Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thor: Tales of Asgard (2011) direct-to-DVD animation review

Overall verdict: 5.5/10

The Good: Excellent voice acting, snappy well written dialogue, believable "sibling" dynamic between Thor and Loki, emotionally charged finale

The Bad: sub-standard animation and art for a direct to DVD feature, boring action sequences, obvious art errors, frivolous humor, predictable plot,

Current Availability Status: On code 1 DVD at selected DVD stores only or online. Code 3 release pending

Behold the innocence of youth. Before he became champion of Asgard, wielder of the mighty Mijolnir, Thor was the epitomy of dopey, pig headed, rich kid.

Likewise, before his brother Loki became Thor's archrival, God of Mischief and master of magic, he was apparently quite the genki fanboy

Before their fateful destinies could be realised, Thor and Loki were best buds, one craving adventure and the other content with a good book and magic lessons. Here was to be the coming of age tale of Asgard's greatest legends; a tale of hope, brotherly love and of innocence lost in the fog of war.

Instead, Thor Tales of Asgard comes across as typical kid friendly fantasy fare which, aside from the emotionally charged finale, would sit well as a disney channel afternoon special. Think Disney's "Young Hercules" or "Tarzan II" or perhaps "Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning". Unsophisticated, child friendly prequels intended for a cheap laugh and netting a little extra cash.

Delayed for almost a year in order to coincide with the release of the blockbuster live action THOR film, Thor Tales of Asgard, originally named "Son of Asgard" is neither a prequel to that film nor is it an adaptation of the stylish "Tales of Asgard" stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Instead of chronicling a pivotal event in the life of Thor, like his quest to prove himself worthy of wielding his enchanted hammer, or some important bit of unseen Asgardian history, Tales of Asgard feels like "just another day of adventure"; almost like a premiere episode of a TV cartoon.

Eager to prove himself to his (girl)friend Sif, Thor drags the unwitting Loki to stow away on a vessel belonging to Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg, better known as the Warriors Three.

Thor intends to follow the Warriors Three to the frost giants realm of Jottenheim and find the legendary Sword of Surtur. Soon they discover that tales of the Warriors' adventures have been greatly exaggerated and after a laughable turn of events, convince the three bozos to to join Thor's quest. But Frost Giants do not take kindly to trespassers and a brash act by Thor threatens to plunge the realms into war once more. The only hope for this motley crew of males to return to Asgard is to seek help from the men hating Valkyries. Meanwhile, Odin and his dark Elf court official try to delay the war through diplomacy and deal with a hidden threat from within their own ranks.

Any one who has even the slightest knowledge of the fantasy genre would tell you that something called a "Dark Elf" is never good news. As if the elf's extremely helpful attitude, "smooth talking" british accent and overly humble demeanor did not already scream "I am hiding something and trying my best to look like a good guy". It is so obvious at first glance that it fails to be any sort of spoiler. The same goes for the rest of the plot. If you have seen a typical fantasy themed disney movie, you can spell out the plot here with no problem.

At least the writer, Greg Johnson, manages to pepper the otherwise boring narrative with sharp quippy dialogue. Particular mention goes to the way the brotherly dynamic between Thor and Loki is written, accentuated by the professional voice acting. Only Loki goes through significant character development however which climaxes at the finale and believably leads the boy down his dark future. The development is written as gradual and nuanced, a bright spot of maturity in the otherwise juvenile story.

Thor Tales of Asgard further enhances its "weekend afternoon disney show" feel through its visuals. The japanese "AnswerStudio" is the company behind the animation work and although their stuff is not as stellar as GONZO or Madhouse, their past work on direct to DVD animation like Doctor Strange and The Invincible Iron Man maintained a better that normal standard for a direct to DVD animation. This movie however showcases animation that is no better than an episode of Ben 10 crossed with a cheap imitation of 2002's He-Man animated series artwork. Backgrounds lack detail, sometimes looking no better than a Kindergarten picture book as seen in the picture below.

