Friday, April 24, 2015

Batman Vs Robin (2015) Direct-to-DVD animated OVA

Overall verdict: 6/10

The Good: well written dialogue, exceptional action, improved art and animation,  well developed hero's journey for Damien, deliciously over the top villain

The Bad: Awkwardly written romance, contrived and convenient plot resolution, minor animation errors

Damian Wayne was trained to be the greatest assassin in the world. Following is liberation from the League of Assassins, Damian is taken in by his father Bruce Wayne, who is also the legendary Batman. By day, Bruce and Damian work to bond as father and son. While at night, Batman teaches his new Robin to suppress his urge to kill and embrace a non-lethal philosophy of crime fighting. Inexperienced in being a parent, Bruce finds it difficult to trust his bloodthirsty son, and thus keeps him like a prisoner. But a new vigilante prowls the night. A vigilante named Talon who is more than happy to bring out Robin's killer instinct and have him as a partner.  

Ever since the previous instalment in this New Batman Direct-to-video animated universe, I had predicted that the comic book storyline "Court of Owls" would be one day adapted into an animated movie. (Don't believe me, read my review for SON OF BATMAN here). In a way, my wish has been granted. The mysterious Court Of Owls, a secret cadre of the rich and powerful who had been dictating the city's fate from eons ago, does feature in BATMAN VS ROBIN.  Their designs are a direct translation from comics and this movie even translates key scenes of Greg Capullo's (the original artist of the comic) artwork into animation. Sadly that is where the similarities end. 

The greatest crime BATMAN VS ROBIN commits, especially for a fan of the comics such as myself,  is how this movie completely alters the original "Court of Owls" storyline. The original comics, written by critically acclaimed scribe Scott Snyder, was an epic in its own right. 

A massive inter-title crossover that kickstarted DC's New 52 continuity featuring not just Batman and Robin, but Nightwing, Red Hood, Batgirl, Catwoman and even the Teen Titans. Heck, somehow even Jonah Hex was brought into it. The apocalyptic scenario saw Gotham City overrun by reanimated killer Talons each sent on specific assassination missions to wipe out key individuals; among the targets is the Bat family. 

This movie reduces that storyline into another "underworld gang looking to take over" plot combined with the story of a rival vigilante to Batman who tries to return Damian to his old bloodthirsty ways. Yes, the singleminded Talons have been reduced to Batman's dark reflection. A masked Vigilante, like Batman, but willing to kill. 

We do get some development to the Father/Son relationship between Bruce and Damian. We get a glimpse into Damian's inner struggle with conflicting ideologies and his quest to find his own identity. All his life, he has felt used by others for their own ends and now he faces a choice between potential fathers.  

Damian is the main character here with all other characters relegated to a supporting role, including Batman. Stuart Allen reprises his role of Damian, bringing a realistic and believable "mature beyond his years" kid voice to the character. His level of emoting has improved somewhat from SON OF BATMAN, reflecting Damian's humanisation and rejection of his assassin past. 

The other voices tend to border on mediocre; a fault most likely lying in the actors since voice director Andrea Romano has produced top notch work so far. Jason O'Mara returns as Batman/Bruce Wayne but uses the exact same voice for both personas. A stark difference to other Batman voice actors, particularly Kevin Conroy (who in a nice bit of fan service, voices Bruce Wayne's father) who uses distinct tones and inflections to distinguish Batman and Bruce Wayne as the mask and the true identity. Jeremy Sisto (who also voiced a previous incarnation of Batman from JUSTICE LEAGUE THE NEW FRONTIER) is the deep toned Talon but.......little else. Whether angry, frustrated, confident or wavering, Talon sounds exactly the same. 

TheAnswerStudio brings their anime styled look to this movie as well as the previous SON OF BATMAN. Compared to their last effort, detail in the artwork has gone up a notch; gradient shadows, those dynamic lighting effects, and reflective sheen on metal objects truly add to the visual spectacle. Sadly, like so many of its contemporaries, this movie falls victim to the same trappings that typical Japanese anime fall into. It looks beautiful but the smoothness of the animation suffers; the frame rate looks jerky, hand to hand combat is given the illusion of movement through motion blur, and in certain scenes involving many characters on screen the level of detail drops.

Our storyline tends to be all over the place. You never get a clue on what our villains' motivations were, how much of a threat their organisation is to Gotham, or even why Nightwing seems to have some unsaid grudge against Damian. This was expanded upon in the comics, but truncated and lost here in this movie. The writers tried to play with a mystery element here but the twists could be seen coming ten minutes into the show. 

