Tag Archives: 5/10

Mukoku (2017)

I recall one day seeing a trailer for the movie Mukoku (2017) without subtitles, and something about it just struck with me. I had no clue what was going on in the trailer, but it was filled with energy, and drama that I wanted to check it out by any means. When I did some digging into the movie, Mukoku is actually based on a novel written by author Shushei Fujisawa who wrote the novels The Twilight Samurai, Love and Honor, and The Hidden Blade all which got critically successful film adaptations. Discovering this information explains why the film was successfully crowdfunded  on Motion Gallery.  More interestingly though, apparently one of things that would be covered by the campaign was apparently English subtitles. I don’t know Japanese, and I’m using Google translate so that could be wrong. If not, I would say that is a shame, but I didn’t end up thinking much of the movie to my dismay. I’m hoping the people who gave money to this production got what they wanted because I sure certainly didn’t.

The setup to this sports drama is our protagonist Kengo (Go Ayano) is drowning in his misery tying his love of Kendo to his trouble relationship with his father. The opening terrifically showcases the harsh training Kengo underwent as a child, and implying through a simple transition the animosity it build in him through adulthood. Instead of continuing from this great opening we’re instead introduce to teenage rapper Tooru (Nijrio Murakami). A significantly less interesting character who became a detriment of the movie’s story. These two characters are in stark contrast showcasing what I love, and hate about independent filmmaking.

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“With this Bokuto, I shall unleashed my Black Ghost!”

Kengo is a complex character facing conflicting emotions within himself fighting his inner demons. Father abuse, guilt for making his father bedridden, his tainted view on a sport he loves, and being unable to forgive himself are enough to make an entire movie around. However, Tooru has to have just much screen allotted to him who just plods along feeling like a series of just because. Tooru is missing that history that makes Kengo worth following on his story. Creating a noticeable detachment between Kengo, and Tooru portions of the movie.

Tooru introduction of possibly being traumatized by a drowning incident inadvertently excites him. After that sequence, it’s a up to your interpretation method to characterizing him. Unlike Kengo who has plenty of traits to tie him to reality serving the abstract storytelling well in his part. Tooru has less going for him with the abstract storytelling leaving him shallow.

So for about thirty minutes it takes the art house approach of being deliberately slow. This minimalistic approach ends up backfiring whenever the focus is on Tooru. It’s established early on he loves to write rap music, but that ends up amounting to nothing. Not even the lack of acknowledgement that Tooru just abandoned it contribute to Tooru lack of personality. Another issue is some of its story gets lost in translation. Things like Kengo becoming what he hates in his father gets lost in the shuffle of subplots, and side characters that remain underdeveloped.

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Other than Kendo, Tooru doesn’t have much going for him

Kengo on the hand must go through the road to recovering. Seemingly more hopeless the more he looks into himself. Eventually asking himself if he truly hates his father enough to want to kill him. Not only this, but by showing glimpses of Kengo, and his father interacting it’s position in a way where it’s not cut, and dry on how viewers should feel about this conflict. Kengo father is gradually developed to be just as much of a tragic figure as Kengo. Providing a complex father, and son dynamic promised in the opening of the movie.

Alongside the uneven writing quality between Tooru, and Kengo portions of the movie is the pacing. Bad pacing is consistent as scenes always feel dragged out longer than they should be. With Kengo it makes sense since he’s regularly seen tormented by his past, while Tooru gets none of that. Tooru gets plenty of training sessions in substitute of depth. The importance of proving his worth to his Kendo master gets lost among the sloppy writing. Mixing up looking for excitement with proving himself.

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“You act like your hot stuff, but it doesn’t matter because it’s all a big bluff” (Note: Never improv rap)

As much as I praised Kengo side of the story one area it falter where Tooru exceeds at is the climax. An eventual match between Kengo, and Tooru gets set up around 40 something minutes into the movie. It’s not a confrontation that offers either character an extensive introspection of who they are. This confrontation works for Tooru storyline since it feels aimless, but eventually finds purpose. Kengo on the other storyline has purpose, but comes off as a cheap solution to everything setup. Kengo literally lashing out his frustration on a Tooru doesn’t like the right course his character should take, nor makes it work.

Water is used as a metaphor in this movie in a in your face form, but the intended meaning is very foggy. My own interpretation from the movie, Kengo was drowning in his misery, and Tooru wants a excitement similar to the time he almost drowned since it sexually excites him. It’s leaves little to the imagination when Tooru yells out “I’m coming! I’m coming! I’M COMING!” when fighting against Kengo in the rain. Once they both reached the conclusion of their arcs it’s clear how water as a metaphor was used for Kengo. On Tooru it’s baffling since it seems like it regresses his character. His whole love of writing lyrics for music up vanishes, and repeats his behavior again. Of course it be they both stop drowning themselves inadvertently helping each other overcome a dark aspect of their past. I’ll go with that last one since art house movies waver in having a clear message.

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“You have shame me son. Time to commit Sodoku!”

Easily the best of part Mukoku for me was Go Ayano. His acting was top notch in the film portraying a tragic soul in his character. Delivery his lines in a way where every verbal outburst leaves an impression of a self destructed man. Ayano sloppy movements is a nice touch when he picks up a wooden sword in any scene he holds one. Showing great form, and control of the bokuto (wooden swords) convincing the viewer he’s a true kendo expert.

Nijiro Murakami does a good job as Tooru in spite of the sloppy material. With the exception of the one line delivery “I’M COMING!” at the top of his lungs. Murakami comes off very naturally. Granted Murakami subtle performance does come at the cost of being able to show his full range as an actor like Go Ayano during his more dramatic intense scenes. Kaoru Kobayashi was great in his brief time. Instantly he’s able to create a stern, and tough father figure in a matter of seconds. I personally would have liked to see more of him making quite an impression. Akira Emoto who plays a dojo master I could have done without. He simply seems like he’s phoning it in. Not a single scene that he was a part of did I believe he was his character.

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I will admit, the Kendo fights are well done. Not enough of them

On the technical side it’s pretty modest. Other than a few shots at the beach the cinematography is bland. Only twice in the movie is there an attempt to make up it lack of visual flair with ingenious transitions. My favorite one was easily Nijiro Murakami performing a rap song on stage; he goes down to a crowd fence, vomits mud & fish next to the crowd fence, the lights behind him shines up creating a foggy like effect, Murakami sees paperlike cut out of the audience underwater, and the water rises up above him. This clever transition shows the viewer a crucial part of his past without making it obvious it takes place in the past. Sound design can be absorbing, and atmospheric as much as the direction can be overbearing in places, especially the thirty minutes that feel longer than they should be. The Kendo fights are few, but they are well done, especially one where Go Ayano goes into a dojo, and beats up like a dozen students in training with ease.

For around the last 6 to 8 minutes Mukoku has no dialogue much in the same way I ran out of things to say about this movie. I found it disappointing since my sometime jaded views on sport stories in any media is a large hurdle to overcome. So when I found one that tick the box of doing something I don’t expect, and with a sport I rarely see depicted of course that’ll grab my attention. Strange how a movie that also touches on finding peace in oneself does the opposite for me. Sadly, only Go Ayano performance is the only aspect I came out liking in a otherwise middling movie with too much highs, and too much lows to suggest anyone check out.

Rating: 5/10

Cinema-Maniac: Acts of Vengeance (2017)

Direct to video action movies is an odd beast. You’ll get the familiar faces pass their heyday in Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and Dolph Lundgren being regulars in this market to moderate success. It also seems to be a marketplace where if anyone wants to be an action star, even for a single movie they’ll get one, including Miley Cyrus in So Undercover (2012). It’s also a place where plenty of competent directors are unable to make it to the big leagues. One such director is Isaac Florentine, a man who has a strong eye for action scenes regardless of budget. In particular his fight scenes tend to be the standouts of his action movies. Much like Antonio Banderas who stars in this movie, Isaac Florentine is capable of more, but both become a victim of limitations.

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Antonio Banderas here seen trying to hard to look cool.

Acts of Vengeance centers around fast talking attorney Frank Valera (Antonio Banderas) bringing justice into his own hands when his wife, and daughter are murdered. Starting with a quote from Marcus Aurelius Meditation before showing us Frank fight in the kitchen of a restaurant is a flash forward. When you see Frank strangling someone he asks the audience “Do you think I’m crazy”, and goes back to the beginning. Immediately you’re told factoids about the average amount of words people say in a say a day; women speak 23,000 words, men 17,000 words, and Frank Valera speaks 80,000 words in a single day. Doing the math that means Frank speaks on average for 22 hours, 13 minutes, and 20 seconds in a 24 hour day every single day according to him. Unless Frank talks in his sleep that factoid feels just slapped on without much thought given to it. All just to simply get across there’s only three meaningful words he uses every day, and yes the words are I love you.

That’s just a hint of the very blunt characterization in this movie ignoring the rule of show don’t tell. After the death of his love ones you’ll get Frank moping around before he miraculously picks up Meditation by Marcus Aurelius when trying to cover his stab wound. Despite all the blood it is covered in, he decides to read the book, and it changes him 36 minutes in the movie by taking a vow to remain stoic until he avenges his love ones. The transformation is where the film begins to fall apart, mostly because Frank’s narration would tell you what he’s feeling instead of showing it. More baffling with the fact you’ll have quotes from the book on screen whenever it goes into a new chapter. These quotes are clear in their meaning, yet are undermined by the narration as well.

