Friday, January 31, 2014

Justice League: War (2014) direct-to-video animated movie review

Overall verdict: 7.5/10

The Good: snappy well written dialogue, cast chemistry, fluid action, timely humour,  brisk plot pace, characters well fleshed out

The Bad: some weird character designs, lacklustre animation, clashing CGI, underdeveloped villain, unnecessary liberties taken with source material. 

3D Readiness: none
IMax-ability: none


DC's "New 52". Love it or hate it, it is here to stay. So strong is this line wide continuity reboot that it has now entered the realm of animation in the form of JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR. Adapting the first volume of Geoff John's and Jim Lee's graphic novel "Justice League: Origins", WAR is a brisk animated superhero blockbuster, heavy on action and snappy dialogue. Compared to the bleak and morally ambiguous FLASHPOINT PARADOX, WAR returns an element of fun to DC's superheroes by crafting a tradition, clear cut "Good versus evil" tale.

Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and more. Superpowered beings have only recently made their presence known to a suspicious world. Admired by some, but feared by most, they struggle for acceptance while fighting the good fight. A typical night on the job turns into a conflict of epic proportions when Batman and Green Lantern uncover evidence of a clandestine operation carried out by techno organic aliens. Superman gets roped in due to his alien origins and an experiment gone wrong leads to the metamorphosis of Vic Stone into a techno organic "Cyborg". All this culminates in a full scale invasion, pulling in the likes of Wonder Woman, The Flash and Shazam, who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Facing down the invasion forces the squabbling heroes to set aside their differences and work together.

Perhaps the best part of such superhero team ups is to see how the heroes play off each other. Thanks to an expertly written script and fine acting, our characters share memorable moments of dialogue punctuated with wit and a bit of humour. It feels like Marvel's AVENGERS only that the humour is more controlled, more witty, and less outright comedy.

Miraculously, with so many heroes, our script gives ample development to the characters and fleshes most of them out perfectly. Cyborg's tension with his father, Green Lantern's over confidence in his power and Wonder Woman as the stranger in a strange land are a treat to watch. All the characters are played by an excellent bunch of actors who ease right into their roles.  Special mention goes to young Zach Callison who nails Billy Batson as a streetwise but insecure kid, hiding his insecurities behind a seemingly brash little tough guy act. Little sub-plots lend meat to the story such as Cyborg and Shazam's issue with trust, Green Lantern learning some humility, and a budding romance between Superman and Wonder Woman. Superman himself however is a big letdown. His simplistic dialogue,  and muscle bound design makes him seem like a clueless one dimensional bruiser.

Of course, what would a good superhero movie be without action?
In JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, the action is intense and wild. Featuring a soundtrack that combines orchestral fanfare with some sinister sounding synths, essentially makes JUSTICE LEAGUE WAR sound more like the sci/fi invasion flick that it is than a traditional superhero movie. Legions of parademons storm the major cities of the world while their leader Darkseid personally confronts the heroes. Moi Animation studio brings their best to the fight scenes. The animation is smooth and dynamic, yet the level of detail remains constant. Director Jay Olivia, who also directed the superman slugfest SUPERMAN DOOMSDAY shows off some beautiful combat scenes, including a cool first-person sequence from the point of view of Wonder Woman slicing her way through a horde.

Unfortunately, the slower scenes in the movie show off some areas where the animation is lacking. With TV shows like Young Justice and Legend of Korra, the art detail in this movie is barely any better than that in the aforementioned TV series. Then there is the ubiquitous CGI used to render vehicles and parademon hordes in the background. They clash rather obviously with the 2D art, a true crime when others shows can successfully integrate cel shaded CGI into the traditional 2D animation. Some character designs are also just as iffy. While most of the characters look fantastic, with a slight japanese anime touch, Superman looks like a dumb beefcake. Not that his simplistic dialogue helps this impression. His face is too wide, his shoulders are huge, nothing at all like the sleek and handsome Jim Lee art in the original graphic novel.
And that is perhaps the greatest sin this movie commits. In touting itself as an adaptation, it makes many unnecessary changes from the original comic. Polarising your audience is never a good thing. Fans of the comic would be turned off by the changes. Not that JUSTICE LEAGUE WAR is not a good movie, it is. It succeeds in re-introducing these well known characters in a new light, and in setting up a whole new universe for subsequent animated movies to be set in. As a pilot film, not bad. But perhaps with the critical acclaim that the graphic novel got, it should not have been too much to expect more advanced animation techniques and better character designs that were closer to the comic art.