What results is a predictable watered down version of an exceptional comic book. On its own, BATMAN VS ROBIN is decently entertaining with a good deal of action, decent character development for Robin, and visual eye candy in the artwork. Sure it is a far cry from Greg Capullo's stunning comic panels but it holds its own among anime movies of 2015.  However, among Warner Premiere's catalogue of Direct-to-video animated movies, this one ranks in the lower tiers thanks to its rushed nature, simplified story, disappointing acting and choppy Japanese anime style animation. 
*****************************Review End***************************

Entertainment: B+
Art: A
Animation: B-
Story: C+
Voice Acting (English): B- 
Characters: B+
Music: B-
Replay value: A-
"Brains": D-

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning (2012) direct-to-video movie

Overall verdict: 7.5/10

The Good: Intriguing mystery plot, intense action, realistic stunts and violence, surreal atmospheric cinematography, ties up loose ends for the Universal Soldier movie series, old school synthesiser soundtrack, Scott Adkins finally acts.

The Bad: Overuse of slow motion, annoying "white flashes" during hallucination scenes, over-the-top performances from antagonists, slow first act.

3D Readiness: Native 3D

A change in direction is risky. You may end up alienating your original fan base, you may end up with an unrecognisable sequel that is a sequel in name only, or you may end up creating a better product. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is that better product. Not just a sequel, but an expansion on a waning science fiction action franchise, DAY OF RECKONING closes many loose ends and answers questions that were left hanging by 2009's franchise revival UNIVERSAL SOLDIER A NEW BEGINNING/Regeneration.

Luc Devereaux, the protagonist from the original 1992 movie, has gone AWOL. Having failed in reintegration into society, Devereaux has accepted his cold hearted killer and merciless soldier persona with a new nihilistic mindset. Used like a weapon then discarded by his handlers, the disillusioned Devereaux slowly recruits other Unisol sleeper agents to join him for an eventual uprising against the government and the black ops programme that robbed them of their humanity. His latest act of terror was the cold blooded murder of a woman and child, the wife and daughter of a family man named John (our protagonist played by Scott Adkins).

Mysteriously left alive, John starts to track down the elusive Devereaux for the sake of revenge, but ends up unveiling mystery after mystery. The greatest mystery however comes from within as John is tormented by hallucinations of Devereaux and manifests combat skills that he had never learned; skills that allow him to best other Unisols in hand to hand combat.

Those skills would be tested as John hunts down the truth of his past, evades the relentless Unisol "Magnus" who has been sent to stop him, and takes a journey into the heart of darkness that is Devereaux's hidden fortress. John's journey is a painful one about losing one's humanity to vengeance. As his obsession grows, his methods become more inhuman and cruel. As he goes further down this dreamlike rabbit hole of a story, John is faced with a risk of becoming the devil to defeat the devil when he finally faces Devereaux.

Scott Adkins portrays that gradual metamorphosis from man to killing machine with a good level of nuance and restraint. Finally given a starring role that goes beyond just fighting and scowling, former stuntman and trained martial artist Adkins shows off his acting chops, taking John across the full range of emotions from despair to a focused drive, to single minded obsession. Sure it's not much, this is not some romance drama after all, but it serves the story while allowing Adkins to go "Rambo" on all his enemies.

Having cast trained martial artists like Adkins, Andrei Arlovski and Jean Claud Van Damme, the action in DAY OF RECKONING is bloody, intense and marvellously shot. It is the sort of hard hitting full on fighting with practical effects that is a rare sight in this day and age of special effects and digital stand-ins. This movie never shies away from bloodshed, showcasing every wound, shot and death with grim realism.

From the onset, the mystery plot is gripping with its fair share of twists and unexpected revelations. It does sag a bit in the first act but once you get past that, the pace picks up. If you have been following the franchise, many questions are answered here. For example, how does Dolph Lundgren's Andrew Scott character return again and again despite meeting gruesome ends in each instalment?

Drawing inspiration from APOCALYPSE NOW (the whole "former soldier gone rogue and amassing an army" as well as the surreal journey into darkness theme), TERMINATOR (the relentless pursuit of John by Unisol Magnus) and MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (brainwashed sleeper agents/assassins with false memories), UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is a gripping tale from start to finish.

