Wednesday, November 30, 2011

ArgentoSoma (2000) anime series review

Overall verdict: 7.5/10

The Good: well developed mystery element, realistic human drama, explores complex themes both personal and philosophical, awesome voice acting, believable emotional narrative, full bodied character development

The Bad: cliched premise, animation is mediocre for its time, art takes some getting used to

Current Availability Status:
In print on DVD from Bandai. Sadly No longer available in singapore

Used to have a VCD but (thankfully) its gone (along with the company that printed it)
(NOTE: The title is in GREEK. It is not a spelling error)

In an alternate future world, a failed space exploration program led to a major invasion by towering golden titans from beyond the stars. Though the initial invasion was repelled, isolated incidents of alien incursions still crop up, all with a similar M.O: the alien titans seem intent on reaching a location in known as "Pilgrimage point". The world governments set up the organization known as FUNERAL to repel invasions and prevent any alien from reaching Pilgrimage point. At the same time, ongoing research into the aliens have provided earth with defensive technology known as the SARG mecha.

Enter Takuto Kaneshiro, a kind hearted and extremely brilliant young man who, along with his girlfriend Maki Agata, assists their mentor Dr Noguchi in his alien research. Tragedy strikes when an experiment to revive an alien, artificially reconstructed with parts of other dead aliens, goes awry. Takuto is the only survivor, scarred both physically and emotionally. Convinced that the awakening alien killed his girlfriend, Takuto's kind hearted nature gives way to grief, regret and pain. One day, Takuto is visited by the mysterious, Shakespere quoting "Mr X", who offers him a chance at revenge. The revived alien has been taken in by FUNERAL and renamed FRANK (as it was constructed from dead body parts similar to Frankenstein's monster) to be used as a last resort weapon against other aliens. In exchange for agreeing to work for Mr X as a double agent, Takuto begins his new identity as Ryu Soma; the stoic, cold ace pilot and latest recruit into the FUNERAL combat team. He is a man with a hidden agenda, that is to sabotage the FUNERAL operations and ultimately destroy Frank.

Boasting a rich, character driven narrative, the story takes on a very personal feel as we "get into the heads" of the FUNERAL team members; their motives, what drives them and what connects them to each other. Every character is fleshed out with sufficient depth.Take Ryu for example, whose obsession for vengeance has blinded him to new friendships, and slowly eats away at the kind man he used to be. Ryu's frustration soon turns to delusion as his two personalities, Ryu Soma and Takuto Kaneshiro, clash. To make matters worse is the introduction of young Hattie Bartholomew, a blond girl who shares an almost magical connection with the alien Frank, and also bears and uncanny resemblance to Takuto's dead girlfriend. Ryu's cold determination stands in perfect contrast to Hattie's childlike innocence; she adapted to her past trauma not with bitterness but with a kind of psychological regression into her own world of innocent fantasy to the point of referring to Frank as an elf.

The characters are all really easy to relate to and through them, the show slowly explores themes of psychological withdrawal in the face of trauma, military ethics, political conspiracies and, later in the series, the ontological question about human identity. More common themes of trust, love and loneliness play out along the unraveling mystery right up to the startling revelation about the true nature of the invaders. Adding to the very "human" experience is a fine cast of voice actors who play their parts with utmost professionalism. The English dub cast wins out as being more enjoyable only because most of the characters are Caucasian or non-Asian to begin with. The more subdued english delivery, as opposed to the sometimes overacted japanese voices, fit the tone of the show and lend more realism. Some of the actors also gave their characters believable accents to match their nationality.

Yes, already the more hardcore anime fans would be screaming at how similar the story premise is to the famous anime Evangelion. But rest assured, the resemblance is only superficial. Similar to the alien Frank, ArgentoSoma is composed of familiar parts of different anime series, combined and given new life. The premise is Evangelion, the relationship between Hattie and Frank is as heartwarming as in the movie "The Iron Giant" and the shady alien conspiracies within the higher powers takes its influence from X-files. It is in this almost bizarre combination that Argentosoma becomes its own creature. A lot of attention is paid to making the inner workings of the FUNERAL organization as believable as a real military branch. The combination of personal little character arcs with a grand scale invasion backdrop works well despite its slow pace at times.

