Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ultraman: Towards The Future (1991) TV series - 13 episodes

Overall verdict: 9/10


The Good: lovable characters realised by good actors, well written narrative, excellent special effects, intense fight choreography, delves into deeper themes, snappy dialogue.

The Bad: use of stock footage, occasional over-acting, some cheap looking monster designs, theme song may seem copied from Superman
Produced in 1992, Ultraman Toward the Future is the first live action Ultraman series NOT produced in Japan. This entry into the much loved Ultraman Mythos was an Australian production which was easily years ahead of its time. The likable cast of characters ate complemented with top notch special effects coupled with a well crafted story all of which "Ultraman Toward the Future" one of the best Ultraman series in existence.
Originally filmed in English, The story starts of very mysteriously across 2 plot arcs that unfold over 13 episodes only in total. In the first story arc, Jack Shindo and Stanely Haggard are members of the first manned expedition to Mars where they encounter a giant slug-like monster, Gudis. They are rescued by the mysterious silver and red giant ULTRAMAN but not before Gudis escapes to earth in the form of an alien virus and Stanley is presumably killed. 
To ensure Jack Shindo does not die on Mars, Ultraman joins with Jack, allowing Jack to summon the heroic giant whenever all hope seems lost. On earth He joins the UMA organization in order to help them battle the monsters created by the Gudis virus. The story is very well plotted as the stakes rise as the episodes progress leading to UMA being compromised from within, a near catastrophic clash with the military, and the culmination of the Gudis' malevolent plot.
The second arc delves into a green Aesop of "protect the environment" as monsters are awakened by pollution, created by the abuse of science or summoned as a form of symbolic retribution against humanity. Ultraman and UMA find themselves torn between protecting the planet or protecting humanity as an apocalyptic prophesy is slowly fulfilled.
ULTRAMAN TOWARDS THE FUTURE boasts a fair amount of human drama and a little comic relief thrown in but it does not detract from the overall dark feel of the story. Every character is fully fleshed out and immediately likeable.
 One can easily develop an emotional connection with each of the characters, from the hot headed Jean Echo, the skeptical Lloyd, the geeky Charles Morgan, and ace pilot Kim Shaomin to the "straight to business" base commander Arthur Grant who seems to be channeling a more cynical Captain Picard. 
The actors are mostly Australian but are of mixed ethnic heritage and manage to pull off different accents, lending to a very diverse look for the main cast. Ultraman is not longer just a plot device to defeat the monster but a character onto himself who converses with Jack and helps him to deal with personal problems such as an emotional crisis of faith. Like a wise mentor, Ultraman dishes out some philosophy once in a while.
Each episode deals not only with a monster but with very down to earth themes that anyone can relate to. Themes like a child dealing with family neglect, the plight of immigrants, the ongoing conflict of interests between and the importance of trust are interspersed with enough plot twists and intrigue that put some crime dramas out there to shame. The second half of the series even boasts some environmental cautionary tales with a overarching subplot of the earth trying to fight against the humans who have polluted it.
Those still suffering from traumatic memories of rubber pillows with eyes that pass off as monsters wrestling with a red and silver rubber man, fear not! The monsters are not just men in suits like the Japanese series but a mix of man in a suit, puppetry, animatronics and props. Close-ups make use of still-props of, for example, the monster's head or foot, which allows a greater level of detail. Puppetry is used to give the monsters a more organic feel, to give life to tentacles, antenna and wings instead of just letting them flop to the side like in the Japanese series. 
Yes there is the occasional dud where the monster looks like a balloon with obvious fabric skin but those are few and well masked by the masterful camerawork. The director(Andrew Prowse, who would go on to direct a number of episodes of the popular sci/fi series "Farscape") uses long panning shots from the ground level angled upward to give a grand feel and a sense of scale to the giant monster battles. Close ups are only used when necessary for dramatic effect.