A majority of the movie remains grounded which is why you’ll hardly see Frank fight anyone in the movie. Frank does become proficient in martial arts, but doesn’t get into trouble frequently. This comes at the cost of logic in several places of the story. Some of them including how the nurse who fixes up Frank doesn’t call the police, and according to Frank shutting up gave him super hearing. An ability use sparingly in the movie. Unlike Frank’s apparent telepathy because without saying a word everyone knows what Frank wants out of them. In terms of logic that’s easily the biggest leap this movie takes.

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Good boy! You found some drugs!

Other than Frank, the other characters just feel like plot devices to advance the story. There a few minor characters in the movie both of which are underdeveloped. Alma (Paz Vega) has a conflict about the Russian mafia wanting her to steal drugs for them, and not letting her go. This plot point is left unresolved since the closest thing to a solution that comes from this plotline is Alma staying with Frank at his house. She inexplicably decides to be very helpful to Frank even though they barely met, and why she didn’t call the police after fixing up Frank wound is never explained. There’s Strode (Karl Urban) who hardly appears in the movie, and has just little characterization. He’s only in the movie to be a plot twist that could have been shocking if he was developed.

Lacking on the characterization to make it more than a character drama, and there’s too little action to satisfy action fans. Ensuring viewers will experience a very conflicting movie. It understands its limitation so it succeeds in its simplistic storytelling. Things are clear cut, properly explained even if not resolved, develops in a good manner, and moves along in a nice pace never overstaying it welcome.

On the philosophy side of things this is not done correctly either. After reading Aurelius’s Meditation, Frank becomes motivated to take revenge. The last two lines from the book (well, going by the movie) are “The best revenge is to be unlike your enemy”, and “Accept the things to which fate binds you”. If Frank properly followed the words of Marcus Aurelius to heart Frank should have developed discipline for forgiveness, and accepts what fate has taken away from him. Being unlike your enemy would be forgiveness in this instance, and accepting your fate, but going that route wouldn’t make for an eventful action movie, although would have work fine for a character drama.

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Banderas expression here, is the same one I had when this plot line went nowhere.

Before moving to everything else, there’s the expected funeral scene where Frank is mourning the loss of his wife, and daughter. In the only scene he appears in, Eric Alli who plays the grandfather just delivers the most in your face dialogue written in the movie. He just verbally gives a beating to Banaderas shoving it in his face another attorney like him would make sure if the criminal is ever found he’ll get off scot free. He also reminds Banderas he lost a daughter, and granddaughter because of him. This scene last around a minute, but it simply stood out because everything about it is so questionable to me, especially the performance of Alli. Oh yeah, there’s also the classic punching the mirror scene to display an outburst of inner turmoil, and a montage of Banderas getting training.

Antonio Banderas takes the lead with a passable performance. He’s a more capable actor than he actually displays in the movie. Having difficulty trying to portray the complexity of his character without the usage of words. Leaving Banderas to nod his head mostly either approvingly, or disapprovingly which isn’t exactly impressive. Even when Banderas does talk all his line delivery sound the same without much emotion express in them. Something odd to witness when he gives the proper facial expression, but unable to express it in his words.

Karl Urban who is hardly in the film is also passable. He plays his part in a straightforward manner leaving little room for him to do anything. Hardly appearing in the movie is also to blame for that. Paz Vega who appears in the second half is also passable. There’s not plenty of meat to her character so she just goes with the flow. The rest of the cast is passable. No one in the movie gets to shine because their time is either too brief, or just aren’t used properly.

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Whoever wanted Banderas, and Karl Urban in a movie together, here you go.

Now we come to the action which is hardly here. You’ll get three decently length fight scenes, and that’s about it. One in the beginning, one in the middle, and finally one in the climax. With there being an average wait about 30, or so minutes making the action unevenly spaced out. This film isn’t a good showcase for Isaac Florentine eye for action, but there are two decent fight scenes in the movie. None of which are worth sitting through since they’re pretty basic fights with their choreography.

The climatic fight between Antonio Banderas, and Karl Urban is slightly spiced up because the environment they fight in gets used when Banderas takes a serious beating. Both should be commended for performing the fight sequence convincingly with Florentine expertly shooting the scene, and allowing for long takes for viewers to clearly see the actors performing the fight. There’s a little unnecessary usage of slow motion during half of the fights, but that’s a minor complaint. When it comes to storytelling his touch to the story occasionally come off overblown with the bombastic music not helping matters. It’s the only thing he could think off to do when limited by the fact his lead character doesn’t speak. With the narrations breaking the rule of show don’t tell in a negative way it’s overall just clumsily told.

It’s the same old song, and dance action fans have seen before. I just don’t have any strong feeling towards it one way or the other. Acts of Vengeance has more effort put into its story than your average direct to video action movies, but that comes off as a backhanded compliment. If it wasn’t for the needless narrations than it could have remedy some of my issues with the movie, but it also would have created new problems since Banderas didn’t overcome the stoic limitation. Neither did Isaac Florentine who wasn’t confident in how to tell his story. While certainly better than your typical direct to video action movie average is still average.

Rating: 5/10

Cinema-Maniac: Man Wanted (1995) Review

One factor that can dictates what I choose to watch is sometime having a single actor I like. Simon Yam for instance, is one of my favorite actors whom I first saw acting in Johnnie To films like Exiled (2006), Election (2005), Triad Election (2006), and Vengeance (2009). After those strings of movies, I still started noticing Simon Yam in more films I’ve watched, and everytime he proved reliable in delivering solid, to great performances in all his roles. Seeing him in any film I come across whether it’s him headlining it, or in a supporting role I always take pleasure in seeing Yam on screen. It doesn’t matter the quality of the movie he ends being as he’s typically a bright spot in them. It’s no different here in the average action crime film Man Wanted displaying no matter what film he’s in, Simon Yam makes it a bit better.

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Simon Yam, master of the blindfire

Man Wanted follows undercover policeman Lok Man-wah (Simon Yam) setting up a sting for a notorious drug lord, and his friend Luk Chan-fung (Yu Rongguang). There’s more to the story than the synopsis implies as the first arc of the Man Wanted would have been the climax in any other Hong Kong action crime film. What this film ignores is the tedious busywork of other movies like it. Plot points you can find in heroic bloodshed movies showing blood brothers bonding, the undercover officer uncertain where his loyalties lie, and the head criminal betrayal by the one he felt he trusted the most are quickly dealt with. It caught me off guard since in Hong Kong action films of these kind, these plot points are sprinkle throughout the story instead of being quickly dealt with. However, some plot points like the orchestrated death of a love ones are saved down the line, and aren’t as effective as they should be.

Man Wanted biggest issue is the melodramatic romance overtaking everything else in the story. Establishing early on some romantic tension between Lok Man-wah, and Yung (Christy Chung) while also piling on to the fact that Lok Man-wah has a girlfriend. The script doesn’t delve much into Lok Man-wah being conflicted between the women he love, but rather is more conflicting where his loyalties lies. The more interesting aspect of Lok Man-wah character is typically shoved aside so the movie can plow through it material to meet an end goal. Instead of simply having Lok Man-wah tell Yung he can’t pursue a romantic relationship with her. Lok Man-wah just continues seeing Yung, and makes her believe there’s a possibility for a romantic relationship. If this love triangle was use for anything thematic like tackling the hardship of staying committed than yes I can forgive it. However, simply having it here for Lok Man-wah to have a back-up woman is a pretty poor decision. Especially nearly every scene involving Lok Man-wah, and any of his two lovers have dialogue on par with corny romance dramas. There’s also the plot point that Lok Man-wah quickly gets over the death of one of the women he loves, and rebound with the other very quickly. Meaning whatever time was spent with either character was pointless if it got tossed aside as quickly as it did.

Leading into another issue of characters simply acting stupid. Not just the police force whom didn’t bother searching for a body to confirm a drug dealer death, but the lone fact as a officer Lok Man-wah does some stupid things. For example, there’s a scene where Lok Man-wah drives Chan-fung to a school so he can pick up someone, but instead Chang-fung ends up kidnapping a rival drug lord child, and results in a brief gunfight at a middle school. In all his years of experience as an officer, Lok Man-wah decides to drive him to the police station parking lot, and decides not to turn him in to the authority when Luk Chan-fang gives him his word he’ll leave town after settling business. Apparently Lok Man-wah thinks placing his trust in a man he betrayed, whom also kidnapped a kid from a middle school, and started a gunfight with citizens around in a middle school is a guy he can trust to keep his word. There’s also the typical character of the superior officer not getting along with the lead character, although given how stupid some of the people act in this movie the superior officer behavior is reasonable this time around.

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“I don’t care if I’m on fire! I’ll kick your ass”

Finally, the one aspect the film does mildly well is characterization. Despite there never being a feeling of raising action, the characters have some meat to them. Motivations come across as reasonable, even if the action they do goes against their characteristics. A good amount of time is focus on Lok Man-wah turmoil of where his loyalties lies, and tackles that part well. Focusing more the relationship he made in both world rather than morality within them. Doing a fine job getting across he doesn’t know what world he belongs in. Another thing the film does well is make you question the outcome of the movie. Adding enough twists to it climax that makes the climax slightly more interesting than the entire movie before it. There’s some good to be found within the messiness of melodrama, and stupid characters.