As a whole, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING achieves what many of its contemporaries fail to: it is a direct-to-video movie that looks just as good as a hollywood blockbuster. No doubt the result of John Hyam's masterful direction and cinematography. His camerawork achieves an interesting look to the film that slowly mutates from soft and sombre into harsh lighting with clashing colours reflecting John's physical and emotional journey. Accompanied by haunting synthesiser music courtesy of Michael Krassner, the movie draws you in with its surreal atmosphere.  Perhaps the only questionable filming decision was to utilise an epileptic flashing strobe light in scenes where John has his hallucinations.

A dark yet fitting end to the franchise which still leaves some doors open for further sequels.

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

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

Saturday, April 18, 2015

2025 (2015) TV series review- 13 Episodes

Overall verdict: 2/10

The Good: Excellent performances from veteran cast members (Gerald Chew, Lim Kay Tong)

The Bad: Overly melodramatic acting, terrible cheap looking special effects, laughable costumes, cliche filled plot, non-existent soundtrack, uninspired directing and camerawork, cringe worthy writing. 

3D Readiness: none


A "sci-fi mystery thriller", or so claims the advertising blurb for Singapore's first foray into science fiction of the new millennium. Oh advertising! How you tease! 

Our glimpse of the world 10 years from now (or at least from 2015) shows us a Singapore where the landscape looks like a video game cutscene. 3D rendered animations which seem to be able to interact with live actors deliver parcels (a subsequent check showed that these animations were supposed to depict automated drones), more 3D rendered animations are plastered everywhere. Buildings are given 3D rendered animation extensions to make them scream "I am futuristic".  

Soldiers (or are they police? ) dress up in bad "ninja-meets-terminator" cosplay, 

using weapons that fire 3D rendered animations that look like they were stolen from Power Rangers. 

Why do I go on about 2025 being filled with 3D rendered animations? Because that is how it looks like. Poor effects made with off-the-shelf software by students. I'm not even going to call them "special effects" because they are not special. 

What else does this show tell us about the world 10 years from now? It tells us that the old 80s movies were right! We have anti-establishment rebels, a person in power with a plot to rule the world, some poor civilian played by Gerald Chew gets caught in the middle dragging his family and neighbour into the picture. 

Throughout the run of the show, one gets a tugging feeling of deja vu. And why not? everything seems to be taken from some existing movie or TV show. Whats worse is the direction which makes the show, again, feel like it was done by students. One can whip out a "filming for dummies" book and see how insipidly our director lines up the shots. Hand-held shots are used for action scenes, as usual. Slow motion for dramatic impact, as usual. Steady cam for sombre scenes, as usual. None of it even looks remotely creative, just a by-the-numbers filmmaking here. 

The weak direction extends to the plot and the acting. A few veteran actors like Gerald Chew and Lim Kay Tong turn in respectable performances; subtle, nuanced yet marvellously played. The younger ones crank up the melodrama like they're in some school stage production instead of a professional TV series. Overacting abounds amidst your usual drivel about teenage angst, poorly written unrequited love and family tension.

Essentially, 2025 is your typical Singaporean melodrama, complete with cheesy cringeworthy lines, recycled in a science fiction setting. We've seen all these character archetypes before every other evening on every other Singaporean drama. Nothing new there. It is overly familiar, overly contrived and the much touted special effects and costumes border on laughable. You have one episode featuring a killer cyborg who looks like some guy in a bad Megaman Halloween costume.

Silly dyed hair which is supposed to be "futuristically stylish" and everything just looks… 

Put all that cheapness through a dull green, sickly greyish, lens filter and you have some idea how 2025 looks. 

 One could make an excuse for the show on grounds of its budget. But budget was never the problem. Talent is. Talent which is sorely lacking. Talent of design, directing, acting and imagination. Perhaps the only interesting bit comes at the end of each episode where they feature the technological highlights with "Experts" talking about current research and plans for future implementation. If science fiction is meant to stretch the mind and tease the imagination, 2025 fails. Let's not talk about Hollywood or Europe. This show is barely up to the standards of regional fare from Taiwan or Hong Kong. If TV shows are meant to engage and entertain, 2025 succeeds only as a bad misbegotten curiosity to see how NOT to do science fiction.

Seen above: Audience reaction after seeing the first episode.

