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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 (2003)
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.
Kenpû denki beruseruku (1997)
Didn't live up to its reputation
To me this show did not live up to its reputation in more ways than one. Having read the source material multiple times, I could not view the show purely on its own merits no matter how hard I tried, and was rather let down as a result.
There are good things about this show, and in some respects it actually exceeds the manga. The story is good, having all the strengths as it does in the manga, and its conclusion probably stands as one of the most horrifying in all of entertainment. Griffith's character to me at least actually felt more human. The voice acting's good (though one can only tolerate "GRIFFIIIITH" being shouted so many times), and some key character moments work better when animated, fully voice acted and with appropriate music in the background. Some parts are also given more breathing room and feel more important as a result.
But sadly there are also a lot of gripes. The animation is at best only serviceable, and at worst an eyesore. It does the job as well as it can, but never reaches any noticeable high points. The music is scarce, and most of it non-fitting for the series. Sometimes there are vast chunks of episodes that feel next to pointless, like war councils, battle planning and commander Adon speaking about how invincible he is. I had also heard how violent this show was, but it really isn't. Aside from the last 3 episodes and some individual moments here and there, Berserk's gore factor is actually quite tame.
Recommendation: If you've read the manga, sadly I can't recommend bothering with this show. If you haven't, check it out for the strong story and memorable ending. Or purely because it's hailed as an anime classic.
Game of Thrones (2011)
Incredible, one of the best works of modern fantasy fiction
I'm just joining the choir in saying that this is a truly amazing show. There is very little negative to say about it. Everything clicks together: the acting is beyond fantastic, the production values massive, the visual design convincing yet just otherworldly enough to feel unlike our reality. The dialogue is truly exceptional: In this series simply watching two characters talk can be just as, if even more, exciting as any swordfight or heroic quest. All the major characters are well-rounded and excellently cast. A special mention must go to the child actors, all of whom are simply fantastic in their roles. Despite there being a ton of characters they all have a part in the story, and the individual stories rarely drag on.
It's actually easier to list the few nitpicks one might have about this series than try to explain all that is good about it. First, some of the characters sometimes border on caricatures, especially King Joffrey. Second, the massive amount of nudity and sex feels at times gratuitous, sometimes hanging on the edge of good taste and can make you feel slightly dirty watching it. Third, though not much of a criticism, more of a thing to be told is that there is some grisly stuff on display in the series which can be hard to watch, especially during the second season.
But beyond those three tiny nitpicks, one can find very little to criticise about this series. This is, quite simply, one masterful series, and is showing no signs of slowing down.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Gets better with every viewing
The Big Lebowski is simply a joy to watch, and gets better with every viewing. There's simply so much to see, from the absurd musical sequences to the sociopathic behavior of John Goodman's character Walter Sobchak. Just trying to make sense of the convoluted and completely ridiculous plot is a game onto itself. The movie has an enormous amount of quotable lines and the dialogue is some of the Coen brothers' finest.
The characters are all imaginative and memorable, with Jeff Bridges and John Goodman wrestling for the best part. Goodman's Walter Sobchak is easily one of the most unsympathetic and frankly crazy Vietnam-vet characters in cinema, what with him constantly referring to his battles in Vietnam or spouting obscenities at everyone in sight. But Bridges' the Dude is just as charming: writing a cheque of 0,69$, crashing his car after dropping a joint on his lap and constantly drinking white russians. Even the small characters like the side-splittingly hilarious Jesus Quintana, the police chief of Malibu or the black taxi driver you will laugh at time and time again. The amount of small but memorable characters is almost too much to count.
The movie has some issues, though. Because of the narrative being so convoluted and not being the point anyway, the film feels at times like a series of isolated sketches than a consistent whole. It can also be very confusing for first time viewers who will try to follow the plot. To fully enjoy this movie one has to be in a certain mindset.
Recommendation: Like all Coen brothers films, The Big Lebowski is not for everyone. But for those who enjoy this sort of comedy, finding a better film of this sort is hard.