Simon Yam presence in the film is enjoyable, and delivers a solid a performance. Without strong material, Yam in the movie rarely comes off as the character he’s portraying. However, he is able to make his character not come across as bad as he is. Yam delivers the right amount of emotion in every scene he’s in preventing scenes from being too melodramatic, or over the top no matter how hard the direction, and screenplay want to them to be. He eases through the film no problem as a leading man. Making sure there isn’t a weak scene he’s in, even when no action is abound. For a non martial artist, Yam performances in the few choreographed fight can trick you into thinking he is one. His gunfights here on the other hand will the lack action choreography he’s capable of like in films like in John Woo’s Bullet In the Head (1990).

Roongguang Yu plays villain Lu Chan Feng pretty well. Standing toe to toe to Simon Yam in terms of acting. The only downside to his performance is the closer it reaches the end the more over the top he acts. Going from acting somewhat subdue of his character to eventually becoming absurd. Both Christy Chung, and Eileen Tung whom play Simon Yam love interest, and the supportive character. They do fine in their roles, but only Christy Chung gets much meat in her material. She’s allow to express a wider range of emotion for her character. Another thing that helps is, like Yam, she underplays the more melodramatic dialogue to make it better than it is. Aside from them, there is Cherie Chan Siu-Ha who either is too melodramatic, or over acting. Plus, her sporting an afro out of nowhere for the rest of the movie prevents her from being taken seriously.

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Seriously, what is up with that afro

When it comes to the action they are the only thing that somewhat stand out, but not by much. The fight sequences are good, though end as quickly as they start. Given that Simon Yam isn’t a martial artist the lack of them makes sense. In terms of choreography, Yam doesn’t do anything impressive. His fight sequence in the beginning of the movie has him making quick usage of his props to take care of three men. No high flying moves, or elaborate counter moves are to be found in this, and the other fight scene. It’s impressive that Yam looks convincing doing them.

Unfortunately, these short skirmishes are the only time the action tries to be above your standard fare. Gunfights on the other hand are very simple with the cover, and shoot approach to them that tend to make gunfights boring. Benny Chan tries to remedies these by having bullets piercing make sparks fly when in contact with anything, and makes explosive look a lot more deadly than they actually are. One example involves a shootout at a port, and the films villain throw a grenade at some police officers shooting at him. This grenade is point blank next to some officers, and yet when the grenade explodes, the police officer don’t blow up into pieces, nor do they seem harmed by it. Other gunfights aren’t as silly, though the lack of creativity are consistent in them all. Like the one where Simon Yam simply goes to a warehouse, and kills a dozen men simply flailing around the guns he’s dual wielding instead of incorporating anything that would make Yam looks like an expert gunmen. Doesn’t even bother to dodge, or duck while being shot at either. Sure, I’ll buy every bullets miss hitting Simon Yam in this warehouse shootout, but he’s capable of much more. Same with Benny Chan when it comes to filming action sequences. Only thing left to comment on is the music is not effectively used during the romantic scenes giving the vibe of a cheesy romance drama. Music during everything else is fine if unremarkable.

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Yep, whoever is in that car is dead. Right?

Man Wanted doesn’t stand out in any special way. If it wasn’t for the fact it starred Simon Yam, and was directed by Benny Chan I would have definitely would have given this a missed. As an actor, Simon Yam has appear in better action films, and the stuff here doesn’t make use of his commitment as a actor. Having Yam perform more simplistic fight scenes, and gunfights than what he usually does. Benny Chan as a director knows how to space action sequences in his story, and understands what makes good pacing. Unfortunately, this film shows even he who occasionally make films better than they should be can’t make up for all it shortcomings. As hard as the whole production tried, it still came out average.

Rating: 5/10

Cinema-Maniac: Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014)

Expectations of Martial Art films have changed significantly over the decades. The days of getting cheesy English dubs for live action Martial Art movies are gone now with most home video releases of offering people to see them in their original language. Even when the films do receives English dub they are not as silly as what was release in the 70s. Another thing that also changed over time was the fight choreography implementing the environment as part in the fight during the 70s, and then pushing martial artists body limits during the 80s. An era which created plentiful of Martial Art classic films giving rise to legends Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. Then came the 90s where some Chinese talent went oversea to find success in Hollywood. While the quantity of great martial films wasn’t as high as in the 80s the quality of them improved with some offering more complex plot lines. However, while there is more to the history of the subgenre than my broad generalization there’s no mistaking during the 2000s that China dominance over the Martial Arts subgenre dwindle as legendary talents were aging, and therefore not perform like they use too. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai wants to be a one of those classics from the subgenre heydays in a time where characters were kept simple, and emphasis on fight choreography was the norm. While it is an homage to those kind of films martial art films of the past. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai doesn’t ignite the same kind of feelings of those earlier films it loves.

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai tells the story of a laborer who moves to Shanghai in the hope of becoming rich. From that synopsis, if you’re familiar with crime films that contain an immigrant as the protagonist there’s no need tell readers what to expect. While it is a classic story to tell in the crime genre of immigrant hoping to make it big in foreign land it’s also been told countless of times. It’s telegraphed from the overly strong, naive country-bumpkin protagonist Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng), the young ambitious new criminal on the block Long Qi (Andy On), the father whose disapprove of the criminal lifestyle Master Tie (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), the young woman who eventually falls in love for the naive protagonist Tie Mei (Luxia Jiang), and a few singular purpose background characters. Making these characters arcs more predictable is adding martial arts replacing gun wielding gangsters for fists, and axes. Instead of touching on the subject of family there are few discussions about honor, and fighting. Retaining the classic story of beat of crime families uniting to eliminate a great threat that could overthrow them in power. So forth is the nature of the film to ooze old fashion cinema on everything. What this ends up creating is a typical story that aims to pay homage without changing anything. If you’re not familiar with these kind of stories the undercooked plot beats won’t make it engaging. Containing the moments you would expect from hero Ma Yongzhen becoming good friends with Long Qi after a fight, the two new friends talking about dreams on a bridge at night looking at the stars, and Ma Yongzhen given the option to run away when things become chaotic. The scenes are in place for creating good material, but the rush nature of a script that had too many ideas don’t allow time to develop them to their fullest effect.

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The silent fart. Philip Ng deadliest technique.

The first signs of trouble in the script appears before the title card does. There’s text that (paraphrasing) says that Shanghai is a city of dreams for the people of China, and hard work can get you the life you want, but the thousand of youths coming into Shanghai are tempted to take the easy way out to by becoming gangsters. This text is delivered while dramatic music plays in the background, the film grayish color filter to show some harshness in the situation, and showing the viewers a crowded deck filled with immigrants with their head held down. This sets up the idea it’ll be touching on the realistic issues dealt with achieving the “American Dream” (well, in this case the “Shanghai Dream”) with martial arts as a bonus. Then it shows a grown man taking away a Potato from a starving girl which naturally makes one wonder how the immediate harsh tone will be followed up with. PUNCH! Out of nowhere a single punch is all it take to conflict with the tone established leading into a heavily edited fight scene. A fight scene where our main character kicks two baddies several feet from the ground is an odd contrast after seeing a deck of depressing looking immigrants. Now there was a better way to transition into the fight scene. Some simple dialogue of the grown man rudely stating he’s still hungry with our hero telling him to give it back to the little girl. When the grown man says no giving the signal to his buddy to prepare for a fight would have allowed the filmmakers to keep the fight scene, and transition into fight scene more smoothly. However, this opening never bothers bringing up why the grown man stole the Potato simply assuming the viewer will make assumption this immigrant is bad for stealing food from a little girl. Though, without context given in the scenario it could easily be interpreted as a grown man getting back food stolen from him.

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I’m guessing Andy On paycheck is the reason the film has a grayish color filter.

The rest of the film follows a similar pattern of issues. There’s a scene early in the film where our hero helps an old man who stole opium from a gang, but the old man the protagonist helps goes nowhere. Then, there’s the romance aspect of the film which is underdeveloped. Our protagonist spends more time with his boss than he does his love interest. Also, there’s a subplot of our hero meeting up with his brother which disappears as it goes on. If a plot point is not underdeveloped it’s either forgotten about. The only aspect of the writing that works to any degree is Ma Yongzhen bracelet. His bracelet was given to him by his mother, and was given words of wisdom that would remind of Ma Yongzhen not to kill. It’s a simple motive where the outcome of the bracelet is telegraphed, but it was executed just fine. It’s just a shame there’s not much depth in it usage. A simple solution to the writing would have been to make the story longer, though given it wanted to be an homage script writer Jing Wong probably felt being derivative was the best bet. To his credit, the movie does progress naturally, and knows the classical story beats of old fashioned cinema to mirror classic martial art films from the era. However, by simply placing those classical story beats into the film his lack of understanding shows when he has no idea what made them work in the first place. While the film is superficially reminiscent of some classic martial art films with similar stories like Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (1971), and Shaw Brother’s Boxer from Shantung (1972) it doesn’t build on its inspiration. It just ends up being typical in how it unfolds, and average as an homage that doesn’t illustrate what made its source of inspiration classic films in the sub genre.

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Philip Ng seen here channeling his inner Bruce Lee.