THe level of detail on characters is no more intricate than saturday morning cartoons and the colors are bright, shiny but at times flat. Even more shocking is the number of obvious animation errors. At some points, the background moves out of sync with the characters feet giving the impression that they are sliding and not walking. Then you have scenes such as the picture below. Look at it and try convincing yourself that the sword blade is not bent at the wrong angle.

Scenes like these are disappointing, showing a lack of quality control on the part of Marvel and stagnant directing on the part of the director Sam Liu. After awesome action heavy shows like "Hulk Vs" and "Planet Hulk", this movie is possibly Director Liu's least inspired piece of work.

With the success of the live action blockbuster THOR, no doubt Thor Tales of Asgard would net in some cash, preying on uninformed kids and their parents who would not know better. It might be worth a download just out of curiosity though. Lacking the thunder of a blockbuster, the quality of a direct to DVD animation and the epic spectacle of the comic books, Thor Tales of Asgard is a tale best left untold.

*****************************Review End******************
Entertainment: C+
Story: B-
Characters: B+
Animation: C
Art: C-
Voice work (english): A-
Music: B-
Replay Value: C+
"Brains": C-

Hammer FAIL


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) review

Overall verdict: 7/10

The Good: Perfect casting, top notch special effects, timely slapstick comedy, natural cast chemistry, very professional acting, accessible for newcomers to the Franchise, darker in tone than previous installments

The Bad: little character development, somewhat predictable plot, one dimensional supporting characters and villians, thick accents, some exaggerated acting

Current Availability Status: In Cinemas 19 May

Making waves at the box office this summer is "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides", the latest addition to Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. With a new director and creative team, this movie discards the storm tossed continuity of the second and third Pirates films and starts off on a clean slate, making the story easily accessible for newcomers to the franchise. For those who have followed the series from Pirates of the Caribbean 1, the movie might come across as rather predictable thanks to the established Jerry Bruckheimer formula of comedy and chaos.

On Stranger tides opens with the eccentric pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow (masterfully played by Johnny Depp), in a bit of a tiff. Without a ship, without a crew, and narrowly escaping imprisonment Jack lands himself into a hunt for the mythical fountain of youth after running into his old love Angelica (Penelope Cruz). But she is not the only one after the fountain. Competition comes in the form of the Spanish armada, a British expedition led by none other than Sparrow's ex-rival Barbossa and the infamous pirate Black Beard. Along the way, we get a tacked on side story about a missionary falling for a mermaid, a surprising father/daughter revelation and a convoluted quest for a variety of items needed for the ritual at the fountain.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides seems like a return to the darker style of the first Pirates movie with voodoo magic, on-screen deaths, and a really disturbing take on Mermaids. However, it retains the needless "side quests" narratives and the unexplained magical mythologies. Stuff like Black Beard's voodoo powers, his magic sword or the fate of Jack's old ship, The Black Pearl, are merely glossed over and never explained. Instead, more time is spent on moving the plot along from on comedic action sequence to another.

Not that it is a bad thing since the comedy scenes, all involving Jack Sparrow, are the highlight of the movie. These include a gut bustingly funny chase through the streets of London and an over-the-top escape from a spanish prison camp. The downside is that Jack is once again reduced to just being "bugs bunny". He is the funny guy who gets into crazy situations. The deceiving, under handed, unpredictable, eccentric scoundrel side of his character is very much downplayed for laughs.

As a result Jack and the rest of the characters come across as nearly one dimensional. Character development is almost non-existent despite having so many characters to choose from. Black Beard could have done well with a sort of emotional redemption arc, or perhaps Barbossa could have been given more depth about why a pirate like him would want to "go legit". There was a hinting of a conflict of principles regarding fate and free will but it was never expounded upon. And of course, Disney has not forgotten about the eye candy vacuum left by the departure of Orlando Bloom and Kiera Nightly from the previous movies. The afore-mentioned missionary and mermaid (played by relatively unknown actors Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey) fill those shoes and deliver the passion-devoid yet mandatory romance subplot. Between the one-note villains and the simplistic heroes, "Predictable" would be the word to describe the plot.

