesn't always use its potential to the fullest, opting mostly for separate one-episode story lines instead of one continuous story. Some of the tension raised at the start of season 3 gets lost as the series goes back to its standard formula after a very striking start. It doesn't really bring the direness of the situation across, but I guess there's only so much darkness you can have in a kids' show.
Recommendation: As one of the best cartoons of all time, The Last Airbender is a magnificent series to viewers of all ages that will stand the test of time. As a kids' show it's a full 10, but due to the sometimes wonky story structure and some wasted potential, overall it's a nine.
Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
How all sequels should be made
Despite the change of director, Kick-Ass 2 doesn't feel one bit different from its predecessor. It doesn't try anything revolutionary or groundbreaking, but what's here is very well executed and enjoyable. It's a prime example of how a proper sequel should be made.
As a direct continuation from the first, the viewer should feel right at home with the familiar characters. The story feels exactly like a sequel should: changed characters facing new conflicts with higher stakes and new faces to join in. Hit-Girl is this time facing difficulties trying to adapt into the real world with her high school life, while Kick-Ass himself finds new faces to fight crime with. All the while Chistopher Mintz-Plasse's "world's first supervillain" (whose name breaks the IMDb review guidelines) goes through a frightfully convincing descent into madness and villainy and starts to wreck things up.
Kick-Ass 2 brings a whole bunch of new colourful lunatics to the cast, with the standouts being Jim Carrey's erratic Colonel Stars and Stripes, and Mother Russia, played with ruthless authority by Ukrainian actress Olga Kurkulina. The cavalcade of new "good" superheroes in the newly found superhero team "Justice Forever" get fairly little screen time, but manage to feel like actual characters instead of mere cutouts. The acting is spot-on, and I struggle to find a single weak performance in the film.
The action hasn't been softened at all from the first film. It's visceral, brutal, and immensely gratifying. If anything, Kick-Ass 2 far surpasses the level and amount of violence of the first, so much so that at times the viewer might be wondering "Is it okay I'm having so much fun with this?" Special mention must be paid to the sound effects team, because the various crunches and cracks really drive the physicality home. The final fight scene is truly spectacular, and the film is worth paying full ticket price for it alone.
If I was forced to find bigger flaws in the film (which there are next to none), the tone of the film should be addressed. It sways wildly between comedic, brutal, somber, parodic and downright cruel, but it never feels inconsistent; the tone feels appropriate for each scene. To me it wasn't a problem, but some viewers might find the more extreme scenes wince-worthy, because of how dark and brutal this film feels at times.
Recommendation: If you liked Kick-Ass, you're definitely going to like this. It's not the new Citizen Kane, but if you're up for a good, bloody, violent time, Kick-Ass 2 delivers in spades.
Still marred by the same issues, but definitely the best one so far
Whereas the first two films ranged from merely passable to a downright butchering of the story, Descent finally finds a comfortable groove and is definitely the best one of the films so far.
Descent has many points in its favor before the film even starts; this movie covers the most important and character-focused part of the story without any massive battles or political plotting. The movie is focused solely on the survival of the Band of the Hawk, with the battles being small-scale skirmishes than entire armies clashing and the story moves away from the mundane and medieval aspects to the (personally) more interesting stuff with demons and the supernatural. This allows for a tighter focus and structure.
The pacing is far from perfect, but it's finally at least decent. After the first 20-30 minutes, the film finally takes some time with the characters, and actually manages to establish some emotional attachment to them. It's definitely a positive for the film.
In the first films the blend of hand-drawn animation and CG ranged from looking terrible to at best alright, but here it is finally used rightly. It's not perfect, but it's lightyears ahead of the first two. The studio has cleverly chosen to use CG for the character models, but their faces are animated in 2D. This does a good job of abridging the two different animation styles, and the moments when the two clash are far less numerous than before. The film being more character-focused also gives us more moments where they are animated fully hand-drawn, and it looks great. When the Eclipse begins, the movie really becomes a treat for the eyes: all the various monsters and the surreal landscapes of the demon world look great, and the action scenes are very well directed and animated.
But despite all this, Descent is far from great. The problems are smaller than before, but they're still the same. The biggest one is undoubtedly the pacing; the film still feels like a heavily cut down cliff's notes version of the story. If the film was 30-40 minutes longer, maybe then it could have covered everything that's in the story. The most outrageous examples of this are that a) we never find out what Guts has been doing during his year of absence and b) one scene where Caska seemingly arbitrarily switches between three completely different emotional states in the space of only a few minutes.
Despite the praise I gave the animation, the CG on the humans still looks jarring and is very easily noticed. It's less problematic than before, but still an issue. The score is a mixed bag; at times it's appropriately booming and ominous and at others bizarrely inappropriate. There are moments where mere silence would have suited some scenes better than the music in the film. In fact, the more ambient-styled score of the original series suited the Eclipse's nightmarish events better, and that's quite an odd thing to say, considering the original's fairly weak score.
The odd thing about Descent is that for every thing it does better than the series, it seems to get something else wrong. Here we finally see how Guts escapes the Eclipse, but Rickert's own mini-story has been almost entirely cut out. The animation is far better than the series, but the voice acting is clearly inferior. The film completes this part of the story, but so much that is important to future events has been cut out that continuing from this will be quite hard. The definitive animated version of Berserk might lie somewhere between these films and the original series. Perhaps by making a supercut of the two one would end up with a masterpiece.