Philip Ng takes center stage portraying Ma Yongzhen in a role that is more demanding of his looks than his acting skills. Appearances wise, Philip Ng nails the expressions of a country bumpkin in his naivete optimism. Switching between badass martial artist, and your average joe seamlessly. Another aspect of his look that works to his advantage is fitting the bill of coming across the average joe. Sporting a look that is reminiscent of Bruce Lee from The Big Boss, and Jackie Chan from Battle Creek Brawl. When he performs in the fight scenes he’s convincing, though not impressive for his lack of speed in performing the fights. What Ng doesn’t share among the likes of Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan are the charisma of those actors. Try as he might, but Ng simply comes across as trying to hard to look cool, especially in the end of the film. In terms of line delivery he’s okay. He doesn’t have the timing to be funny, nor the lack of understanding to ruin a joke. Ng doesn’t come across as someone threatening when he fights, but is alright in the moments he’s not need in combat. For the role Ng is in it’s adequate, even if lacking star power.

Next up is Andy On who plays Long Qi. His performance is also adequate. On doesn’t demonstrate very difficult emotions as scenes don’t linger much on complex emotions. However, he has style, and doesn’t phone in his acting. Much like Ng, Andy On fighting is convincing in the few times he fights. He also has good chemistry with Philip Ng making what scenes they share together the film best offering in terms of acting. It’s where the best moments come from as the two really sell their friendship, even if the writing is not up to par. Both actress Michelle Hu, and Luxia Jiang don’t get much to do in the film beside looking pretty. They’re both the love interests to perspective characters caring for their lover, and showing concerns. Not much to discuss. There’s also no well known legends in the west martial art film stars Kuan Tai Chen, and Hark-On Fung whom presence in the film are not noticeable unless you know your martial art films. Now if you’re exciting to see well known martial art legend Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who gets top billing, he is barely in the film. Hung Kam-Bo doesn’t get to show much of his acting, and fighting prowess’s in the film as he fights only briefly in one scene. Unless you’re a fan of martial art films the lack of screen presence from Tai Chen, Hark-On, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo will seem insignificant, but for those who do know them will make their inclusion in film lackluster of wasted talent.

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I used to be a magnificent butcher, but now I just cook food. 

The fight choreography is done by Yuen Woo-Ping whom name would be selling a point to fans of martial art films. Unfortunately in this instance a master of fight choreography isn’t at his best. A reason for this being with the exception for two, all the fight scenes are one sighted leaving no opportunity for counter moves, or complex maneuver to perform for the actors. Another aspects of the fights that take away from the fight choreography is them being overly edited. All the fight scenes have tempered speed which tends to ruin the flow of a fight scene when switching between fast, slow, and back to regular motion frequently. Applied with quick editing that changes up shots the editing doesn’t play to the fight scenes strength. If the speed of the fights weren’t tampered with Philip Ng (who performs in most of them) isn’t a quick a performer. Usage of wires are noticeable in some instances as one might take notice that defying physics, and taking yourself seriously don’t go hand in hand.

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Noticed I didn’t put any stills of fighting. Here’s one.

There’s a fight in the film that is done in one take which sounds impressive until I tell you the post production work that ruined it. The one take fight scene is sped up while typical for the film is more noticeable in this sequence. If performed well, and on time than the sequence wouldn’t need alteration. Then, there’s not framing half of the sequence correctly as there is moment where it does not show Philip Ng fighting against actors. The camera gets to close barely capturing some of Philip Ng blows as it continuously spins around until the fight scene ends. Before the fight scene occurs there are only three people visible ready to fight, but as soon as Philip Ng attacks, and the camera spins around more actors are suddenly in frame. This also creates a continuity error, though that isn’t anything unexpected for action scenes. Everything else in the film is adequate. For a film paying homage you’ll get the shots you expect, and the same applies to the music. Not much to be surprised by as director Ching Po Wong made generally safe choices. His only truly questionable is making the entire film gray instead of black & white. In few scenes there’s some semblance of color so it’s jarring why Po Wong simply didn’t choose to filter the film in black & white.

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai is wholly average as a movie, an average showcase of martial arts, and average anything you could think off. It takes the classic ideas associated with the “American Dream” in a crime a story along with the classic imagery one would expect from this kind of story. All without throwing its own flare to familiar ideas. As an homage it doesn’t disrespect old fashion cinema, but at the same time does nothing to represent the best elements of old fashioned cinema. Having too much on its plate, and not enough time to make all the ideas it has be put to good use. If you only want to see it for the action the fight scenes are edited heavily with motion of speed being played with in all of them, and virtually every fight being one sided in the favor of what the story demands. Choreography wise it’s okay with a few making little use of what’s in the environment, but the actors performing them aren’t as skillful as the stars they pay homage to. This movie doesn’t falter seriously, but neither excel in anything at the same time either.

5/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Hateful Eight (2015) Review

Last time I wrote about anything related to Quentin Tarantino was when I reviewed Django Unchained back in 2013. I got bombarded with arguments for calling the film decent, and criticizing the writing. Like the time when I posted a negative review for the film Frozen I once again stood my post, and debated the best of my abilities on my position on the film. Unlike the arguments presented in Frozen, the counter arguments brought up were good in defense of Django Unchained, but seriously didn’t fixed what still is a broken premise movie. If you don’t believe me (speaking directly to Tarantino “fans”) that Django Unchained premise is broken; well Dr. Schultz simply could have had Django work on his, or his friend slave farm while Schultz goes off to buy Django wife. That’s a viable solution, but since the film itself never brings it up everything about the story ends up feeling convoluted as it is actively trying to ignore this huge gap in logic with several other gap of logic (like the opening scene in Django Unchained). Now once again I find myself in the same position of Quentin Tarantino writing a Western. While the setup is a not a broken premise repeats from Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight suffers from more serious issues. It is a premise that makes sure it’s a story that should be told, but not written in a way to show that conviction.

The Hateful Eight is set in post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard, but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Upon entering the frame Major Marquis Warren (all rise for Samuel L. Jackson) sets up the atmosphere elegantly. His first lines of dialogue sets up the political climate of the era the film takes place in, the profession of Marquis Warren, his goal in the film, and his manner of speaking being very revealing of his personality. This same expertly done character establishment holds true when John Ruth (Kurt Russell) whose handcuffed with Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) are introduced into the film. Despite the fun personalities of these characters they do speak about each other bad deeds. These actions other characters speak on paint a grey in presentation of morality. If the film spend as much time developing the other characters like it did for John Ruth, Chris Mannix, and Marquis Warren then there would be a film worth showering with praises.

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“You will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee”.

The film is set up into six chapters, and past chapter two the film fall apart from it own weight. This is mostly due to the unevenness in screentime from the characters, and the importance they hold in the story. For example, Daisy Domergue is a character whose defining characteristic is her bounty worth, and she’s a woman who killed. It takes the film over two hours to build on her character, and by the time she gets developed it’s no longer grey in presentation in the story. It gets established who is who, and why they perform the action they do by the time Daisy gets developed. The biggest shortcoming in the writing is showing favoritism in a film that intends for its audience to hate all the characters equally. For instance, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) gets very little to do in the story, and has no significant scene in the film that justified his creation. In Chapter 5, a brief moment is specifically written to present him negatively because the film story doesn’t know how else to use him. He’s simply a fodder character despite the writing claiming otherwise.

Then there’s also the character of O.B. (James Park) who despite having less lines of dialogue than Joe Gage is actually more significant to the story. O.B. is simply a background character who’s a stagecoach driver, and does not present any hateful traits even among the other characters. However, unlike Joe Gage where his hatred is force, O.B. positive presentation in the story serves as the only presence of a seemingly good, innocent person in the film. Being put to a greater use than a major character written in the film. Another fodder treated character is Bob (Demian Bichir) who’s main characteristic is he’s Mexican. His role in the story is treated like Joe Gage; no significance in any scene, and simply fodder in the cast. Now, there’s a character who doesn’t appear until around two hours into the film named Jody (Channing Tatum) who plays a far greater role in the film. He’s absent for a majority of the film, yet is given the importance of a major character. Not only does this affect the presentation of Joe Gage, and Bob as wholly useless in the film narrative, but further highlight the misusage of time spent on them.

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Imagine! Squealing Pigs.

A double edge sword of the dialogue is how it’s delivered. It’s very evident that when a character reveals plenty about themselves to strangers on a whim it spells out expository dialogue. However, the flashiness of how the character speak can make the force exposition, and character development enjoyable to see unfold. What’s not is when certain plot points like Marquis’s letter from Abraham Lincoln, Daisy Domergue is a criminal worth 10,000 dollars, and fights in the civil war are repeatedly brought up. Marquis letter from Lincoln is an exception as its use to developed Marquis as a character. The significance of the letter makes Marquis three dimensional, and a complex character for how much values he places on it. It also serves an important character moment in the ending for how much value is placed on it, even after learning of its true origin.

The other topics that are brought up is the Civil War, the reputation of characters, and Daisy Domergue bounty. With plenty of characters these limited topics could fill up three hours’ worth of dialogue. Unfortunately, it becomes tedious when established facts like Daisy bounty worth, Marquis Lincoln letter, and character specific traits are repeated multiple times within the film. When no variation is applied, or adding something new to an established story element makes the viewing experience feel like it’s three hours, or longer in some scenes. Especially when seeing a small act of violence, and predicting the outcome of that scene. In order to withhold progress lengthy monologues are written into the film. Now, not the all the monologues are purposeless, but the ones that are simply prolonging the expected outcome of a scene.

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It’s what you don’t see in this picture that’s important. That’s subtlety.