Hagane no renkinjutsushi (2009)
Very solid, entertaining all the way through
Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a great way to waste some time. It is massive in its 64-episode length, but it hardly ever stops being interesting and its weak points are few. It's not mind-blowing, but I watched it happily all the way through and always wanted to see the next episode.
FMA's greatest strengths are its story and pacing. The focus never gets lost and plot elements and backstory are revealed at such perfect pace that one can't help but get hooked. There are a ton of characters, but with maybe one or two exceptions they all feel relevant and have a part in the story. There are some anime tropes here and there (like the comic relief Major Armstrong), but mostly the cast is solid and likable.
Occasionally there's also some surprisingly dark and even disturbing episodes, which give the series a more mature feel than one would initially expect. This improves the series vastly. The violence is quite heavy, and there's a lot of insanity and genocide hidden in the backstory. This is not a kid's show.
The animation is high quality all the way through. The art isn't very detailed, but somehow it fits the atmosphere of the series. The characters are well designed and recognizable, despite a large portion of the cast wearing mostly identical military uniforms. The simplistic art style keeps things from getting out of hand and you can always understand what is going on even in the most hectic action scenes.
However, there are some points that need to be addressed. Some anime tropes stick out rather painfully in the otherwise fairly mature series: the overly cutesy characters; the exaggerated comedy bits; the tendency to underline drama by having the characters act over-emotionally. These are all practically written in the series' genetic code, but anyone who hasn't been able to stand them in the past won't find them more tolerable here. The series could use a bit more music tracks, as you'll be noticing the same songs kicking in time and time again. Also around the 50th episode or so the series slams the brakes and slows down to a tortuous crawl for about 10 episodes. It makes what should feel like the climax of the series feel stretched and at times boring.
Recommendation: In the end FMA: Brotherhood is a great, massive series that is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. I wouldn't recommend it for a first-time anime viewer, but anyone who enjoys anime at least in some form will find it excellent.
Sucker Punch (2011)
Sucker Punch fails so spectacularly in so many ways it's actually kind of interesting. How could an acclaimed, visually accomplished director making the ultimate geek fantasy with tens of millions of dollars end up creating something this rubbish?
First, the characters, or lack thereof. The girls simply have no personality and differ from each other in no other ways than height and cup size. They hardly show any emotion and there's nothing to show what kind of people they are. The same applies to all the other characters with the possible exception of the villain, but only because someone has to be the bad guy. The acting is as good as the characters, i.e. terrible, but you're so detached from the movie anyway it hardly matters.
Second, the visuals. One would assume on the basis of the trailer that the movie would at least evoke visual interest, but fails even at that. It's simply too much: once you've seen one amazing scenario you kind of zone out and it all becomes white noise. Zack Snyder's love for slo-mo is at its very worst here: the movie feels like it's been directed by a 12-year old who can't sit still for 5 seconds without going "PHWOOOOAARR ISN'T THAT COOL?!" And since all the visuals are done with CGI, none of the action sequences have any physicality or tension to them. It's about as exciting as watching marshmallows getting dropped on a silk mattress in 0,1 gravity.
Third, the soundtrack. All I can remember is a cacophony of electric guitars and techno beats. In conjunction with the visuals it becomes simply too overwhelming, going in one ear and coming out the other.
These are only the main problems of the film, but the way they combine and create new problems is quite amazing. The end result is one of the stupidest, most juvenile and boring films released this century.
Recommendation: I can't recommend this film to anyone. Not even movie masochists, because unlike other atrocious sludge like Sex and the City 2, SPunch isn't even painful to watch, it's simply boring. Boring beyond words.
Sex and the City 2 (2010)
Revolting beyond words
To list the redeeming qualities rather than the problems of Sex and the City 2 would make a very short review. It would be one word, no matter the language: None. Zip. Nada. Null. Nolla. There is not a single good thing about it. Just isn't. I would compare it to A Serbian Film in the sense that when you think it has reached the ultimate epitome of revulsion, it gets worse. It is vomit-inducingly grotesque beyond your wildest imaginations.