What the film manages to deliver is what made its predecessors such fun to watch in the first place. The unimaginative script is pretty much redeemed thanks to perfect casting and professional, though slightly exaggerated, acting. The production designs, costumes and sets are beautiful as always, as well as the various on-scene locales. They maintain the realistic-styled slant with a gritty, well worn feel mixed with Disney cartoonish colors which succeed in truly immersing the audience into that world. It is a pity though that director Rob Marshall, whose resume encompasses only musicals and small romantic comedies, feels out of his element directing a summer blockbuster. Gone are the wide panning shots and the sweeping camerawork of Gore Verbinski, replaced by Marshall's rather run-of-the-mill directing that fails to instill Pirates of the Caribbean with much needed scope and scale.

More of a comedy with fantasy elements than a fantasy epic, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger tides is sure to entertain with its timely comedy and brisk pace. Compared to previous Pirates of the Caribbean films, it easily ranks higher than the second and third entries but lacks the character development, less complicated plot and scope of the first film "Curse of the Black Pearl". Still, "On Stranger Tides" does not feel like a major turning point or epic life changing event for any of the characters. Then again as Jack says, "It is not the destination, so much as the journey." And this is one entertaining journey which would at very least leave you with a different impression of disney singing mermaids.

*****************************Review End******************

Go For it: if you want to see a return to the darker tone of the first film or if you have never watched previous Pirates of the Caribbean movies and would like to jump into the franchise. Also recommended for fans of good comedy and fans of Johnny Depp
Avoid it: if you expect any character development for the main characters or lack a sense of humor. Also if, heaven forbid, you actually preferred the convoluted, complicated, and "all-over-the-place" lack of focus of the 2nd and 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean films

Entertainment: A
Story: B-
Acting: A
Characters: B
Music: B-
Replay value: B-
"Brains": C

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Priest (2011) review

Overall verdict: 6.5/10

The Good: Awesome production design, well choreographed fights, atmospheric cinematography, clear concise directing, some underlying subtext and satire to appreciate

The Bad: Strays too far from its comic book source material, "neutered" PG level violence for a horror movie, thin narrative, uninspired dialogue, forgettable characters

Current Availability Status: In Cinemas 13 May

Visual effects developer-turned-director, Scott Stewart, delivers his second supernatural action film that claims to be “adapted” from the comic book “Priest”. Supposedly based on a Korean comic or “manhwa” of same name, the movie “Priest” has NOTHING to do with the original, not even the name of the squinting “strong silent type” main protagonist played by Paul Bettany. Fallen angels, deal with a demon, multiple time frame storylines and all other interesting elements of the original be damned. And perhaps it was for the better since the manhwa’s multiple storylines taking place in the Crusades, the old west and the future would just confuse the heck out of everyone.

So they crafted a whole new premise to appeal to the superficial summer action lover. And the one thing they did right was to give us vampires that do not sparkle in the sunlight. These vampires are all teeth and claws who swarm across the world at night attacking from giant hives, a clear reference to the “Aliens” franchise. These savage beasts have been at constant war with mankind since the dawn of time. A beautifully bloody animated prologue sets the back-story of the film about how mankind’s salvation came in the form of the Priests, holy warriors who battled the vampire hordes to near extinction.

This story revolves around one of the veteran priests who lives among the other downtrodden human inhabitants of a walled dystopian city ruled by the now totalitarian church. When he receives word that his niece was abducted by a murderous pack of vampires, the priest breaks his sacred vows to venture out of the city and rescue her. He is joined on his crusade by his niece’s boyfriend, a young trigger-finger wasteland sheriff. But as the duo soon discover, reports of the vampires’ return have been greatly understated. With a powerful yet familiar threat is leading the newly reformed vampire hordes, the wayward Priest and his companion must fend off supernatural foes and contend with a group of fellow Priests sent to hunt down their rogue brother.

