Thursday, March 29, 2012

Transformers: Prime (2011) animated series season 1 review

Overall verdict: 9/10

The Good: Superb animation and attention to detail on Transformer characters, well plotted story arc, darker tone, top notch voice acting, all star cast, well developed characters,

The Bad: sub par background and human CGI animation.

Current Availability Status:

season 1 Blu Ray currently only available through online purchase

Code 1 DVD for season one now available at HMV.
This review is based solely on season 1 of this show. Season 2 is currently ongoing

Transformers returns to the CGI world with TRANSFORMERS: PRIME, the first completely computer animated series since Beast Machines. At first sight, they might bear some resemblance to their live action counterparts and having Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman as writer sure does perpetuate that perception. But free from Michael Bay's creative control, the pair turn in what is easily one of the darker and more coherent storylines in Transformers animation history.

How dark is dark? Well how about having a hero gruesomely murdered within the first five minutes of the show. It is THAT dark. The premise is simple though: The Autobots arrive on Earth in the eternal search for Energon with the Decepticons following behind. Years of peace are suddenly shattered when the Autobot Cliffjumper is abducted and killed. While out to avenge their comrade, The Autobot team consisting of Optimus Prime, Arcee, Ratchet, Bulkhead and Bumblebee discover a clandestine Decepticon plot involving the mysterious "Dark energon" and the return of the dreaded Decepticon leader, Megatron.

With a smaller cast, we get a more focused character driven narrative and more room for development. The entire 26 episode season 1 is split into a few sweeping story arcs balanced with character centered episodes in between. It is a nice balance that few animated series seem to appreciate; shows that the characters are just as important as the story, and not just an excuse to sell toys. The Autobots are a combination of typical superhero team archetypes; fearless leader Optimus, action girl Arcee, gentle giant Bulkhead, and such. But over the course of the season, we get a glimpse into each of their personalities' different layers; a look at the bot within. Incidentally, the Decepticons come across as more interesting than the Autobots thanks to the hidden agendas of not just the compulsive backstabber Starscream, but every other decepticon from Soundwave to Airachnid have their own little moments of depth.

Giving life to these well written characters is an all star voice cast featuring popular voice actors like Steve Blum (Starscream), Jeffery Combs (Rachet) and Daran Norris (Knock out) along with returning fan favorites like Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, who reprise their famous roles of Optimus and Megatron. Of particular note is the inclusion of hollywood stars like Kevin Michael Richardson (Bulkhead), Gina Torres (Airachnid), Adam Baldwin (Breakdown), Clancy Brown (Silas) and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (Cliffjumper)!

Of course, like all transformers shows, we have the mandatory human kids caught in the crossfire: Miko Nakadai, Rafael Esquivel and Jack Darby, .
Now, human characters have always served the purpose of being an "audience vehicle", allowing the viewer to relate to and see themselves in the place of the human characters. Jack, Miko and Raf clearly represent the show's intended target audience: a smart but likable teen, hyper active fan-girl and little genius nerd boy respectively. But the writing never allows the humans to "steal the screen" from the Transformers themselves (something the live action movies are notorious for).Taking a leaf out of its predecessor "Transformers Animated", the humans in TRANSFORMERS: PRIME become naturally integral to the plot rather than a distraction. In fact, a major plot point deals with the real world ramifications of earthlings discovering the presence of alien machines among them.

The TRANSFORMERS themselves remain the stars of the show. You can even see it in how much attention to detail the animation studio, Polygon Pictures, pays to the robots. By the way, Polygon pictures is the japanese CGI studio responsible for the computer generated scenes in works such as "Sky crawlers", as well as the opening cinematics of Street Fighter IV and Resident Evil 5.

Reflections in shiny surfaces, dirt specks, chipped paint, scrapes and scratches. These ARE mechanical soldiers fighting a constant war, and it shows. Whenever they move, fight or transform you can see gears, pistons and other parts moving too. Design wise, they may take some getting used to at first, but the unique look of these Transformers combine the mechanical realism of the live action movies with the almost human yet inhuman "anatomy" of previous animated series.

It is a look that works. A shame the same cannot be said for the human characters or some of the backgrounds. The humans vary from passable in most scenes to downright clunky looking in others.

Their hair look like plastic clumps at times, their clothing lack any folds; They look only slightly better than the designs in Clone Wars. As for the backgrounds, they are inconsistently rendered with the quality varying from episode to episode.

With dynamic action sequences, bursting with breath taking camera angles and even slow motion, TRANSFORMERS: PRIME definitely has all the markings of a high budget production, almost movie-like at times. A rousing score by movie composer Brian Tyler sure helps that impression. A shame that the little slip ups in quality mar what could have been the most beautifully animated CGI series of the past decade.