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

Entertainment: D
Story: D
Acting: C-
Characters: D-
Music: E
Replay value: D-
"Brains": E

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Cinderella (2015) movie review

Overall verdict: 7/10

The Good: Magnificent Soundtrack by Patrick Doyle, spectacular production design,  well paced narrative, expands on the original's backstory, flawless acting, conveys themes of perseverance and forgiveness. 

The Bad: Retains juvenile simplicity of the original, one dimensional supporting characters, missed potential for more complex character and story development .

3D Readiness: Post filming 3D conversion.
IMax-ability: Fast paced shots of combat and intense action may not lend well to imax viewing

The only way to describe Kenneth Brannagh’s CINDERELLA is “The disney fairy tale come to life”. I for one am thankful that it is no longer a surreal musical but a straight forward fantasy story. No talking mice in clothing and not too much singing for starters. Live action adaptations of such cartoons allow creators to take the tale in a more mature direction. To provide depth of character where they were once shallow “hero” or “villain” archetypes. To provide believable development in the characters’ journey and growth. To go beyond juvenile wish fulfilment. CINDERELLA does that to a certain extent but seems to hold back on fully exploring its potential. 

At first glance, CINDERELLA is beautiful. The movie I mean. It sounds wonderful too with an uplifting score composed by THOR’s Patrick Doyle. The production design and costumes are magnificent. Those along with the music effectively capture the royal glamour of fairy tale palaces, the down-to-earth simplicity of a idealistic medieval countryside and the warm feel of a simpler time. With a resume in movies on Shakespeare and Shakespearean in scope, director Brannagh brings his keen eye for visual detail and love for romanticised victorian age elements to this movie. Indeed, CINDERELLA hews close to its roots, adapting the disney classic into live action while expanding on elements that were never fleshed out before. 

One such element was Cinderella’s backstory. How does a simple unassuming good girl end up in the company of an evil stepmother and horrid step sisters? Where does she draw her inner strength from to carry on as no more of a household servant? This movie answers those questions. In making the transition from 2D animation to three dimensional live actors, the characters too gain some depth. Cinderella herself, played wonderfully by Lily James, is portrayed as a thoroughly human protagonist given inhumanly cruel treatment in an unfortunate world. She is an ideal, no doubt, of strength of character with a solid foundation of good values, never giving up even in the face of persecution. Still, we see her human side when she falters emotionally; her smile hiding a loneliness and inner sadness. A far cry from the pure and perfect damsel from the cartoon. Most intriguing is Cate Blanchett’s evil Stepmother character. You get a sense that she represents cruel reality. An idealist girl who was slowly turned by the unfortunate ways of the world; the money minded, dog-eat-dog world where only survival of the shrewdest matters. She is the perfect foil to Cinderella’s pure hearted personality and the perfect breeding ground for a complex conflict of character. 

Yet this movie hovers. That complexity never came. Instead when the story started to delve into the complex, it reined itself back into simplistic fairy tale goodness. This is where CINDERELLA suffered. Expanding just enough but never quite making its characters fully rounded. Take the relationship between Cinderella and the Prince for example. It still comes across as love at first sight with both parties enraptured in each other’s beauty. You get a hint that their romance went deeper than that but the movie never elaborates. You get a sense that there is more to the Prince than a pretty face, hinting at his insecurities over marriage, his inexperience in leadership, but the movie never elaborates. It is a missed opportunity that could have taken a story, reviled by many for its simplistic notions of love, into a modern fable with morals that children can learn from. 

It does maintain good moral fibre that perseverance and steadfast belief in one’s good values will eventually lead to good things and good people. An additional point for that. Where CINDERELLA loses points is in its unwillingness to explore deeper themes. It plays safe with the whole kid friendly fairy tale angle, keeping complex conflict to a minimum or at least to a simple black and white, good and evil. Our characters are more developed but maintain their “perfection”. Cinderella, having had near zero contact with men other than her late father, waltzes into a crowded ball seemingly with a surprising air of confidence. Would it have been too complex to show her insecurities or a little shyness? The prince had lied to her about being an apprentice. Would it have been too much trouble to show that him feeling bad and apologising rather than making up some smug excuse? Their humanity is hampered by wanting to keep it kid friendly and simple. Similarly, magnificent designs are sometimes hampered by disappointing CGI special effects.

The young and the young at heart would have no trouble following and loving this live action fairy tale. For those of us looking for a clever deconstruction or at least a more complex reconstruction of this classic, CINDERELLA is not that movie. 

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

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