“Priest” is one cliché storm of a film that commits the cardinal sins of a paper thin plot and forgettable characters thanks to the inexperience of first time writer Cory Goodman. The characters are so forgettable that the writer never even bothered to give many of them names. Paul Bettany’s main character is just called “Priest” (It is not his name by the way). There is also “Black Hat” (because he wears a black hat) and “The Priestess” (because she is a female priest) just to name a few. They are less like actual characters and more like blank character archetypes thrown in for plot convenience. Archetypes like Cam Gigandet’s hot headed Sheriff Hicks (a second reference to Aliens perhaps?) and Lily Collin’s damsel in distress Lucy are just as forgettable even though they do have names.

Failing to provide interesting characters or a good story, the least the producers could do was to deliver a holy hell load of violence with a hard R or M18 rating. Sadly the animated prologue has more blood and guts than the entire film combined since most of the gorier battles take place in darkness or amid dust. The Fights are well choreographed but they tend to be more stylish than practical and sometimes border on illogical. For example, a duel on a high speed train is awesome but none of the combatants ever thought of kicking his opponent off the side?

But despite these failings of the flesh, some salvation comes to “Priest” in the form of an excellent production design. From the dark cyberpunk inspired Church city to the post apocalyptic western towns dotting the hostile desert lands, great attention had been paid to make those places as believable as possible. Perhaps most memorable would be the tech on display in the film which includes futuristic motorcycles, tricked out shotguns and the Priests’ arsenal of deadly cross-themed blade weapons.

Beyond the props, flawless visual effects and startling CGI, the movie tries as well to inject its narrative with deeper subtexts. The Priests themselves call to mind stories of War veterans who were shunned by society and unable to re-integrate, a theme made most famous in “Rambo: First Blood”. The film also makes fun of how some modern churches twist their religion into a means of control, the hypocritical “holier-than-thou” attitude of modern Christians and their single minded belief that they remain “saved from evil” as long as they worship God. It is not intentionally “anti-Christian” or “anti-catholic”. It is more of a clever satire but there will always be the more conservative ones who would cry sacrilege.

At only 87 minutes long, Priest moves at a brisk pace and at the very least it is not boring. It would no doubt entertain action junkies and fans of post apocalyptic thrillers although more time could have been spent developing the characters or delving into the underlying themes that were addressed. Priest is spectacular but soulless, with a nice looking “body” but barely enough “blood” and “spirit” to satisfy the more sophisticated movie goer.

*****************************Review End******************

Go For it: if you love post apocalyptic thrillers like Resident Evil Extinction, if you are game for some brain-lite man versus monster action or if you are sick of romantic vampires that sparkle in the sunlight
Avoid it: if you are a fan of the original Korean Manhwa, if you expect in-depth philosophical and theological sparring of religious themes or if you are a very conservative christian and can't take satire.

Entertainment: A
Story: C
Acting: B
Characters: C
Music: B
Replay value: B+
"Brains": B

Monday, May 2, 2011

All Star Superman (2011) review

Overall verdict: 7.5/10

The Good: faithful adherance to the narrrative and artstyle of the comic book, epic musical score, timely comedic moments, top notch scripting, near perfect casting, goes in-depth into the characters

The Bad: too faithful to the episodic narrative style of the comic book, few scenes were cut or shortened for time, painted comic colors subsituted with standard animation coloring


Media seems obsessed with the Death of Superman. He had a death in Superman Returns, a death in "Superman Doomsday" and now another death in the animated adaptation of Grant Morrison's "All Star Superman" comic book. A seemingly successful rescue of a Dr Quintum's mission to the Sun has saturated Superman's cells with too much solar energy. This is causing rapid cellular deterioration which would eventually lead to his death. With time running out for the man of steel, Superman sets about to put all his affairs in order before he goes while continuing to defend the earth against threats from within and without.