There's no story: the whole movie is just the main characters wandering from one extravagantly expensive set piece to the next. There are no likable characters: every single living being in this movie is despicable to the bone. If real women were like these hideous caricatures, I would have had myself castrated years ago. There's not a single group of people who won't be offended by this film: male, female, straight, gay, Christian, Muslim, doesn't matter. There's no conflict, character development or any sort of buildup whatsoever: perhaps the film's longest lasting "conflict" is that the sex-obsessed one is losing her libido because she couldn't bring her vitamins to Abu Dhabi. Oh the humanity!
But the very worst thing that permeates SATC2 from beginning to end has to be its philosophy. Basically what the film says is: not having thousands of dollars to spend at your leisure is terrible and no matter how bad things are, buying expensive things will always make it better. Just a few examples of this philosophy are:
-The main character actually complains that despite being married for two years, she still doesn't have a diamond ring.
- One of the women cries in a food closet because her child put jammy hands on her vintage skirt and stained it.
- In one scene (taking place in the private bar of their $22,000 a night suite no less) the aforementioned character actually says out loud: "How do the women without help do it?" and her conversation partner replies: "I have no f****ng idea". The amount of moments like these is practically irrational.
One could write a series of novels about everything that is wrong with this film. But in short it's misogynist, crass, sexist, offensive, racist, repugnant, insulting, grotesque, revolting, spits in the faces of everyone who knows anything about the middle east and shamelessly objectifies both men and women. I can't remember ever having wanted to become a terrorist as much as while watching this film.
Recommendation: I can give this film two recommendations: 1. If you're dreaming of becoming a film critic, watch this film and then think again. 2. If you're an extreme masochist you'll definitely enjoy this one. In any other case stay the hell away from it.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
A disturbing, uncompromising film
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film that doesn't let up and offers little comfort. Its uncompromising nature and slowly unraveling horror could be even classified as horror cinema. It's very well executed, but not without flaws.
The best thing about the movie is without a doubt the acting. All the roles are played excellently, especially the child actors. But the best performance is a split between Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton, who both play their roles as convincingly as possible. Miller's depiction of Kevin is up there with Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter as one of the greatest movie psychopaths. Swinton shows a great ability to seem normal, yet you always see the doubt and concern in her eyes. You truly get the feeling of her being a mother who cannot believe the deeds her child has committed.
The story unravels in a fashion that is at times effectively hypnotic and at others incredibly annoying. There are many jumps between time periods where only a few lines of dialogue are spoken before jumping back, and it makes them feel confusing, sometimes even gimmicky. On the other hand when it does work, it feels as if we're directly inside the main character's psyche as she thinks of times past and tries to understand what went wrong - if anything went wrong at all.
For its length there is surprisingly little dialogue in this film. There are numerous scenes with only a few lines, which makes the film's visuals stand out at times. One particularly surreal sequence where the main character is driving home on Halloween through a dark neighborhood cluttered with kids trick-or-treating is definitely the movie's visual highlight. The use of different colors, particularly red, and blurry filters give the movie many visually striking scenes. On the flipside, the lack of dialogue and the fairly slow pace of the film may bore viewers. I found myself nodding off on a couple of occasions.
The movie is definitely too long. It could have been anything between 10-20 minutes shorter, and it felt like dragging itself at times. But it has a great atmosphere of creeping discomfort, is at times visually very impressive and apologizes to no one. Being unapologetic is always a bonus in my book.
Recommendation: If you're up for a disturbing, thought-provoking film with excellent performances and don't mind slow pacing, definitely watch it.
Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
Funny, imaginative and heartfelt
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a wonderful film. It has a wildly imaginative yet simple story backed up by believable characters and good animation.
The story is universally relatable: who hasn't thought about what they would do if they could travel through time? The film successfully illustrates the consequences of tampering with something one doesn't fully understand and ultimately shows that things aren't always perfect, no matter what you do. As the main character's time leaps start to cause unwanted consequences you truly feel for her as she tries to do everything right.