For a lack of publicity or perhaps a lack of audience interest, ArgentoSoma can easily be considered a "second tier" production no doubt overshadowed by SUNRISE's more successful mecha franchises like Gundam. And with good reason too. As clever, complex and emotionally engaging as its story is, ArgentoSoma does not hold that same level of proficiency in its technical aspects. The animation is generally passable for a year 2000 series, but the artwork takes a while to get used too. Just take a look at the screenshots

The characters look fine. But when viewed from a face front angle, their noses seem to disappear, giving them a very flat and sometimes inhuman appearance. Earlier episodes do move at a slower pace, but in this case it works in the show's favor, allowing the mystery and tension to build.

Credit goes to the fact that Argentosoma is an original anime screenplay not based on any manga or light novel. If it were only given a higher production budget and more publicity it might have become a true anime legend that withstands the test of time. Alas, most fans may just be content to pick it apart and deride its influences and homages as being "unoriginal", never giving ArgentoSoma a chance to touch their hearts and minds.

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

Go For it: if you are curious about one of the most underrated science fiction anime from the turn of the century which combines thought provoking themes with realistic human drama set against a mecha genre backdrop.
Avoid it: if you seek an original premise or if a generally depressing tone turns you off. Also if you have no patience for mystery plots.

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

Standing tall. Frank in all his disproportional glory.

The SARGs. Weapons born from alien tecnhology and used against their progenitors

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Immortals (2011) movie review

Overall verdict: 7/10

The Good: refreshing new portrayal of greek gods, hearkens back to classic greek myth epics, hints at deeper themes exploring the concept of immortality, stylish action sequences, beautiful production design

The Bad: deviates from the traditional Theseus myth, slow moving first act, minimal character development, falls into typical trappings of a shallow action blockbuster.

Current Availability Status: in cinemas 17 november 2011

What is Immortality? That is the question this movie "Immortals" seemingly sets out to explore from the film's opening quote about a man's immortal soul. Does one have to be a god to be immortal? Or can he live forever in the legacy he leaves behind? And with regards to that legacy, is the immortality gained from legacy of descendants any different from a legacy of great deeds kept alive through old tales? There is a gold mine of deep concepts and possible philosophical questions, both rare in today's high octane low brain blockbuster movie market. In that aspect, Immortals might seem a bit of a cop out; avoiding the interesting questions to thread familiar ground. Which is a huge pity since everything else about this movie had the potential to be something new and unique.

For starters, it is a unique take on the old Greek Myth of Theseus. Greek Mythology purists be warned, this is not faithful to the legends in any way except in name. This Theseus is a strong but skeptical young man who scoffs at the old tales of Gods and Titans. His peaceful life in his small cliffside town is one day shattered with the arrival of King Hyperion and his army. The king is seeking the legendary Epirius bow, hoping to free the Titans as vengeance against the Gods. As a captive, Theseus meets the thief Stravos and the beautiful oracle Phaedra who convinces him of the truth behind the old legends. After a daring escape, Theseus and his companions embark on a quest to stop Hyperion before he brings about the fall of man and god.

Immortals excels in how gives a new perspective to the mythologies we all know. For example, the Greek deities are merely people who can live forever and have special powers. Immortal magicians if you will. They are not "Gods" in the omnipotent sense. And rather than have them as aged beings in regal robes or a warrior race in elaborate armor, these gods are portrayed as lithe, beautiful and young; barely out of their 20s and dressed scantily in tiny gold loincloths. Similarly, mount Olympus is no heaven on a mythical mountain surrounded by clouds, merely a palace on a very high cliff overlooking the sea.

In the characters themselves arise more potential for such questions.
We see the concept of "Gods" being played around with, same with the concept of immortality. If Theseus, like the Gods, is remembered for superhuman deeds he performed, does that make you him god? You have Phaedra, the oracle who sees the future. Can one who knows the will of fate change fate? You have king Hyperion who's very act of castrating every male defector and killing all captive pregnant women brings us back to the very first question about immortality and leaving a legacy.

But alas these questions, philosophical or otherwise, are merely hinted at; touched upon like Socrates' quotes which bookend the movie. It is a fantasy action blockbuster after all. So out with the brains and in with the blood. Although the characters are pretty much one dimensional, the acting is spot on and the story picks up well after the slower first act.

The movie is very beautiful to look at from a production standpoint. Unlike the producers' previous greek legend film, 300, mostly physical sets are used here with CGI shots and backgrounds blended seamlessly. It seems intentional that the way physical foregrounds and CGI backgrounds merge mimic how a soundstage set would merge with a matte painting background in older greek myth movies. In fact story's pacing, the gritty yet stylised designs and the way the dialogue is written seem to be a homage to old fantasy epics like "Jason and the Argonauts".

