Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Can Always Dream - Dredd/ Robocop: American Justice Meets The Law.

"I Can Always Dream" is a series of posts where I share some movie fantasies that I know are near impossible to produce. They can only exist in my wildest dreams.

For today, here's a crossover between two of pop culture's most iconic law enforcers.

The Wind Rises (2014) Anime movie review

Overall verdict: 9.5/10

The Good: spectacular hand coloured artwork, lifelike animation without CGI, heartwarming story, smart humour, themes touching on the price of chasing one's dreams, energetic and vibrant tone despite lack of action. 

The Bad: flat acting from main lead character, repetitive musical themes.

3D Readiness: none.
IMax-ability: Beautiful animation and art may make this suitable for iMax screen

So, a movie about the engineer who created the scourge of World War Two's pacific arena: Japan's Zero Fighter. One may not expect a fully positive reaction about such a story. The zeros were after all highly feared and brought a swift Japanese domination to East Asia. Yet through the masterful visual storytelling of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki, this story is adapted into a timeless tale about one man who dared to dream and dared to chase that dream, for better or for worse.

Jiro Horikoshi is a boy with ambition. He aims to create the most advanced aircraft in the world; not as weapons of war but as constructs of beauty of splendour compared to the pyramids of Egypt. Spured on by vivid visions of his hero, a classic italian plane designer named Caproni, Jiro chases his dream. Yet events in life threaten to crush those dreams. First, a disastrous earthquake and fire in which Jiro's selfless nature touches the heart of a girl named Naoko. Then, when he finally lands a job with an aircraft manufacturer, his projects are plagued with failure after failure. A fateful encounter with Naoko years later lands the young couple deeply in love. Jiro, now torn between his ever more time consuming dreams and his steadily weakening wife,  has to bear the full consequence of the choices in his life.

The Wind Rises is the much advertised swan song of Hayao Miyazaki. And boy does he go out with a good one. Miyazaki peppers this movie with studio Ghibli's little touches of fantasy, particularly in the dream sequences. Easily his most heart wrenching story, the tale of Jiro is emotionally powerful with some genuine tear jerking moments. Although devoid of action, the story moves at a brisk pace through Jiro's life. The fun comes from the various colourful characters Jiro meets along his journey. From his future darling to a quirky German man critical of Hitler's regime, all these characters lend colour to what could have been a dull biopic.

To present this lively vision, Studio Ghibli utilises 100% hand drawn and coloured animation. Immediately, the animation has the look of the old classics while still being able to stand toe to toe with modern anime. It is almost lifelike in how smooth the movements of the characters are. Character designs are simple, yet the level of detail shows that the studio spared no expense on the animation. Visual metaphors abound and certain scenes are given some exaggeration as if coloured by Jiro's own emotions and imagination. The result is a beautiful, dynamic, and refreshing visual style that complements the story.

The Wind Rises is surprisingly loaded with symbolism and easter eggs for long time anime fans who are willing to dig deeper. In a way, the story of Jiro and the aeroplane mirrors that of Japanese anime and possibly Miyazaki's message to a new generation of anime creators looking to follow in his footsteps.

Like the Zero Fighter, anime started off content with copying the style of western cartoons. Through some brave pioneers pushing the boundaries, anime evolved into its own style and like the Zero Fighter, surpassed its western contemporaries. In the dreamscape, Caprioni talks to Jiro of retiring and how Jiro should continue to chase his dreams despite the fear that his designs would be used for war.  That's Miyazaki speaking; encouraging new creators to find their own style, forge their own stories, and no matter how companies may twist the medium to its own selfish gain, animation will always be a thing of beauty. Fitting then that Hideaki Anno, controversial creator of infamous anime such as Gunbuster and Neon Genesis Evangelion, be the one to portray the voice of Jiro, a similarly controversial figure in history.

A minor flaw with the movie would be the main character. Jiro himself is a little bit of a bore. He is the boy scout who stands up for the bullied, the smart savvy man who leaves his rivals speechless in an argument. All this is not helped by Hideki Anno's flat and emotionally deficient delivery of Jiro's lines. Thats what you get when a director tries to be an actor. The initial romance between Jiro and Naoko may also come across as mind numbingly cheesy, but their eventual life together and trials they face is a big emotional payoff.

 A bittersweet little yarn with all the makings of an anime classic, The Wind Rises proves that hand drawn 2D animation still has a place in a market saturated by 3D CGI and increasingly flashy computer coloured anime. Watch it for the tragic love story, the colourful characters, the symbolism and deeper themes. As the wind rises, so too does the standard on which good anime is measured. 

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

Friday, March 7, 2014

300: Rise Of An Empire (2014) movie review

Overall verdict: 6.5/10

The Good: Magnificent lead cast chemistry, charismatic hero and villain, delves into deeper themes, stunning green screen effects.

The Bad: generic music, sub par directing compared to the first film.

3D Readiness: post production 3D conversion. But slo-mo helps the effect
IMax-ability: none.

Legendary's blood soaked, fantasy fetish fueled, graphic novel style retelling of the second Persian invasion of Greece returns. While the brave 300 Spartans faced down Xerxes legions at Thermopylae, a second and no less pivotal conflict was taking place. A massive naval campaign led by the vengeful, and no less crazy, Artemesia advances on Greek shores. Only a handful of Athenian ships, and the unconventional strategies of general Themistocles, stands in their way.

Expanding on the story started in Zack Snyder's 300, 300 Rise of an Empire brings green screen slow motion carnage into the naval arena. Familiar themes are tackled here: of children losing their childhood in the heat of battle, of how one man's devotion to freedom and democracy helped rally a legion, and of how a small force can overcome any odds. Zack Snyder's screenplay peppers the script with a good dose of testosterone, manly howls of inspiration, and dash of innuendo, especially between rival generals Artemesia and Themistocles. 