No other scene in the film than Major Marquis Warren suspect deduction scene can better highlight the weakness of Quentin Tarantino writing in The Hateful Eight. In this specific scene, Samuel L. Jackson does a stupendous job for around ten, or so minutes performing the scene. His delivery, and body movement is over the top like the leap in logic being presented. Now in order for Marquis Warren suspect deduction to have worked certain facts had to be established before entering the scene. However, no such thing occurs in the film as the many conversations Marquis Warren has among the characters only one foreshadows a possibility of criminals in a room. That one scene doesn’t established that Minnie (the owner) was racist towards a specific group of people, the “cooked the stew” allegation doesn’t stand on much ground since anyone else who was in the cabin could have cooked it as well, and the owner husband love for his chair is only known to Marquis. These details aren’t alluded to, nor share among the viewers. It’s withholding information for the sake of forced tension. This is singlehandedly, the most convoluted piece of writing under Tarantino name, besides the premise to Django Unchained.

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“From now no I see a red sash, I kill the man wearing it. So run you cur. And tell the others curs the law is coming. You tell ’em I’m coming! And Hell’s coming me you hear! Hell’s coming with me!”

What finally makes the film come around full circle is, well, the lack of hateful characters. If I were to push my morality aside, the uneven screen time, and uneven character development of the cast hinders what could have been a complex film. If the film started in Minnie’s Haberdashery the criticism of uneven portrayal for the characters would still stand. Joe Gage would still have little to his character, Bob would still just be a Mexican in the story, but it wouldn’t be as prominent as it is now. Another issue is Tarantino to maintain his signatures marks on the film even though it works against the film. I’m expected to believe that within the same movie a revolver is strong enough to blow up someone’s head at point blank range, yet when those same revolvers are fired in different scenes the amount of force from those shots don’t cause someone leg, hand, or even chest to blow up in the same over the top manner.

When the brief moments of blood, gore, and violence do appear on screen it’s entirely out of place. The moments of violence are over the top when the entire film is restraint in presentation. While the actors are hamming, and over the top what generally is not are the characters. They talked about the Civil War repeatedly, the bad deeds of the people in the cabin repeatedly, and at no point in the film establishes a tone that would work in over the top violence. It’s sloppily written which is the biggest shame. There are ideas in place for a great movie, but after chapter two it loses it ways, and is unable to find where its original destination in the first place.

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“I’m getting too old for this shit”

This film redeeming trait are the performances from its cast. Samuel L. Jackson is easily the best actor in the cast stealing the spotlight in every scene. He’s over the top in line delivery, and mannerism on screen. Balancing serious dramatic with over the top antics without breaking character, or the tone of the film. His extensive monologue is where he shins going minutes at a times speaking by himself. In one scene, Samuel L. Jackson character Marquis tells a story in glorious fashion. As any story teller would Jackson raises his excitement, and changing his tone to fit the scene of his description. Jackson is performance is plain, and simple justifies the price of admission in checking out the film.

Kurt Russell also does a good job in the film as John Ruth. However, his performance doesn’t allow him the freedom of that of Samuel L. Jackson. Russell character is more rude, and crude in his personality. He’s able to sell his unflattering character convincingly as a leading actor. His performance is also worthy of another praise since it’s capable of misleading audiences, but revealing any specifics would ruin it. All I’ll say is I didn’t see it coming given how good Kurt Russell is in the film. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Daisy Domergue who is handcuffed to John Ruth for virtually the entirely film. Leigh character is also the most realistic since her character is written in a more restrained manner because of the position she’s in. Despite the constraint of being handcuffed to another actor she does allot more than expected of her. Through simple gestures she’s able to reveal much of her character hateful, and playful nature. She able to come across as manipulative, sympathetic, and funny with, or without dialogue. Add to the fact she does not have the same freedom of body movements since she’s handcuffed to Kurt Russell.

Walton Goggins plays Chris Mannix in the movie. His performance is very cheesy due to his best described “country bumpkin” accent. He is mostly in the film to play up the dark humor. To his credit he’s able to deliver on the jokes despite the tonal problem the film has. His comedic timing is spot on, but sometime it won’t get a laugh. However, that’s more of a fault with the material, and not Walton Goggins as an actor. Goggins, if anything, is also a spotlight in the film for his entertaining performance. The last standout performance comes from Tim Roth as Oswaldo Mobray. Despite his profession of hanging people for a living Roth presents himself as a gentleman. Flamboyant in the manner he speaks he emphasizes the best aspects of Tarantino dialogue. Tim Roth is entertaining for the whole film, and was perfectly cast in the role.

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I’ll be here if you need me.

Everyone else is unfortunately a victim of a thankless role. The only actor who goes mostly unscathed is Channing Tatum as Jody who mostly has to be charming in the short screen time he’s given. Michael Madsen as Joe Gage, and Demian Bichir as Bob are two actors that get short changed in their roles. Demian Bichir Mexican accent is the only noteworthy aspect of his performance. Too bad Bichir doesn’t get a scene to demonstrate his acting chops. Madsen on the other hand does get that chance when he’s introduce, but he has to stick with the tough guy persona. He’s unable to break from his mold which makes him another wasted addition in the cast. Then there’s Bruce Dern as General Sandy Smithers. For the character he played the less is more approach works in his favor. Dern is only in the film for his appearance working in favor of the character he is playing. Finally, there’s James Park as O.B. who does little speaking. As mentioned before with Dern, James Park role is simply for appearances purposes.

One pointless addition to the cast that was entirely unneeded was Quentin Tarantino himself. After the intermission is over he narrates a generalization of the events that led to the current event in the story. It’s about as pointless as much as it is self-indulgent. The camera shows the turning point of the story by itself, and the narration adds nothing to it. Tarantino simply states the obvious in the scene when the scene itself was all that was needed to get what he wanted across. It’s especially more self-indulgent when there’s no narration for virtually the entire film. I mean, Tarantino could simply state the obvious in every scene possible if he wanted as this brief narration proves. While on Tarantino his direction in the film is uninspired in the film. The performances show more personality than the cinematography itself. His biggest downfall is failing to use the background as part of a narrative tool. The cinematography is best at showcasing its actors’ performances, but if you’re expecting grand vistas you’ll be disappointed as the majority of the film takes place in door. Ennio Morricone (I bow down to this man’s legacy) score whenever in use is fantastic. Immediately upon hearing it sets up the atmosphere as soon as the first note hits. Morricone score isn’t used much in the film, but whenever it is the scene makes the most of its music.

The Hateful Eight is a very serious film from Quentin Tarantino who shares no serious intention to fix his shortcomings from his writing when he last venture in the Western genre. Why would he when the world of criticism, and his fans have already given him pedestal to stand on. Regardless of the criticism I, and anyone else might have with Tarantino films it will be overshadowed by those in the fan base that will accept his creation just because his name is on it. Django Unchained is a weak presentation of Tarantino writing. However, the tone of it made the leap in logic, and sometime cartoony events be forgivable. In The Hateful Eight not so much as its serious tone makes it shortcoming less forgivable. Here’s lies a film where signs of Tarantino only being able to make one of kind film shows. He wants to do a serious a film that discusses serious issues, but is unable to remove his personality in order to do so. That there is the sole reason why The Hateful Eight ends up being a film where uncertainty is prevalent throughout it.

5/10

Footnote on 70MM: Not Worth The Price of Admission

As mentioned in the review around 88% of the film takes place inside a stagecoach passover called Minnie’s Haberdashery, and the remaining 12% would roughly be outdoor scenes. Now here’s the problem, the film does not use the 70MM format to it’s advantage at all. It’s a film that emphasizes dialogue over grand vistas. The very few 3% of a three hour film (counting the 15 minute intermission) are massive shots of the frozen wilderness which not justified the format to see the film. If I were instead writing about, say, Mad Max: Fury Road in 70MM format I would say the extra cost is worth seeing (despite my thoughts on the writing) on the bigger screen because it went big on its visual. The Hateful Eight doesn’t go all the way. Instead you’ll just be paying extra to see a bunch of actor just simply talking in one location, which is unnecessary to see in its 70MM.

Anime-Breakdown: Persona 3 The Movie: No. 1, Spring of Birth (2013) Movie Review

I played Persona 3 FES at a time when I started losing interest in gaming. From the opening intro, right till the end of its short post credit scene Persona 3 rejuvenated my interest in video games. While Persona 2: Eternal Punishment made me a fan of the Persona series it was Persona 3 that made me into a Shin Megami Tensei addict. Persona 3 FES was heavy on the exploration of death, the lore setup in the world was fascinating, the music was good, and finally the gameplay (while repetitive in design) kept me hooked for around the 84 hours it took me to beat it. Regardless if it’s in film, or in a tv series format anything based around video games generally end up being down right awful at worst, and just barely average at best. The amount of watchable video game adaptation can be counted on a single hand. Now, you think the film adaptation of Persona 3 would easily please a fan of the video game. Sadly, that is not the case as certain choices make the film a hindrance to see. The video game storyline was not adapted into film format properly, nor were the necessary changes made in order to create a good film. Even with my single-minded love of the video game this film ended up being average at best, and boring at it worst.

Persona 3 The Movie: No. 1, Spring of Birth follows Makoto Yuki, a transfer student at Gekkoukan High School, suddenly awakened with the powers to control a Persona (a demon like manifestation of one’s personality). First order of business if you have never played any incarnation of the video game Persona 3, or know anything associated with the game you’re completely out of luck with this film. Not only does it required multiple films to solve its main course of conflict, but doesn’t offer a story that can stand alone without supplementary material to understand it. Like the fact there is no film adaptation of the first, or second Persona games in the series, nor are all the games within the series connected together to weave a single narrative. With the inclusion of No. 1 in the title should give the uninitiated an idea of what to expect. If not, the short version is a main conflict that doesn’t get resolved, characters that are underdeveloped, story elements that are underused or lack explanation, and a series of questions that serve to bait viewers instead of intrigue. Newcomers will be left in the dark on anything going on in the film.