DC now has it's New animated movie universe up and running. Would a live action one follow soon?
*****************************Review End***************************

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

Thursday, January 2, 2014

47 Ronin (2013) 3D movie review

Overall verdict: 6/10

The Good: Powerful Cast Chemistry, impeccable acting, flawless special effects

The Bad: redundant romantic subplot, underdeveloped characters, generic music score, unremarkable directing.

3D Readiness: filmed in 3D. Long landscape and wide shots utilize the medium well, but tight close up action scenes are blurry and dark.
IMax-ability: not filmed in IMAX. Wide shots would benefit from the format.

Ronin. They are masterless Samurai, cast out from their service. Free from the bonds of servitude, some become wanderers or mercenaries. But for 47 former samurai of the Asano clan, they continued to honor their dead master and carried out a final heroic act to avenge his death. This was a true story of loyalty and ancient bushido code of honor. From this historical tale came many retellings of the 47 Ronin. One of which was 2013's fantasy style adaptation starring Keanu Reeves.

Wait....Keanu Reeves? Yes that Keanu Reeves. He stars as Kai in Universal studio's 47 Ronin. Kai is a mysterious half Caucasian half Japanese who was found as a boy on the outskirts of a tengu demon forest. He was taken in by lord Asano and allowed to serve the clan as a worker and hunting scout. Lo and behold, the lowly half breed finds a forbidden love in the Asano's daughter, Mika, and develops a friendship/rivalry with Oishi, the leader of Asano's samurai. But wait......what does all this have to do with the 47 Ronin? Well, it seems that rival clan led by lord Kira somehow gets his bitch witch to bewitch lord Asano into attacking Kira during a visit by a royal official. Japanese code of honor dictates that rather than finding out the cause if such an outburst, lord Asano has to commit ritual suicide to spare the honor of his clan while his Samurai stand by helplessly, as their interference is forbidden by that code of honor as well. As compensation, Kira takes Mika as his bride and everything that used to belong to Asano. Rather than serve Kira, 47 of Asano's warriors leave to become Ronin and plot their revenge for this grave injustice.

 Oh but what about Kai? Demon Tengu? A witch you say? Yes 47 Ronin digs deep into eastern mythology of dragons, witches, bird demons and magic to deliver something less like a historical epic and more like graphic novel. 47 Ronin Feels like 3 separate stories cobbled together. The most interesting revenge plot and the development of the ronin as a cohesive team is muddled in Kai's cliche ridden romance and a whole lot of demon sorcery, monsters and special powers right out of some fan-manga. It is jarring when the tone shifts and the film switches it's focus. One moment, it is on Oishi and his quest to reunite the Ronin, the other it's on Kai and his continual pinning for the princess. Thanks to all this, we never fully realise just HOW loyal and united the 47 Ronin are other than being told so. We never delve into their group dynamic, into the spirit of brotherhood that held them together despite the crushing defeat they suffered. 

Despite weak writing and cliched scripting by FAST AND FURIOUS write Chris Morgan, the majority of the Asian cast members do a spectacular job. This is essentially an all star ensemble for anyone into Japanese movie stars. Although filmed in English, the Asian stars emote with pure professionalism bringing genuine emotion to every scene. There is chemistry between the actors. Of particular note is Kou Shibasaki whose beautiful regal presence plays of spectacularly against  Rinko Kikuchi's sultry slutty witch Mizuki. Arguably, Keanu Reeves' wooden performance also plays in good contrast to the Japanese characters, only to further highlight his alien nature.

Whether he is miscast or not truly depends on what you expect for the character. But none can be as out of his element than First time director Carl Erik Rinsch. Filmed in 3D, the director schizophrenically alternates between smooth wide shots that benefit realty from the medium to tight frantic close ups that utterly wastes the 3D format. Action is passable but no where as epic as it could have been filmed. Overall, despite astounding visual effects and flawless CGI, the unremarkable directing makes the film feel neutered and generic. Generic too is the movie soundtrack by Ilan Eshkeri. Having composed with a distinct Asian touch for films like NINJA ASSASSIN, that same Asian touch is sadly missing from 47 Ronin. It is run-of-the-mill fantasy music.

 47 Ronin had tremendous potential. You can see the amount of love for ancient japan, it's culture and it's mythology, that went into the production of this film. It could have followed other fantasy retelling of ancient history such as Zack Snyder's 300 or Troy. It could have been a tight ensemble film like FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING expanding on the group dynamic. Imagine how epic it could have been if it was "ancient Japanese Band of Brothers in the style of 300". Alas, we have what we got. An unremarkable, albeit expensive, movie work of a debut director that despite a powerful cast, wonderful performances and visual effects, seems written like some japanophile's fan fiction.

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

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