The characters truly make the world come to life: the protagonist is instantly likable as a bit of a klutz, and her sometimes erratic behavior provides some great comedy. The other characters are completely believable and relatable as well. The depiction of the friendship between the three main characters at the beginning feels incredibly real and natural. It's hard to not care for them.
The voice acting and animation aren't bad either. The character animation is particularly smooth and pleasing to the eye. The characters convey loads of personality through just the way they move and act. The voice acting is great, and brings a great deal of emotion to the characters.
In summation I can hardly find any major criticisms for this movie. It won't blow your mind, but it's a genuinely touching and heartfelt film.
Recommendation: Absolutely worth seeing. If you're trying to get friends into anime, this is the film to go.
A fantastic epic with a problematic second half
If Studio Ghibli's fantasy films were a menu, Nausicaä and Laputa would serve as appetizers for the main course which is Mononoke. It is a grim, adult fantasy epic which deals with heavy themes in a mature way. It doesn't ask simple questions, nor does it give simple answers and its only moral shades are of grey. It is fantasy fiction at its finest, and magnificently realized.
Which sadly makes the few flaws it has all the more apparent.
Mononoke has a theme of man vs. nature. However, instead of going the Avatar route, Mononoke presents both sides as fully fleshed out, and neither of them seems better or worse than the other. This is perhaps Mononoke's greatest strength: real-feeling moral ambiguity where wrong and right are shady at best.
Mononoke has also a multitude of other things going for it: the animation and art are gorgeous, and don't seem dated in any way. The music is among Joe Hisaishi's best, and that is not something you can say lightly. The action scenes are perhaps the most visceral and thrilling in all of the Ghibli films, and Miyazaki's imagination outdoes 99% of mainstream cinema.
Mononoke has only two major flaws, but sadly they can't be ignored. The first is the main characters: they're believable and well developed, but there's an odd lack of emotion to them. Ashitaka, for example, doesn't seem to display much else than cold indifference or steely determination. I also would have liked the hinted romance to have been explored a bit more. It clearly is there, why not go for it?
The second, and biggest, problem with the film are its around last 45 minutes. In short, the whole story and all plot threads are solved in one long, intense action sequence which takes up most of the film's second half. The intensity is kept high for the whole time with little pause for breath, and eventually it does get tiring. I think it could have been done better. Also the ending feels quite abrupt after the long action sequence, as the "what happened next?" question is answered with only a few short scenes, and then we cut to the credits. There could at least have been an image montage during the credits like in Totoro.
Recommendation: Despite my criticisms, Mononoke is in the end a great film and practically obligatory to see for any who consider themselves anime fans. Must-see for Ghibli fans, heartily recommended for anyone else
Kokuriko-zaka kara (2011)
It's no Spirited Away, but still good
From up on Poppy Hill is a deserving addition to the Ghibli library. It's sweet, small and relatable. The manga-based script is written by Hayao Miyazaki himself, while his son Goro is directing this time.
Poppy Hill is slightly different from the more known Ghibli films in the fact that it takes place completely in the real world and there's not even the slightest hint of anything supernatural. It makes it a different kind of film, so I would recommend placing your expectations outside the Totoro/Ponyo/Spirited Away territory.
Once you settle into the setting, the movie offers a good time: the characters are colourful (especially the philosophy guy, he was hilarious!) and relatable and the simplicity and down to earth feel of the story prevents the film from getting out of hand. The romance doesn't feel forced in any way and there are many heartwarming moments. By the end I was just smiling and left the theater with a warm feel inside.
The movie has some issues that keep it outside of greatness status. The animation isn't bad, but certainly not the level we've come to expect (this might be partly because the film was in production when the 2011 tsunami hit, so it's understandable). The story takes a while to get going, and also I found the music almost interrupting at times. I wonder how the sound mixing went because at times the music felt almost too loud.
But in the end Poppy Hill is a very enjoyable film. It takes a while to get going, but it gives it the advantage of getting better and better as it progresses.