Eva Green steals the show as the manipulative and sadistic Artemesia. Magnificent screen presence, deadly like a coiled viper yet sizzling hot against the cold blue ocean backdrop. Easily one of the more memorable and charismatic comic book villains since Dark Knight's Joker. Without conscience and fueled by burning passion, she is the perfect foil to Themistocles' stereotypical superhero image. 

Themistocles is a little like marvel's Captain America. He stands for justice, freedom and democracy. He had forsaken family and love for servitude to his country. His image of calm courage and steadfast control threatening to crumble under the weight of leadership; where every wrong move kills off someone's husband, father, or son. Their on screen chemistry is almost perfect despite being in actual physical proximity for 2 scenes. 

Some say that backstory kills off mystique; nobody wanted to know that Michael Meyers had a screwed up childhood before he became the masked Halloween killer. Love it or hate it, 300 Rise of an Empire delves into the tragic backstory of its villains. Xerxes' tale especially lends itself to the running theme of a son taking up his fallen father's mantle and surpassing his parent. Did we really need to know how a depressed prince became the God King of Persia? Why not? Our past shapes our future, as do our mistakes. Through Xerxes' invasion, Themistocles learns the hard way that mistakes of the past will bite you back one day. And bite hard.

It is a pity that Zack Snyder merely penned the screenplay. His presence as a director is sorely missed. Director Noam Murro does his best to follow in the stylish speed tweaked vision of Snyder's. It is a good effort, but not as dynamic as his predecessor. Instead of the golden bronze and striking crimson, we have a dull blue and murky grey color palate. Where Snyder infused his battle scenes with a gruesome grace and flow, Murro's battles are messy, hectic and hastily edited. Slow motion ramping (alternating sped up and slowed down shots) originally used to zoom in on and emphasize iconic shots, are just slapped on seemingly at random.

Despite the disappointing directing, this movie is a real joy to watch. The naval clashes evoke memories of historical classics like Ben Hur; wide in scope and epic in scale. It's cast chemistry and charisma provides the pivotal centerpiece in what could have been a forgettable and unnecessary sequel. 

This ain't Sparta. But this sure is almost as glorious.
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Entertainment: A
Story: B+
Acting: A
Characters: A-
Music: C-
Replay value: A-
"Brains": B-

Monday, March 3, 2014

300 (2007) movie review

Overall verdict: 7/10

The Good: stylish comic book action, faithful to the source material, heartfelt tale of heroism against overwhelming odds, intense combat sequences

The Bad: light on character development, generic music, 

3D Readiness: not filmed in 3D. But slo-mo stylish action may lend well to conversion
IMax-ability: not filmed in IMAX. 

The tragic legend of 300 brave Spartans against the Persian legions is now retold in a gorgeous live action comic book form. Possibly the best example of being faithful to a source material, 300 adapts the titular graphic novel by the famous Frank Miller. And what an adaptation it is! The muddy browns, ancient bronze and stunning crimson are painstakingly replicated in the films colors, panels are recreated in full motion shot-for-shot. Perhaps the greatest thing about this film is how it adds additional layers to the characters that were not immediately apparent in the graphic novel.

Our story is a epic tale of standing up for freedom, facing incredible odds for the sake of your people, and giving ones life as a symbol of hope. As the Persian empire marches through Greece, the senate is bogged down in politics and backstabbing. Unwilling to accept inaction, king Leonidas leads his 300 strong spartan army to face down the Persian troops at Thermopylae. Outnumbered at least a hundred to one, the Spartans fight on. While on the home front, Spartan queen Gorgo has to deal with Greek politics while being weary of a traitor in their midst. 

As mentioned, 300 is every bit as visually stunning as it's source material. Director Zack Snyder, a self proclaimed comic book fan, brings a keen eye for action. The stylish way he alternates between fast cuts and extreme slow motion is a unique touch that mimics the experience of moving panel to panel in a comic book. Gory action, intense fights and awesome action is on full display, complemented by some fine acting from the great looking leads.

One really has to complement the actors for the tough training regime they went through to achieve the Spartans' chiseled muscular look. All of them bring their "A" game to the table, instilling their characters with passion and emotion. Of note is Gerald Butler, bellowing war cries as the Spartan King Leonidas. His performance not only elevates a rather one dimensionally written character but immortalised so many memorable lines which subsequently became internet memes.

Although the characters are not given much development, the softer moments in the script plays out a tragic story of a culture where formality and strength are law. Love, compassion, and one's emotions are suppressed in the Spartan culture as signs of weakness. Yet as we follow the Spartans, at first portrayed as misogynistic war loving maniacs, we see their tender side surface; A father who grows to respect his son as family rather than just comrade, rivals who bond in battle, and a king loves his queen much more than he shows. These softer moments as well, like the political intrigue involving queen Gorgo, adds a deeper element to the original plot; the graphic novel merely focused on the battle at Thermophylae.

This movie has received its fair share of criticism for its portrayal of the Persians. But since it is framed as a story told by a Spartan survivor, these creative liberties may just be the survivor sprinkling some exaggeration into the tale. Overall, it is a thoroughly enjoyable testosterone fueled action flick. Aside from Tyler Bates' generic soundtrack, the visuals and directing style alone is unique and breathtaking. The softer moments are intriguing and well woven into the narrative, adding layers to what could have been a shallow swords and sandals movie.

Prepare for Glory. And prepare for the sequel.

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

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