The fight choreography his lighter on physical brawling compared to other Ultraman series, placing a greater emphasis on special effects based powers which look absolutely astounding for its time. It is a mix of early CGI laser style effects and practical effects that creatively uses gases, lighting and actual fire. The powers look better than Power Rangers which came out 3 years after this show and just as good as Ultraman Tiga, which came out 6 years after this.
Ultraman's design in this show is also a real treat. It keeps true to the spirit of the original without any added gimmicks while creating a great looking character in its own right. This Ultraman is visibly bulkier and more muscular than the previous ones, looking more like an american comic book hero than ever before. The miniatures are very intricate and realistically built and it helps that shots of miniatures are inter cut with shots of real cities. The Hummer flying scenes can look a little weird at times though due to the use of green screen against a stationary hanging model instead of real time puppetry.
Unlike may other tv shows of its ilk, "Ultraman Towards the Future" proves that giant monster defender shows of this sort can go beyond just brainless action and have an intelligent story with themes both simple and complex for children and adults. It even teaches good morals. The action is well paced, the cast do a marvellous job in fleshing out lovable characters and special effects are revolutionary for its time. All of this set to an epic orchestral score. A pity it only ran for 13 episodes.


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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero (1993) TV series - 13 Episodes

Overall verdict: 5/10


The Good: intricately designed monsters , excellent cast chemistry, serious tone, some well written emotionally charged episodes, good special effects for its time

The Bad: stiff fight choreography and stunts, amateurish directing and camerawork, cheap looking practical sets and models, repetitive music, looked like a parody at times, wasted potential

Disappointing cannot begin to describe ULTRAMAN: THE ULTIMATE HERO. The series's largest selling point is that it was "made in Hollywood". But guess what, you can get a Beverly hills college student to film his dog and that film would still be called "made in Hollywood". Instead of hiring some reputable director , "A list" actors or even a decent production studio, Tsuburaya Productions decided to be total cheapskates. They hired a production team of mostly new comers, a first time director and some unknown production company called "Major Havoc Entertainment".
Sure, it would be easy to throw all the blame on Hollywood for how this show turned out. For a great show, any great show, you need expertise, experience and money. This show only had the first out of the three and it is apparent in the great looking creatures and sets. All the costumes for the various alien creatures look really convincing due to them being made out of sculpted foam latex and plastic instead of soft rubber.

The monsters had animatronic heads that allowed lifelike movements in the eyes and mouth and the latex could be sculpted to mimic scales or armor plating. This version of the Ultraman character is possibly the best looking of all; no horns, no extra bling, just a leaner, meaner and more streamlined version of the original Ultraman design. The sculpted costume gave him a more muscular look and special effects that produced his powers, though dated by today's standards, was years ahead of Power Rangers.
A lack of experience and money is to blame for the show's failure. Starting with the story, Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero, or otherwise known as "Ultraman Powered", consists of 13 episodes which are essentially remakes of 13 of the better episodes from the original Ultraman TV show. The main focus is on the "Worldwide Investigation Network of Response" or WINR(pronounced "Winner") and their attempts to investigate and put down any alien activity.

Their main enemy is the Baltans, a race of bug-like aliens who want to destroy earth and almost succeed at doing so with a giant Baltan warrior until the mysterious space giant "Ultraman" shows up. Ultraman is an intergalactic law enforcer who pursued the Baltans to earth and saves the life of WINR member Kenichi Kai by joining with his life-force. Now in times of danger, Kai can transform into Ultraman to do battle with other giant monsters.
Though the story is made of up 13 separate stories taken from the original Ultraman series in the 60s, the writers have tied each episode together by having a back-story that each monster was an attempt by the Baltans to test Ultraman's abilities. The episodes themselves were of varying quality but when they were good they were very good. Episode 6 "A Father's Love" stands out as the most emotionally charged of all and the series is propped up by the excellent chemistry shared by the cast.

The flaw comes in the overall "feel" of the show. The writing and dialogue took itself quite seriously, perhaps too seriously. Afterall this was a show where members of WINR flew about in a giant multi colored space ship and used ray guns. Perhaps a more realistic or down-to-earth set up would have worked better.
The inexperience of the production crew obviously shows despite the best efforts of the writers and the special effects team. The director has a tendency of choosing all the wrong camera angles and does not seem to know how to creatively mask props. For example, the director would constantly use a ground shot to give Ultraman a sense of scale. However this makes the toys that the crew put to represent vehicles very obvious.