Recommendation: Despite all I said, I enjoyed this film. It has its problems, lots of them, but the good ultimately outweighs the bad. Worth watching.
PS. For all you expecting Wyald and the Black Dogs: they're not here. Sorry.
Hercules in New York (1970)
With sets about as convincing as an F-grade porn production, acting so wooden you could easily pass it off as construction material and a soundtrack so ear-splittingly awful that it'll likely make you scream in agony, Hercules in New York is definitely a classic in the "so bad it's good" category. I'm giving it 2 stars on a "real" grade scale because of its camp appeal, but that doesn't mean it's not an entirely enjoyable film.
This is Arnold Schwarzenegger's first screen role, and you can really tell: his delivery is stiff as a frozen tree, his expression more dead than a zombie that's had its head removed, and his English is nearly incomprehensible gibberish that will make you laugh at every turn ("I am tired of ze zame old zings!").
Everything else in this movie goes wrong too in about a 100,000 ways: for example, the gods are supposed to be Greek, but they often refer to their comrades by their Roman names, which were invented centuries after ancient Greece's prime. The effects are a riot: Look out especially for Zeus' "lightning bolts" and the unforgettable bear fight scene where Ahnuld fights some poor guy in a bear suit.
Even the sound isn't right: you'll hear cars humming in the background during scenes that are supposed to be set on Mount Olympus and the dialogue is occasionally out of sync. But the crowning achievement of this film's awfulness has to be the soundtrack, which is basically one song playing during every important scene over and over and over again. Despite being completely hammered during watching this film, I still wanted to launch the DVD into outer space.
Recommendation: In all seriousness, this film is T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E. But it is a marathon of laughs if you get hammered with your friends and pop this camp turkey in. Just remember what I said about the soundtrack.
Spring Breakers (2012)
A few good ideas and James Franco couldn't save this
When a movie that is only 94 minutes long feels terribly overstretched, you know there's something wrong.
Spring Breakers has a bunch of good ideas, a couple of hilarious moments and a terrific performance and character from James Franco. His character, "Alien" is a fascinating and fun person to follow, as the viewer expects there to be something under the surface to him, but in the end turns out to be just what he seems. The soundtrack is also pretty cool. That's about all the positive I can say about it. The rest is just a dreary, baggy slog that feels two times longer than it actually is.
It feels like the director was making a music video or a short film, but didn't want to cut any of the scenes out, so he just added a bunch of dialogue, edited the clips into something resembling a narrative and released it as a feature film. I'm not kidding when I say that about 80% of the film consists of surrealistic, moody montage sequences of partying, sex and drugs with either ambient music or a narration in the background. Some might call this reliance on visual storytelling, I call it laziness: this way the actors don't need to deliver any lines or act convincingly, they just need to party like crazy and occasionally look sad.
The lack of any real story also makes the film feel like a 94-minute music video. The actual events can be summed up in about 5 sentences, the rest is surrealistic, moody montage sequences of--- oh wait! Worthy of its own mention is one particular moment when a few dialogue lines are played four times in a row, word for word. I almost shouted "YEAH, WE GET IT!" in the theater at that point.
In the end, Spring Breakers felt like a wasted opportunity. The idea of exploring the depravity of this particular subculture is fascinating, and in the hands of better writers it could have been really edgy and thought-provoking. But as it stands, it's just not worth seeing as a feature film.
Recommendation: Wait until someone makes a 10-minute supercut of this film on Youtube, then watch that instead.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Wreck-it Ralph is without a doubt one of the best animated films of the last few years. Though advertised as the ultimate love letter to video games, it's actually more of a story about identity and redemption that merely happens to take place in the world of video games. Though that's not to say there aren't tons of references to video games both old and new, and they will definitely keep hardcore gamers satisfied. The references are handled tastefully, and the film never feels like pandering to a specific audience though obscure references and inside jokes.
The characters are truly what makes the film work. Ralph's dissatisfaction with his life is understandable, but it's never made black and white that he would be right and everyone else wrong. Sarah Silverman's character Vanellope starts out as annoying and hyperactive, but eventually grows on the audience. There is one genuinely tragic moment between Vanellope and Ralph that almost had me in tears. The supporting characters are also well handled, and Sergeant Calhoun in particular makes an odd case of being so much more than what she's supposed to, i.e. a brutal parody of the "badass chick" trope seen in many video games. But she actually has depth to her.
The movie is also side-splittingly hilarious. Though getting the references gets you slightly more laughs out of the film, most of the comedy is universally understandable. The visuals are breathtakingly beautiful, and the landscapes in "Sugar Rush" (a racing game where most of the film takes place) show some true imagination and inventiveness. Mentioning that the voice acting is superb feels almost pointless. This is Disney we're talking about, after all. Towards the end there is a surprising twist I honestly did not see coming, and those are always a plus.
If one would want to search for gripes in this movie, the biggest one would probably be its length. It's not too long, about a 105 minutes, but towards the end you may start thinking when the movie is truly going to end. There's also quite a lot of rules the film has to establish in order to make the world make sense, but they don't take up too much time.
But aside from those, I can find very little to criticize about Wreck-it Ralph. This is quite simply a masterpiece of animated cinema, and I definitely hope to see this particular world explored more.