From the get go, All Star Superman feels like a multi episode TV series compressed into a single movie. But really, that is more the fault of the original source material which in fact was meant to be 12 seemingly standalone stories with some of the plot points finally "coming together" in the final issues. While this worked for a bi-monthly comic book series, it does not have the similar effect as an animated movie. Here the film just feels unfocused and rushed, cramming what is supposed to be a year's worth of events into 70 odd minutes. For example, a single fade out later and superman returns to earth after a couple of months to find it take over by a bunch of long lost Kryptonians. An episodic miniseries would have been a better medium to convey the full feel of the original story.

Thankfully The production team's faithfulness to the source material is not entirely a shortcoming. The animated movie not only sticks to the "self-contained stories" format but also the well developed personalities and timeless characterization. Everyone is perfectly cast, bringing the characters to life in a very natural way. James Denton's Superman/Clark Kent might not be the most well acted but thanks to a top notch script, he is possibly the most lovable Superman incarnation second only to Christopher Reeves's live-action portrayal. It is this faithful script, quoting exact lines from the comic, that imbues Superman with just the right level of noble superhuman grandeur mixed with a down to earth homely touch. He is the hero, and the farm boy at the same time. Similarly, Clark Kent's oafish demeanor is comedic yet sincere; his interview with Lex Luthor and subsequent escape from the prison riot caused by a supervillian's escape is possibly the most fun part of the entire movie.

Here is another strength of All Star Superman. It is not a brainless hero brawl like the Superman/Batman animated movies nor is it as dark and edgy as Batman: Under The Red Hood. The story plays out more like a character centered drama that is not afraid to tickle the audience with a few lighthearted moments. The main cast is given great depth and development as we get to know their reasons for doing what they do and the motivations that drive them. Even Luthor gets a heart wrenching moment once you find out that the reason behind his hatred of Superman goes much deeper than just "because he foiled my plans".

Special mention goes to Christopher Drake's soundtrack which is by far his best work to date. His music covers a great range, bringing out the best in the scenes it complements; it is grand, emotional and magical. One might go so far as to say that his score here is actually better than Shirley Walker's stuff from the 90s Superman Animated series, just slightly behind John Williams. (In what is possibly a nod to "The Mummy", the music takes on a very Egyptian Gothic style with the appearance of antagonist Bar-El played by Arnold Vosloo, who also played the main antagonist of "The Mummy".)

There is action, not to worry, a good deal of it. Moi Studios once again perform animation duties, maintaining the smooth character movements seen in their previous productions; smoother than Japanese anime at least and without animation short-cuts. While some backgrounds appear lackluster, The production team's faithfulness to the source material is seen in the character designs which is a slightly streamlined version of Frank Quintley's artwork. Too bad the painted colors by Jamie Grant have been replaced with a very "standard" color palate. The colors here look exactly the same every single DC animated production featuring Superman.

It seems like a farce that the movie stuck so closely to the comic going to great lengths to even replicate whole scenes perfectly yet cut out and streamline a fair bit of material. Perhaps Warner Premiere and Bruce Timm might consider a "directors cut" in which they go back and animate the rest of those scenes like the Bizzaro world, or the visit by Superman from the future. At least the plot threads established throughout the movie are woven together nicely in the end.

There are two ways to see this movie. One, is that this movie is a "All Star Superman lite": a bite sized version of the great graphic novels for the uninitiated which will hopefully entice them to pick up the miniseries (now available in trade paperback form and an "Absolute" collectors edition). The other way to see it is that it is meant to cheese off the long time fans so that those fans will go around saying "the comic is better" and in the end help to drive up publicity for the comic. Both ways, a perfect win-win situation for DC.

Try to enjoy this movie as it is. Of the scenes that were not cut out in production, revel in its loyalty to the original comic. It covers the full range of comedy to tragedy, heroic to humble, life to death.

*****************************Review End******************

Go For it: if you would like to see one of the most faithful comic book animated adaptations to date or if you have not read the original graphic novels and would like to "jump in" without the threat of convoluted comic book continuity
Avoid it: if the few cut scenes would put off your purist heart or if you dont like animation in general

Entertainment: A-
Story: B-
Characters: A
Animation: A-
Art: B+
Voice work (english): B
Music: A-
Replay Value: B
"Brains": B+