You also end up with horrible scenes such as this shot of the Baltan below where you can obviously make out the sound stage, the paste-on windows of the cardboard buildings and the fact that the Baltan alien is wearing shoes!

Star Wars also used props on strings for flying vehicles yet director King Wilder's camera-work makes the props like WINR's jets and spaceships look like nothing more than props on strings. Fight choreography is almost non-existent; Ultraman hardly punches or kicks anything, most of the time he just jumps about and lightly shoves monsters around.

While the monsters themselves look great, they are extremely stiff. This makes for some really silly moments where a monster merely taps Ultraman with a finger (perhaps the script called for a powerful swipe but since the monsters were so stiff, such a swipe came off as a tap) and it sends Ultraman toppling to the soundstage.
Rumor has it that Tsuburaya Productions themselves refused to increase the budget or hire a more experienced production company. It is also said that they insisted that the sillier elements like the corny spaceships and ray guns be kept. It is as if they came to Hollywood expecting a blockbuster on the scale of Jurassic Park but forgot that to make a big show you first need a big budget.
Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero could have been much more than how it turned out. It could have been the big budget special effects extravaganza that updated the classic series for a modern audience. Alas all it ended up being was an obscure, rarely referenced entry in the long running ULTRAMAN franchise; almost like an old shame for the franchise, ridiculed for its flaws, and only acknowledged for its gorgeous designs. If you do not have time to check out the entire 50 episode 1966 Ultraman, then check out this show for an effective summary. If not, just check out this show for the fun of it.

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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) movie review

Overall verdict: 6/10

Games be damned. Let's do fan fiction!

The Good: stylish directing and fight scene choreography, amazing production design, hauntingly intense music

The Bad: severs most ties to the video game, derivative plot elements, lack of character development,  uninteresting lead character

The word "extinction" points to an end, the dying out of a species, the final full stop after a long story, usually coming after a series of disasters that drive home the finality of the situation. And what better way to do that to a movie franchise based on a video game than to totally disregard anything to do with the source material in favour of a cliched mish mash of other well loved movies. We are in familiar post apocalyptic territory as the events of the previous RESIDENT EVIL APOCALYPSE has led to a global T-Virus outbreak which is implied to have caused lakes and rivers to dry out and the land itself to die, turning the whole continent into a barren desert. Las Vegas is covered to its buildings' rooftops in sand, zombies roam the land, cannibal gangs lie in wait for unsuspecting victims, survivors form convoys to stay alive and on the movie. Good golly, it's MAD MAX all over again and every other post apocalyptic movie ever.
Some time has passed since the end of RESIDENT EVIL APOCALYPSE and the virus has spread, slowly killing the world and mutating its population. Alice, now cursed with psychic powers, wanders the desert of central USA searching for survivors. A convenient twist of fate puts her back together with former allies Carlos Olivera and L.J, along with new companion Claire Radfield and her convoy of survivors heading toward the ruins of Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the Umbrella Corporation is desperate to replicate the special powers that manifested in Alice, creating clones and putting them through conditions that replicated the events of the first RESIDENT EVIL movie. Another series of convenient twists put Alicia back on Umbrella's radar and head scientist Dr Issacs will stop at nothing to recapture his lost Super weapon.
Ties to the video game are nearly non-existent here as we are throw into a rather generic post apocalyptic wasteland type of tale. The cast does their best with the material they were given but they never go beyond generic archetypes. It is hard to distinctly describe each character only because they are so bland. Newcomer Ali Carter barely resembles Claire Radfield from the video games. This is a major disappointment after how Sienna Miller perfectly portrayed the video games' Jill Valentine in live action. Which brings me to my other pet peeve: where's Jill? Where's the little girl from the previous movie? All this is never explained. Instead we are treated to a half hearted attempt at a character arc with Alice feeling more disconnected with her human feelings thanks to her growing powers. Some form of digital correction seems to have been applied to Milla Jovovich's face, giving this slightly off focus effect. Maybe it was meant to make her seem less human but it just serves to emphasise her lack of emotional range, keeping her stern stare and neutral expression looking even more artificial than usual.
What makes up for all these short comings is the amazing production design and the action sequences. The costumes, vehicles and facilities are uniquely crafted and just screams "badass". And this movie sports some of the best looking action sequences courtesy of director Russel Mulcahy (of Highlander fame). His wide crane shots and sweeping cinematography make the otherwise generic fight scenes look a lot better than they should.
With connection to the games all but severed, we could call this movie "Alice in Zombie Land" or "Fight of the Limping Dead" instead of "Resident evil". It is the best looking entry in the series with the best fight choreography and camerawork but Character development and motivations take a back seat to sweeping action pieces and one too many convenient twists.