In general, the writing ranges in good decisions, and delivery as it introduces characters, and certain story elements, but does very little with them. For example, in the film you get a random scene in what’s called “The Velvet Room”. An elegant blue colored elevator constantly going up where our protagonist, Makoto Yuki, is told by long nose proprietor Igor the power of friendship by building bonds will unlock more Persona/Demons. Within the film context, this is a pretty cheap plot device since it basically means our protagonist can be given any Persona/Demon simply through the film loose definition on the power of friendship if the plot demands it. Before that though, you’ll be wondering how in the world did Makoto Yuki entered “The Velvet Room” since the first time he enters “The Velvet Room” we last see Makoto riding on a train. The next time Makoto goes into “The Velvet Room” it’s after he fights demons referred to as Shadows on a roof top. The next time is when he’s on a train, with two of his friends fighting a powerful demon. It is explained that “The Velvet Room” is a place between mind, and matter. A place within dream, and reality. Between WTF, and helpful explanation for how Makoto enters “The Velvet Room”. Every time Makoto enters “The Velvet Room” what happened in the previous scene is different. When witnessing Igor give Makoto Yuki a key it’s natural to assume it would come into play in the film somehow. If something as minor as this key was not properly used for anything than the chances of it actually succeeding where it counts have been lowered.

Pacing is episodic like treating each act in the film as a mini-arc. The first half hour attempts to set up a normal life routine with some element of something otherworldly. Its intention is nice setting up a mystery, but when one of the first things you see is Makoto Yuki walking on a sidewalk with coffins just outside it fails immediately. This odd scene it chooses to open with only begins the series of unanswered questions. For instance, there’s a mention of Makoto Yuki parents being dead, and a couple of flashes of Makoto past that hints at a tragedy. That’s about as far as it goes in exploring his backstory.

Another is the creation of Tartarus (a giant tower filled with demons/shadows), and why Gekkoukan High School transforms into it is skipped over. At most, there’s a reference to a specific event that might have caused it, but the film doesn’t go into that detail either. Withholding information in this case makes no sense since the characters whom participate in stopping the shadows/demons should question their cause for fighting for SEES (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad) who are against these creatures. The heroes never do which seems odd when one of the main characters, Yukari Takeba, states her dislike for the protagonist fighting on missions just because, but not question herself for the cause she fights for.

Aspects in the world like “The Dark Hour” is explained by continuing a theme of vagueness in its creation which is also only referenced. One example of vague explanations being within the same scene establishing technology doesn’t work in “The Dark Hour” viewers will be shown Mitsuru Kirijo (a member of SEES) riding on a motorcycle during “The Dark Hour”, and the only explanation for it functioning is “It’s specially made”. Also in this scene, it makes sense for the newcomers who are Junpei, and Makoto not to know this fact, but Yukari who has been in SEES longer barely learning vehicles don’t work in “The Dark Hour” is questionable on character consistency.

One aspect that is done away with quickly is our main three characters Yukari, Junpei, and Makoto learning to use their abilities for the first time. Even though it’s their first time fighting, and the audience is told it has a toll on their psyche the action on screen goes against the information given. Makoto in his first time fighting against a powerful shadow in Tartarus beats it virtually by himself. Action scenes are animated nicely, but the context, and the plot armor prevents them from being exciting. The only real consequence in these battle is shown the first time Makoto fights against the Shadows resulting in him losing consciousness for several days. It shows Makoto waking up from a hospital bed which sets up the idea there is actual consequences to using your Persona. Afterwards the physical, and mental toll that can result in using a Persona become absent for the rest of the film.

This film adaptation only adapts the first three full moon incidents, which in the game is three months’ worth of story material to work with which probably equals around 20 hours of gameplay. To further highlight this problem, progression of time is shown through a calendar that goes through dates in linear fashion showing stills, or animation without dialogue of what occurred on those days. What this doesn’t get across is the characters are bonding like it wanted since every time it cuts back into telling a story there’s something upsetting the group of characters the film follows. With so much on it plate the struggle between balancing saving the world, and having a school life is ignored. During the opening sequence several characters are shown most of whom don’t make an appearance in the film. Serving as foreshadowing for the answers you’re not going to receive in the film.

Protagonist Makoto Yuki characterization in the film is a transfer student loner who learns the value of friendship, and showing more emotion. Beside the typical dead parents background, Makoto expressions is limited to being uninterested through the entire film. The journey leads up to a smile, and in terms of interaction the film decides to end before seeing the result his journey had on him. So throughout the film Makoto doesn’t have a personality, and his past is only briefly discussed. While Makoto arc is written in a typical way without surprises it’s handle competently. His lacked of any distinguishable trait from an overpowered emotionless lead makes him uninteresting as a protagonist, but his transformation is steadily done not falling victim to being an unnatural one-eighty change.

Yukari Takeba fares the best of the supporting cast. She gets developed, has an arc that gets completed, and contributes to the story. Having scenes interacting with Makoto helps develop Makoto, and herself. Her inability to trust Makoto with her life because of his lack emotion is touched on. However, she tells the strongest member of the group she doesn’t want him to go on a rescue mission because he doesn’t have an emotional input in it. If Makoto wasn’t overpowered Yukari outburst wouldn’t be idiotic. That’s not the case so Yukari looks like an idiot in this scene by being fully aware of this fact, and voicing her opinion to make SEES rescue operation more dangerous. Aside from this very plot point, Yukari develops competently as well.

Junpei Iori is delegated to being comedic relief without doing much comedy. Why the film made this decision is up in the air for debate. In the film, maybe Junpei class-clown attitude could have been used as a way for him to hide his discontent self-image, but it’s not. Junpei develops an inferiority complex at one point in the movie out of nowhere, and gets resolved minutes later. Then later on in the film, Junpei wants to redeem himself for acting irresponsibly on one of the team’s operation. What exactly his arc was trying to accomplish is sketchy. Fuuka Yamagishi who has less screen time then Junpei has a simple arc of being bullied by one of her friends, but not letting that get in the way of her friendship. Or Fuuka just has low self-esteem too. She’s not developed much as a character beyond what’s introduced about her, but her arc also gets completed even if Fuuka remain largely unchanged.

Then finally leaves the remainder of the underutilize cast. Mitsuru Kirijo has little to do in the film. Her small contribution is feeding the team information on the environment during operations. In a routine setting, she is simply in the background. It’s hinted Yukari doesn’t like Mitsuru, but that goes nowhere. Shinjiro Aragaki is only used to deliver exposition in two scenes, and helping the main cast out of trouble in one scene. Akihiko Sanada is just in the film. He’s a fodder character regardless if the film attempts to paint him as an important member of SEES. Then the oldest character in the film being Shuji Ikutsuki who is only important in one scene where he explains “The Dark Hour”, and the purpose of SEES. Beside that one scene he’s in the background not doing much either. There’s Natsuki Moriyama who is the bully/friend of Fuuka whose change is telegraphed by this description. That’s a lot of wasted room for characters who mostly do nothing in the film, and that’s not including three supernatural characters that serve as deus ex machina, and info dumping on an impending catastrophe.

Persona 3 The Movie: No. 1, Spring of Birth was animated by AIC A.S.T.A. Art direction captures the game’s dark atmosphere perfectly. The usage of lighting is key since most of the film takes place in the dark. Thanks to the clever usage of moonlight, the action in the film is easy to see while the lighting still manages to keep the setting looking ominous. Locations from the game are brought to life, and given a vibrant new look, whilst also retaining the same details that any fan of the game will remember fondly. Plenty of foreboding compositions, oppressive shots, and generally solid direction help to keep things aesthetically impressive. Animations such as the school turning into Tartarus are rendered beautifully (even if the 3D in the scene is weak), and many elements of movement and action that were previously left to the imagination are now visually stunning. Action scenes while lacking excitement are nice eye candy. One thing the film fixed about the characters’ designs were the long necks from the games. All the characters look more natural in the film with some minor touches like adding more line details to the hair to update the game arts style.

Shoji Meguro returns in his role to produce the soundtrack, and as usual his work is stellar.  Crazy techno/hip-hop soundtrack creates a unique tone. The game’s soundtrack is largely reused in the movie, and fits perfectly well. If anything, the movie does a special service to the soundtrack by not playing the same tracks for several hours like in the video game. As a fan of Shoji Meguro in general, the best part of the film was the opening credits with a remixed version of “Burn My Dread”—complete with an added strings section. This film does not provide many new materials worth looking into in terms of music, but the rearrangement of familiar tracks makes it a nostalgic trip for fans. The original Japanese voice cast from the video game returns to reprise their role, and are just solid in the film adaptation. In particular Akira Ishida gets allot more to say besides some grunts and demon names. While limited in dialogue, Akira Ishida grim voice fits the broken character of Makoto. Unfortunately, with the sloppy writing grants no one else the opportunity to deliver much of a noteworthy performance from the character they play. As of this moment, there’s no English dub even though it’s licensed for North America distribution by Aniplex of America. Take that as you will if you liked the English cast from the video game.