Recommendation: For Ghibli fans and newcomers alike From up on Poppy Hill offers a heartwarming feel-good film that will bring a smile to your face. Definitely worth seeing
One of the smarter comedies
Idiocracy is probably one of the most underrated films released this century. It's a genuinely intelligent, imaginative and thought-provoking film that paints an uncomfortably real-feeling picture of a future populated by idiots.
The story concerns an army librarian named Joe, who is chosen to participate in an army experiment to put soldiers into hibernation. Things go wrong, and Joe ends up sleeping for 500 years instead of just one. He awakens in a future where humanity has degraded into complete and total idiocy. The process of how humanity devolved is illustrated in a brilliant opening scene that makes the whole thing seem oddly possible and realistic. Joe starts looking for a way to travel back in time, and the rest is just laughs all around.
The best thing about Idiocracy is its delicately crafted vision of the future. It really goes into detail with architecture, how people dress, behave and even walk. Details and references to today's culture are everywhere, and one can't possibly detect all the gags in just one viewing.
The writing, though crude and vulgar, is very good, and the cast is clearly having fun acting like a bunch of total idiots. The highlight is Terry Crews as the president of the USA (you read that right) who gives a raving, maniacal performance. The rest of the cast is also good, and there are hardly any weak performances.
Though the message of the film is universally applicable, most of the small gags are targeted at Americans, which will likely get slightly more out of it. Idiocracy is a film that really has something to say, and it gets you thinking. Though things slump a bit in the third act and the green screen effects aren't very good it doesn't drag the film down much.
Summary: A hilarious yet intelligent and thought-provoking comedy with good writing, acting and a well-crafted world. Can sustain multiple viewings despite the somewhat weak third act.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for everyone.
Tonari no Totoro (1988)
So freaking ADORABLE!
My Neighbor Totoro is Studio Ghibli's crown jewel, and for a reason. No other film captures the innocence and wonder of childhood so perfectly, yet also takes the viewer to an emotional roller-coaster with lovable characters and a magical atmosphere. Totoro will leave anyone with a soul smiling for hours after finishing it.
To count the plot of Totoro is next to pointless, as there hardly is one. Two girls move to a new house with their dad and they meet the forest spirits. That's it. Totoro doesn't exist to tell a story, it exists to spark the wonder and joy of childhood in anyone who's ever lived it. The scenes which the mere thought of can make you smile are almost too many to count: the first encounter with Totoro, the magical flying top ride, the cat bus and so on. Magical is truly the key word here, and the adorability reaches almost unbearable levels.
The visuals have truly stood the test of time. Despite having been released only 2 years after Castle in the Sky and simultaneously with Grave of the Fireflies, the visuals are thoroughly convincing. Backgrounds are detailed and the animation is smooth and realistic.
Butas with any Ghibli film, the true might of Totoro lies in its atmosphere. It captures the innocence of childhood without feeling pandering or idyllic. The characters and places feel real, and not some faraway fantasy land: the kid next door can be mean, buses don't always arrive on time, the characters aren't perfect. Partly this is thanks to the absolutely MARVELOUS Japanese voice cast who bring every character fully to life, the highlight being the two girls for whom we truly feel. When the tension racks up a bit towards the end you will truly feel the desperate confusion they're going through.
One could keep going for hours like this. Totoro is as good as all-ages (and that is truly the case here, don't you dare say otherwise) films can get. That's all I can say.
Recommendation: A must-see for EVERYONE.
Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta (1986)
Classic fantasy adventure, plain and simple
Castle in the Sky is the first film by Studio Ghibli, released originally in 1986. It is every bit as good as one would expect from a Ghibli film: beautiful animation and art, colourful and memorable characters, great score and a good story.
The story concerns a boy named Pazu who on one day sees a girl called Sheeta falling from the sky. Together they set out to find the legendary flying castle of Laputa. The story is well paced and truly an adventure: by the end the small village Pazu used to live in feels like the distant past.