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017) movie review


The King reigns again in this intense well-written blockbuster adventure bringing the famous ape back into the limelight 

The Good: Beautiful cinematography, nostalgic feel, well fleshed out characters, briskly paced, clear epic camerawork, timely comedy, intense atmospheric score by Henry Jackman 

The Bad: some sub-par creature fur effects, derivative side characters

He's big, he's loud, hairy and proud. He is King Kong! This giant ape is to Hollywood what Godzilla is to Japan, having undergone multiple remakes ever since the classic movie from 1933. From the cheesy but fun 1976 version to the fairy tale-like period piece by Peter Jackson of LORD OF THE RINGS fame, to being borrowed by Japan for a couple of movies and facing off against Godzilla himself. Not to mention the deluge of imitators cashing in on the giant ape Monster concept.

Unlike previous attempts by Hollywood, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is not a remake of the classic tragedy. The original movie and its remakes were centred around a tragic "damsel and Monster" pseudo romance: people go to a mysterious island, Kong saves damsel in distress, falls for her, gets brought back to America, runs amok, captures damsel, gets killed by aeroplanes. This 2017 movie eschews that tired storyline for an original one set during the closing chapters of the Vietnam war.
Out to prove the existence of ancient mega-sized monsters, Bill Randa and Houston Brooks of the MONARCH organisation tag along with an expedition to a recently discovered island shrouded in storm clouds. With them are photojournalist Mason Weaver, biologist San Li, survivalist Conrad as their guide, Scientists from LANDSAT on a geological survey and a team of soldiers as escort. I loved the pacing of the set up and the plot evokes a sense of nostalgia. It is an exploration into the unknown, a little like Jurassic park with a team of unlikely heroes sent to a mysterious island, tragedy happens and they pull together to survive. The strange colossal creatures are revealed and portrayed in a way similar to the appearance of the first dinosaur in the classic Steven Spielberg movie, with that sense of awe and majesty.
Unlike Jurassic Park however, Kong is not a peaceful herbivore but a fierce protector guarding a dark secret beneath the island. The awe turns to horror as The humans' actions have awoken an ancient menace, angering Kong who decimates the helicopters and scatters the group. Conrad leads half of the group toward an evacuation site while Colonel Packard gathers what remains of men to strike back at Kong for killing his comrades. But the island holds many fearsome secrets and their only hope for defeating a blood thirsty race of predators is Kong.
Right from the get go, the all star cast nails it! Spot on delivery and portrayal of every character, their motivations and quirks completely fleshed out. They are not particularly complex, many of the soldiers fall into the "typical squad" mold that we have seen in many other movies featuring squads of soldiers, but the main characters are great. Tom Hiddleston's Conrad oozes badass charm and undergoes an arc that brings him from aloof loner out for himself to someone who puts the date of his teammates before himself. Samuel L Jackson's Packard is my favourite character. His quest for revenge against Kong and his slow descent into madness feels like something out of Apocalypse Now. It is a natural progression of his arc and the best part is that it does not feel contrived. His reasons are noble, having failed his men before and not wanting to fail them again. His relationship wit Kong becomes a sort of Ahab/Moby Dick dynamic which leads to a powerful pro-environmental message about humanity's tendency to destroy what they do not understand or cannot control.
The main attraction however are the giant monsters rendered in CGI using motion capture. The effects are magnificent, rendered primarily by Industrial Lights and Magic (ILM) the studio behind the effects of Transformers and Star Wars. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts brings clear camerawork with wide angles and sweeping shots allowing the action to be beheld in full. The cinematography by Larry Fong is astounding in itself, imbuing Skull Island with a rich atmosphere of unrestrained beauty. The shot near the opening of Kong rising against a setting sun is just one example of the many breathtaking sequences. My only gripe was how Kong's fur was rendered. There seems to be an unexplainable stiffness to the fur which at times looks less natural than 2005's rendition by Weta Digital.
By all counts, KONG: SKULL ISLAND is a rip roaring adventure with a sense of nostalgia accompanied by magnificent visuals, and clear action scenes pushing the boundaries of the giant Monster movie genre. It gives equal focus to both human characters and its titular titan, never getting bogged down in either element. The icing on the cake? KONG: SKULL ISLAND sets up a shared Monster universe, a "Monsterverse", and a sequel where the King will face off against a God.