Persona 3 The Movie: Chapter 1, Spring of Birth is a movie that I wouldn’t recommend seeing, including fans of the video games. The production side of things capture the aesthetic of Persona 3, but the writing doesn’t emulate what made fans hold the video game in their heart so dearly in the first place. For newcomers, it’ll leave them in the dark with too many unanswered questions, and the inability to work as a stand-alone feature film weakens the narrative when divided in segments. Fans of the video game might be able to enjoy it as whatever doesn’t get explained they’ll still know what’s going on. However, I would just rather say replay the video-game for a better experience. As an adaptation it’s not a train wreck since the story is interesting, and some character arc are handle well, but not enough was changed to make it work in a different medium.

5/10

Cinema-Maniac: Big Hero 6 (2014) Review

Disney….Marvel….okay how the heck am I meant to write an introduction when two of my least favorite examples on storytelling are involved. I might have my complaints with both, but when they make great movies, more likely with Marvel, I applaud them. Sure the methods are reused, but if anyone can create a winning formula, not change it for over seventy years, still get positive reviews for essentially making the same film, and get rewarded with large revenue it’s Disney. Unlike “Frozen” where it had no idea what it wanted to be “Big Hero 6” suffers from the opposite problem of having no personality. There’s nothing in “Big Hero 6” that attempts to differentiate itself from a typical Disney animated movie or Marvel movie. Like it’s prominent hero Baymax, the original creation has heart and thought put into, but in the hands of another creator it’s just something that can reproduce from an assembly line without the same care or thought put into it.

Big Hero 6 is about a bond that develops between plus-sized inflatable robot Baymax, and prodigy Hiro Hamada. Just like the heroes of the film, “Big Hero 6” is rather aimless. One of the casualties of this film being an animated film by Disney and based around a Marvel comic book combining cliches from both properties. The Disney protagonist parents are dead, the Disney villain is one dimensional with a Marvel revenge scheme that is weak due to poor characterization, Disney supporting cast are wacky given Marvel powers of plot armor, and a Disney ending that removes Marvel character progression. There’s nothing here that has not been seen and is a tedious experience when it never does anything out of the box. For example, Hiro Hamada is proclaim by the other characters to be a genius. This is simply never made true as Hiro spends a majority of the film expanding on other’s creations rather than making his own, and his genius is boggled down by summaries rather than actual scenes displaying how clever this character is meant to be. However, unlike Hiro expansion on other inventions, the script does not expand on the hero-origin story putting more emphasis on being a by the number product than it’s own creation.

Pacing is non existent in the film. Being a showcase of several ideas and that’s all. They’re just ideas that never get time to developed into proper characteristics or working plot points. Within the first act the protagonist, Hiro, does a complete one eighty on his life with no effort to be convinced to change. This sudden change in Hiro is rushed and so is the catalyst that becomes his motivation. During this rush transformation it introduces the viewer to the rest of the cast. Supporting characters are given a single trait to differentiate from one another. They also have no personality. All the heroes are driven by the same singular goal with the same motivation. Resulting in a cast that have no personality when separated and when together becomes a boring team because the heroes all function the same. There’s no team dynamic either despite only knowing Hiro for a couple of minutes they somehow manage to work together flawlessly. Immediately removing an obstacle to the road of recovery.

The villain of the film is very weak. Not only is his motivation all the amount of characterization he gets, but that gets undone by a twist in the climax. Also, it attempt to make the identity of the villain a mystery. It doesn’t work when there’s only two candidates. By doing so, the film incorporate a twist to throw viewers off, but even with that twist spotting the villain will take no less than the first act. As for the world there’s no detail spend discussing how San Francisco and Tokyo merged into San Fransokyo. At least a single sentence would be fine, but if that’s not important than having a good ending is, which probably got teleported to another dimension since that’s gone as well. Simply put in no spoilers terms, the ending would rather keep a character position static over creating a dynamic character whose significant in the story goes far beyond the basic position from the start.

When it comes to animation Disney balances the mixture of both of Western and Japanese culture in San Fransokyo. Blending the architectural designs of Japan’s Pagoda temples with the interior of a Western traditional home. Mixing up building designs with a combination of both or separately while maintaining a unified look. Streets at night are lit up by neon billboards and Japanese lanterns. Small details like the appearances of both Japanese and English writing down to the clothing make the world feel fully realize. It’s all bright and colorful with great lighting. You’ll get to see plenty of San Fransokyo with two chase sequences, and one flying sequence that’ll display the world. These sequences are well animated, but they could have easily been taken out in favor of sequences that could have been beneficial to the story. One area where the animation fails are the action sequences. All the set pieces are a one sided affair resulting in a party unanimously coming out victoriously regardless what the film character will claim. They are simplistic and slow moving not fully utilizing the abilities of the characters until the climax, but even then it’s for a brief period before the climactic set piece comes to an end.

Ryan Potter provides the voice of Hiro, the hero of the story. His work was fine, nothing noticeable to criticize since the poor script it at fault. With that said, Ryan Potter surprisingly makes every single one of his line delivery come across naturally. He’s able to provide emotion in scenes where the material failed to do so. The stand out voice work goes to Scott Adsit and his portrayal of the robot Baymax. Even through an auto-tune-like filter, Adsit was able to give the character life. While Baymax comedic antics revolve on slapsticks and the rule of three (allot) Adist has good comedic timing. Delivery most of the laughs with what he says over what his character does. The best performance in the film belongs to Daniel Henney for his portrayal of Tadashi. Offering the most ranged in his performance and coming across as a likable individual with good intention.

The rest of cast roles require them to be one-note. Leaving little range for T.J. Miller, James Cromwell, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, and Alan Tudyk. Their performances are underwhelming, though fitting for their characters. Whatever the character trait is, the voice cast conveys those characteristics strongly. Unfortunately as stated before the roles don’t offer them much range. Minimalizing their time during the more dramatic segments of the film.

The soundtrack is something I honestly cannot judge fairly. It has a song called “Immortal” by “Fall Out Boy”, a band I grew up with. Of course I’ll be enthusiastic if I listen to “Fall Out Boy”, even if it’s a song from the “PAX AM Days” album (which I dislike). Unlike the film visuals, the soundtrack only contains two tracks that blends Western and Eastern musical influence together. The rest of soundtrack heavily feature technoesque sound that seems more in line for a film about a young-goofball hacker than a superhero film. There’s several tracks in the film where it sounds like random computer noise were randomly inserted being out of place in a track. If it’s a track emphasizing the more innocent or comedic side of the film it becomes noticeable working in the scene. However, none of the more bombastic sounding tracks manage to create a mood of excitement during the set-pieces. Having steady raising buildup, but downplaying the pay off with a whimper. Outside of the film, only Fall Out Boy “Immortal” comes closest to standing on its own without the company of the movie visuals. Aside from that one track it’s instantly forgettable.

Big Hero 6 is the result of Disney handling a property without the effort. It takes the laziest aspects of both Marvel and Disney to create a story where personality and effort is non existent. The technical side of the film are generally above solid. Disney created a wonderful, visual mixture of two different culture that looks unified. While the soundtrack goes more for a Western feel and is instantly forgettable it works for the film. Unfortunately what Big Hero 6 ends up being is missed opportunity to provide a story worth investing in, engaging characters, and memorable world.

5/10

SPOILERS: Heartless Ending

The central conflict of the film is Hiro trying to move on from his brother death. How Hiro copes with his depression is his relationship with Baymax. While the other elements of the film were predictable this central conflict appeared to be going in the right direction when everything else was not. Unfortunately by the third act the whole dynamic of getting past death has been toss aside with a twist eliminating the antagonist motivation therefore removing what little character he had. The ending defeated the whole purpose of Baymax as emotional placement for Hiro Hamada too. A physical being that metaphorically represents the soul of Hiro’s brother, at least that it seemed like the film was going for. If Baymax remained dead along with Hiro brother research data then the whole conflict would have had significant meaning. Hiro would have finally moved on from his brother death and therefore Baymax as a character has more to him than just being a fluffy comedic sidekick character oblivious how to properly act in the world. Unfortunately the film ends with Hiro rebuilding Baymax. Making Baymax into a mascot with no depth only meant to sell toy. So in the end, Hiro’s brother death was unimportant to the story and Baymax was only created to sell toys.

Cinema-Maniac: Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014) Review

The first Sharknado was a welcome surprise from The Asylum thanks to it understanding of B-movies turned out to be stupid, and fun entertainment. It knew it was stupid, but took itself seriously in its treatment that if done with meta humor wouldn’t have taken off the same way it did. With the sequel it follows tradition of going bigger where the main issue arises from. By going bigger the action is no longer focused and supplied in smaller doses unable to top its own opening sequence or its predecessor as desperately as it tries too.