The first thing I should say is this is A GREAT FILM. It's well written, beautifully animated and overall masterfully executed. Yet Studio Ghibli has produced so many fantastic films that this one stands out as a more simplistic story. There's not the ecological message of Nausicaä, the overwhelming adorability of Totoro or the grim moral ambiguity of Mononoke. After watching it twice I still haven't detected much of an overarching theme or message overall. Also the female lead, Sheeta, is somewhat disappointing as more of a typical damsel in distress. This is a bit jarring considering Ghibli's history of producing strong female characters one after another (Chihiro, San, Nausicaä, Satsuki, the list goes on).
The animation is good and the visual design is very impressive. Still, some of the technical aspects are hopelessly dated: the animation can be choppy at times, and the characters are fairly devoid of detail. Though considering just how much happens in the film, the simplistic designs are somewhat forgivable, especially when we see entire armies on-screen at times.
But mostly this is just nitpicking. Castle in the Sky is a wonderful, imaginative piece of fantasy adventure, and shows more creativity, personality and imagination in 5 minutes than most mainstream films show in 500 minutes.
Recommendation: A must-see for any fan of fantasy cinema or Studio Ghibli. For everyone else, highly recommended.
Hauru no ugoku shiro (2004)
Far from Miyazaki's best
Howl's Moving Castle has the potential to be probably the best Ghibli film ever, and that already is an insanely high remark. All the elements are there: gorgeous animation, interesting story, a beautifully crafted world and perhaps the most fun and imaginative cast of characters Ghibli has ever brought on screen. Yet, staggeringly , the elements never quite come together, and the end result feels more like a collection of bits than one coherent whole.
The story is ultimately the movie's downfall: whereas previous Miyazaki films have had either a strong narrative (Laputa, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), or a character-focused approach with barely any story (Totoro, Ponyo), Howl's Moving Castle falls somewhere in the middle and suffers gravely for it. There are many strong characters with their own stories, yet there is also the main plot to keep track of, and these two ultimately don't mix. The main focus seems to get lost time after time, as plot twists appear seemingly without any setup. It's also strangely difficult to describe Howl's character: Is he a superficial douche? Is he a wise and kind yet young wizard? Is he a cold bystander or a tormented power tool torn by his indecision? I myself never really figured it out.
But all the things Miyazaki is known for are still here: the animation is beyond beautiful, the score is great (if not very memorable), the sheer amount of imagination brought on-screen is amazing and the characters, especially Calcifer, are delicately crafted and all likable. It's just sad that the messy story overwhelms these aspects, and the end result feels uneven and in need of streamlining.
Recommendation: This movie will undoubtedly be understood better by those who have read the novel. For those who haven't I would recommend adjusting your expectations. Don't watch this movie for the story, just let yourself drown in the visuals and the atmosphere.
The Bourne Legacy (2012)
I went to see this film without having seen the previous Bourne movies. I had heard you wouldn't really need to have seen them to understand and enjoy this. Yes, I did understand the film, as it's fairly removed from the other movies, features mostly new characters and a simple plot.
There are some entertaining parts in this movie, like the scene in the manor. Jeremy Renner is always a good action hero, and the acting overall is actually quite good.
Did I enjoy the film? No.
I cannot remember seeing a movie in a theater and feeling both bored to death and physically ill at the same time. The constant shaky-cam and the weird, extreme closeup -fixated cinematography create a strange, almost nauseating mess of images that isn't terribly hard to follow, but most of the time feels completely pointless. Despite being over 2 hours long, the story feels like it cuts off about two thirds into itself, and is still terribly messy. The pacing is all over the place, and it gets an awful long time for the plot to actually get moving. The story moves from A to B to C without any sense of weight or meaning. The final big action scene seems to go on for ever and ever, and when it ends, it ends just as abruptly as the movie.
I'm actually having a hard time writing this review, because I can't recall much of any specific plot points or events, just a blurry haze. All in all, The Bourne Legacy felt like a missed opportunity to take an old action franchise into a new direction. I actually flipped the bird at the silver screen in frustration when the credits rolled. I felt like I had wasted a good 2 hours of my life.
Just your average whiz-bang-crunch-vroom -fest with nothing special or interesting about it.