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

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) movie review

Overall verdict: 5/10

Take the game, make your own character, replace game's main characters with your own

The Good: visuals and tone are true to the original game, intense zombie action, crisp clear cinematography, accurate portrayal of characters from the video game

The Bad: bad special effects, boring protagonist, relegation of game characters to supporting cast,

The first RESIDENT EVIL movie was a scary fun romp. It's key downside was having nothing to do with the original video games outside of a few characters designs and settings. RESIDENT EVIL APOCALYPSE is the sequel and tries to right the ship by introducing us to some of the characters from the actual video games. Video game characters Jill Valentine, Carlos Olivero and A few others are finally adapted into live action and the results are amazing. The movie finally feels like an actual adaptation, taking the setting of RE2 and 3, as well as many plot points and faithful recreations of key scenes.
The movie starts when the Umbrella corporation opens the underground facility known as the Hive in which the T-Virus outbreak occurs. The virus spreads to nearby Raccoon City (which looks a lot like Toronto Canada) turning the dead into zombies and showing us the chilling societal degeneration into chaos. Amidst this chaos, Umbrella head scientist Doctor Charles Ashford loses his Daughter Angela during a frantic evacuation. As local armed forces attempt to stem the tide of undead, Umbrella corp releases a newly weaponised Alice, having been granted superhuman abilities. In a desperate bid to reunite with his Daughter, dr Ashford manipulates Jill, Carlos and Alice together to rescue his Angela. But a new bioweapon is loose in the city. The hulking, chaingun toting Nemesis.
Alexander Witt in his debut role as director eschews Paul WS Anderson's claustrophobic filming style of the previous movie and instead ops to mimic the "camera" placement of the video games. Gone too are the scares of the first movie replaced by a straight forward action movie plot. The cinematography is crisp and clear, showing the action in full. But that also means it shows some poorly crafted special effects in full.
The infamous cgi Lickers are back, though now half enshrouded in darkness so they do not look as bad as before. On the other end of the spectrum is the Nemesis bioweapon, a hulking behemoth with a mini gun that looks exactly like a big guy in a suit and rubber mask. His platform heels, obviously meant to make the actor look taller, are laughable and makes this lumbering leather bound lunk move stiffly. He looks exactly like he does in the game though, which I guess is another plus, and he is meant to hunt down our main characters. Not that he exudes much air of menace or as if it the audience would care about the main characters.
Protagonist Alice (Milla Jovovich) has developed a hint of personality here which can be summarised as "badass lady". That is it. Still as shallow as a pan with an abrasive snarky attitude, Alice is near invincible with her superhuman agility, strength and cunning, taking the spotlight away from others in what is blatantly becoming Paul Ws Anderson's fan fiction. Which is a pity as Carlos Olivero and Jill Valentine make for much more appealing protagonists. Sienna Guilroy looks exactly like her game counterpart from the outfit to the way she walks and holds a gun. An intriguing backstory is hinted at but never developed on, instead cutting back to Alice since she is the main character.
While I do give points to RESIDENT EVIL APOCALYPSE for being an action packed zombie blockbuster with a plot harkening back to the shallow 80s macho action movies, its underdeveloped but wholly more appealing side characters and insistence on a bland protagonist does hurt the enjoyment. It is a mash up of my 2 Favourite genre of films and more faithful to the games yet it is plagued by Low Budget special effects and horrible antagonists.


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