Once again, instead of being truly unique, Immortals manages to only look fresh but feel like the same old thing that we are used to. It is definitely much more enjoyable than 2010's "Clash of the Titans" but lacks the energy and style of "300". Perhaps a long running time would have allowed the plot to breathe, the characters to develop a little and for the film to have a larger sense of scale. What could have been the most unique greek mythology movie is reduced to just another fun blockbuster.

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

Go For it: if you'd like a fresh new take on old myths that raises some deep questions. Or if you liked the classic fantasy adventure movies like Jason and the Argonauts.
Avoid it: if you're a greek mythology purist or never liked the "swords and sandals" movie genre in the first place

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

The Adventures of TinTin (2011) movie review

Overall verdict: 8/10

The Good: Sticks true to the look and feel of the original comic, exquisite 3D CGI, excellent acting, well played humor,

The Bad: deviates from the comics exact storyline, minimal character development, convenient plot twists, retains the flaws of the comic

Current Availability Status: In Cinemas 10 November 2011

Come on, admit it, if your first English comic was not Archie or Asterix, it most likely was TINTIN. The world spanning adventures of an intrepid young reporter as he takes meets unique people, unearths ancient secrets, brings corrupt businessmen to justice, travels to exotic lands and do what imaginative children can only dream about. Each book was a whole new genre including some that touched on horror and science fiction. Steven Spielberg's computer animated "The Adventures of TinTin" combines two books' storylines, and throws in some minor tweaks for coherence, but manages to stay true to the spirit of what made the original stories such a good read.

Purists would no doubt condemn the condensing of two stories, "The Secret of The Unicorn" and "The Crab With the Golden Claws", into a single movie. Why go through the trouble and change the story? Because, to be honest, adapting only a single story would not do justice to TinTin as a whole. The Secret Of the Unicorn is essentially a mystery tale like something out of Sherlock Holmes. No big action pieces, no worldwide adventure, no exotic locales. While the condensation of stories is jarring for those familiar with the originals, it is done in such a coherant manner that it seems like a single proper story.

Famous reporter TinTin stumbles upon a mysterious model of an ancient ship, The Unicorn, which lands him in the biggest case of his life involving a long lost pirate's loot, a clandestine plot to steal a royal treasure and an unresolved family feud. Along the way he meets Captain Haddock, a washed up ship captain with a drinking problem, who might hold the key to the mystery. If only he could stay sober long enough to remember.

Everyone is exactly how one remembers them either from the comic or the classic cartoons. The bumbling Thomson/Thompson twins, Captain Haddock's comical rage, TinTin's inquisitive nature, it is all there. Nostalgia is the order of the day as the film takes us back to a simpler time of childhood. The character chemistry, adrenaline charged chases and light hearted dialogue call to mind swashbuckling pulp novel adventures in the vein of Indiana Jones. Sadly, the flaws of the original comic are all there too. The film is so plot driven that little attention is given to character development. Like the comic, there may be one too many convenient turn of events.

Before you are turned away by the seemingly simplistic narrative, it will be the animation itself that would grab you back. Final Fantasy is yesterday's news compared to the animation in The Adventures of TinTin. Yes, they may have "cheated" by using motion capture, but the results are magnificent. Everything moves like how they do in real life; vehicles have a sense of mass, there is visible inertia in moving objects, and characters move like actual people. The stunning level of detail, right down to the pores on characters' skin and individual hair follicles, is coupled with designs very similar to the cartoony art of the comics.

Try thinking of Spielberg's "The Adventures Of TinTin" less of an adaptation of the comics but more of a homage to the entire franchise. The whole movie is littered with dozens of allusions and shout outs to other stories in the series. Fans would have a field day recognising all the Easter eggs and cameos. After a slow start, the show really picks up and never lets up; well written dialogue, excellent cast chemistry and timely humor providing endless entertainment. Whether you are a child endlessly pouring through TinTin comics in the library, or an "ex-child" who followed the cartoon on weekday evenings, The Adventures of TinTin is pure fun and a great way to see your favorite characters come alive.

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

Go For it: if you like adventure stories like Indiana Jones or have read/watched the classic Tintin comics/cartoons as a child
Avoid it: if even the slightest change from the original comic bothers you

Entertainment: A-
Story: B+
Characters: A
Animation: A
Art: A
Voice work: A
Replay Value: C
"Brains": C-