Now into its second season, TRANSFORMERS PRIME is a franchise that finally learns from its past missteps and combines the best elements of all previous Transformers show.
The superb voice acting and characterisation from Generation 1,
The intense action of the animated movie,
Focused character driven narratives of Beast Wars,
Darker tone and sense of peril from Beast Machines
Galactic scale conflicts of the Unicorn trilogy
And likable human characters of Transformers: animated.
All of this expressed with above average technical competency, barring the occasional inconsistency in quality.
True to its name, this is the Transformers brand at its prime. A new milestone that future productions would be hard pressed to top.

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

Go For it: to see the combination of all the best elements from previous transformers cartoons resulting in one of the finest productions to ever bear the TRANSFORMERS brand.
Avoid it: if 100% perfection is what you demand or you will not settle for anything less than "Final Fantasy" when it comes to CGI (you snob)

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Drive (2011) independent movie review

Overall verdict: 9.5/10

The Good: homage to Old school cinematography, intense action with no CGI, fresh take on a typical genre premise, recurring visual motiffs and underlying themes, nostalgic soundtrack, first class performances, very nuanced.

The Bad: nothing really. Except we do not get any hints as to the Driver's background or past.

Every once in a while, you get reminded of how a good action movie back in the old days need not be loud, and proud of it. With a look and feel of a long lost classic from the 70s, DRIVE is the ultimate tribute to all the good action movies of days long ago. It is heavy in symbolism, oozing with style. Perfect evidence that a good action movie can be deep, emotionally engaging and cheap to make.

Of course, calling it a mere action movie would not be doing DRIVE justice. The action is indeed hard hitting and fast paced. Thanks in full to danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. With No shakey cam gimmicks or extreme close-ups, the action is easy on the eye. His clear style of shooting and steady camera handling is a breath of fresh air in this age of frantic whip pans and fenetic cuts. Practical stunts and effects, free of computer generated tampering, add to the freshness and feel of realism in the movie.

Now DRIVE is not going to score points for originality. It is your typical "crime turned sour" plot only this time it involves an unnamed stunt driver (credited as "The driver) played by Ryan Gosling who "moonlights" as a getaway car for hire. Gosling's character is a true enigma, and perhaps that is his main attraction. Somewhat aloof and seemingly cold, he slowly warms up to his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and later helps her and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos) when Irene has car trouble at a local supermarket. A budding friendship blossoms but is cut short with the return of Irene's husband Standrad (Oscar Issac). Now Standard is an ex-con trying to get back on the lawful path but he is perssured into doing one more robbery to pay off protection money. A double cross ensues and the Driver, along with Standard's family, becomes a mobster target. His chance for happiness forever gone, The Driver unleashes his own brand of vengence against those who would harm the only friends he has left.

DRIVE excels not just in the unique execution of a tried and true story, but in the little nuances throughout the movie. Every character is thoroughly fleshed out thanks to the amazing acting. Even the "bad guys" are given a sympathetic side making them far more human than your typical mobster villians. Cast against this backdrop of a morally grey world is the black and white absolute that is the nameless Driver. What is his nature? What drives him to do what he does? He is the modern day "man with no name"; the silent cowboy who walks into town one day and takes out the outlaws.

True to the symbolism heavy style of the show, many little things carry a double or hidden meaning. From the symbol of the Driver's jacket to little bits of conversation that are seemingly mundane. Permeating throughout the movie is Director Refn's tendency to let the visuals tell the story; A emotional moment made all the more surreal with altered lighting, a completely silent scene that speaks volumes through a single facial expression and creative editing. Rare indeed does is a crime movie able to carry as much tension in their chase scenes as DRIVE.

The keyboard music compused by Clint Martinez just screams "nostalgia" and harkens back to the synthesizer era in film scoring. Adding to the nuanced nature of DRIVE is the soundtrack with songs by famous electronica musicians. Yet do not dismiss them as just background music. Their very lyrics bears meaning within the context of the movie's narrative. Listen for them.

Normally, a movie like this would be pushed to the public as a blockbuster. "The Transporter", "The Fast and the Furious", they are all movies of similar genre and all all marketed as blockbusters. Yet DRIVE never tries to be one. It certainly has the DNA but presents itself more as an old school crime noir thriller with elements of romance and drama. It remembers that a good movie does not just ride on its chase scenes, loud crashes or well choreographed action. A good script with top grade actors to carry it, a sense of style and the little things unsaid still count for a lot.

This is almost like a cynical poke at the blockbuster cars-and-crime genre. DRIVE retains all their thrills, all their adrenaline yet never sacrifices good story and characters all for a fraction of their budget.

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

Go For it: if you like a smart, deep and thoroughly intense departure from a typical hollywood blockbuster that works as a perfect tribute to 80s era mob/crime movies.
Avoid it: if you love your action with shakey cam or need modern CGI in your car crashes.

Entertainment: A

Story: A
Acting: A

Characters: A-
Music: A
Replay value: A-
"Brains": A-