Sharknado 2: The Second One follows Fin and company attempting to save New York from multiple deadly Sharknados. The opening sequence sets the bar high paying homage to the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode of “The Twilight Zone”. This time with sharknado colliding with airplane. It’s a stellar opening sequence quickly providing a dose of the implausible action to come making good use of the setting. I dare say the opening sequence is a work of genius. However, past that opening sequence the remainder of the film is unable to top it until it reaches the climax. This time instead following a single group allowing the shark action to be focused and supplied at a steady stream. We follow three groups in the sequel often cutting back to them over time which also means shorter screen time for B-movie badass Fin Shepard (who gives Martin Brody a run for his money in shark slaying). The action is more scattered and smaller in scale unable to top the opening sequence in its scope until it final stretches. Despite how goofy the series is and will become the writers know what they’re doing. Like the previous film, it’s self-aware of how silly the idea is, but the treatment for it is taken seriously adding to the humor. Though this treatment does go overboard with all the needless news broadcast thrown at the viewer face. These news broadcast are silly at first and flesh out a bit of the fictional world, but the seventh time logic is attempted to be apply to the disaster known as Sharknado it’s worse than beating a dead horse. World building has some success fleshing out the characters. It’s nice knowing that once a movie ends the character lives are still worthwhile beyond the closing credits. One of the characters, April Wexler, wrote a bestselling book called “How To Survive Sharknado” off screen. Surprisingly you don’t need to be drunk to get through it. Characters are given some sort of development and conflict, but is too thin to carry the film from beginning to end. Because of thin conflict and characterization it’s unable to maintain the same level interest as when sharks (plus one sewer gator, don’t question the logic it’s Sharknado) on screen which time is less.

Ian Ziering returns to play Fin Shepard and does another decent job in the starring role. He’s into his character giving a serious performance in the not so serious scenarios. Never once does he ever indicate he’s in on the joke keeping in root with the character experiencing it making him the best actor in the cast. Tara Reid performance in the opening sequence is pretty bad especially in a segment that requires her to scream which gets grating. Thankfully pass that opening sequence she does okay. Vivica A. Fox receives plenty of screen time and her performance is also okay. Any actor who plays a large part are okay which involves them running around allot. Compared to Ian Ziering the supporting cast aren’t allow to jump the shark as much. There’s more attention put into casting unlikely stars in cameos. From the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus, Will Wheaton, Kurt Angle, Kelly Osborne, Andy Dick, D.C. Douglas, Perez Hilton, Al Roker, Jared Fogle (yes, the Subway guy), Judd Hirsch, and so many more get more attention given to them than the actual sharks. The CG is acceptable, though creatively there isn’t as many many moments that make full use of the concept. With the opening sequence and climax providing the only highlights there’s everything else in between that is not able to live up to its goofy promise. These sharks favorite method of attack is going for the head. How the sharks are used doesn’t take full advantage of the possibilities for a majority of its run time. Not even the sight of a flaming shark is enough to forgive the lack of creativity. Though the soundtrack is surprisingly strong getting across that epic feel. Ironic that the music is used for this film given it’s better than the film actually needs, but further add positives to its production values.

Sharknado 2: The Second One understands its audience and gives its concept the proper treatment to be entertaining, but provides less sharks in less creative usage focusing more on cameos and is unable to maintain interest due it jumping between three groups of weak characters. While the opening sequence itself is a classic B-movie scene and homage it’s also sadly where it peaks declining afterward. And the saddest truth to this sequel is the filmmakers are in on the joke. They just don’t know how to keep it afloat in an ironic good way as the first time they told it.

5/10

Cinema-Maniac: Persona 3 The Movie: #1 Spring of Birth (2013) Review

Operhus! Kikuri-hime! Pyro Jack! Scathach! Leanan Sidhe! Skadi! Mother Harlot! Thor! Thanatos! Lucifer! Jack Frost! Are all the name of demons I used the most in the video game Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES. A game that restored my faith in video games and made me hold them to a higher standard. While I’m a fan of Shin Megami Tensei in general. For my money worth Persona 3 is the best game in both SMT and its own franchise. I’m pretty biased when it comes to my love of the video game even with some design decisions that irks others (most common one being unable to control your whole team during battles) I actually appreciate. However, not even my single minded love for one of my favorite video games can make me see “Persona 3 The Movie: Chapter 1, Spring of Birth” as anything more than a disjointed disappointment.

Persona 3 The Movie: Chapter 1, Spring of Birth follows Makoto Yuki, a transfer student at Gekkoukan High School, suddenly awakened with the powers to control a Persona. Episodic pacing serves to highlight the script flaws that tackle allot more than it knows how to handle. A film that has teenagers aiming Evokers (guns basically/deep symbolism) at their heads and shooting to summon their PERSONA picks a dark tone without consistency in characters. Junpei Iori is introduced as comic relief who reverts between being a clown to being envious of Makoto abilities. This change occurs immediately, although the rest of the cast go unscathed. With the exception of Makoto Yuki mostly muted transformation the cast of characters remain wholly the same. Personally I hated how Makoto Yuki was adapted, but in the film he has a subtle progression in letting in emotions. Yet despite Makoto being the only character who has progression not even he can escape one dimensionality. He’s the orphan loner who learns the meaning of friendship, but not gaining much of a personality by the end.

The film only adapts the first three full moon incidents which in the game is three months worth of story. To further highlight this, the progression of time is shown through a calendar that says a lot time has pass which also means there’s lot that is being left out. There’s hardly any progression to be seen both in character growth and in conflict. Thematically the whole driving force is strengthening one’s bond which is hardly showcased among Makoto friends. There’s Yukari Takeba who’s angry at Makoto for leading the group as just a job he’s told to do. Next is Junpei like earlier said goes from hating Makoto guts to being envious of his abilities. Mitsuru Kirijo is the oldest among the high school students which seems to all goes into her character in the film. Akihiko Sanada likes to fight…that’s all really. Then there’s Shuji Ikutsuki who is the only adult character in the film with any influence in the story, but gets sideline leaving to question of how he could be active during the dark hour without a Persona. Finally, Fuuka Yamagishi is the damsel in distress who gets bullied, though compare to the main cast her little screen time has a complete arc.

Still going the film leaves many blanks like the incident that killed Makoto parents, why Gekkoukan High School turns into Tartarus (a giant tower filled with demons), how the Dark Hour came to be, and did I just see a promotional plug in the post credit sequence that said its sequel is coming soon. Granted being a fan I know the answers. However, it ideas while interesting are left underdeveloped that is vague rather than mysterious. The set up with this film is deliberately to be seen with the whole series together, but as a stand alone title doesn’t complete everything that it set up. For starter, it explanations are not absolute in giving the audience (specifically newcomers) an exact understanding of how it world or powers functions. Leading to instances of Deus Ex Machina that eliminates the difficulty of a scenario for the characters down to a easy victory. Sadly one of those deus ex machina named is Jack Frost (my favorite persona) who becomes an ace in easy victory. No steady world building to get suck into this odd world. It’s thrown in resulting in the story basically being “there’s monster, let kill them” and finished. What exactly Tatarus gets under explained; how it came to be and it purpose are not explained. Too many characters that prevent growth leaving many to disappear or sit in the sideline until further needed. Withholding information for easy solutions in difficult conflict eliminating tension. Finally it feels incomplete. Just because the credit rolled doesn’t mean the story has entirely been wrapped up.

Shoji Meguro returns in his role to produce the soundtrack and as usual his work is stellar. Crazy techno/hip-hop soundtrack creates a unique tone. The game’s soundtrack is largely reused in the movie and fits just as well. As a fan of Shoji Meguro in general, the best part of the film was the opening credits with a remixed version of “Burn My Dread”-complete with an added strings section. The film does not provide many new material worth looking into, but the rearrangement of familiar tracks makes it a nostalgic trip for fans and improve on the tunes found in the game. Art direction captures the game’s dark atmosphere perfectly. The usage of lightning is key since most of the film takes place in the dark. It looks stunning thanks to the clever use of moonlight, the action in the film is easy-to-see while the lighting still manages to keep the setting looking ominous. Locations from the game are brought to life and given a vibrant new look, whilst also retaining the same details that any fan of the game will remember fondly. Plenty of foreboding compositions, oppressive shots, and generally solid direction help to keep things interesting. Animations such as the school turning into Tartarus are rendered beautifully, and many elements of movement and action that were previously left to the imagination are now visually stunning and exciting. The original Japanese voice cast returns to reprise their role and are just solid in the film adaptation. In particular Akira Ishida gets allot more to say besides some grunts and demon names. While limited in dialogue, Akira Ishida grim voice fits the broken character of Makoto.

Persona 3 The Movie: Chapter 1, Spring of Birth feels incomplete as a standalone film. Characters are one dimensional, several questions are left unanwered, and ends with a direct promotion for the sequel. Not since Max Payne have I been disappointed in lost potential for a good film adaptation of a video game. As a fanboy all it does is make me want to play the video game because of the film incessant it is to cram everything into a single film without time for it to be fleshed out. As a movie watcher it feels incomplete with it story withholding information, having no clear ending, a disjointed story with underdeveloped characters, and the last image shown promotes a sequel that might be worth skipping if it’s more of the same. It’s in the middle ground that while it’s no insult to both audiences like “Mortal Kombat Annihilation”, it’s sadly neither an easily accessible live action “Ace Attorney”.

5/10

Persona 3’s Suicide Imagery:

So in order to summon a Persona you need the gun-like Evoker and shoot yourself in the head. In the game and film it’s explain it’s not an actual gun, though how it works is rather vague. Like even though it’s said not to be a gun everytime the trigger is pulled it makes a gun shot sound. However, it’s used to simulate fear in order to simulate extreme stress to make it possible to summon a Persona. While they’re not killing themselves the image looks like they are blowing their brains out-often complete with spiritual brain and skull fragments. If you can’t handle fictional characters or the sight of teen suicide. I’m saying this nicely, if that kind of thing upsets you just quit watching any video media. There’s allot teen suicide imagery in the film and also hundreds of years worth films that also go for darker, more unsettling images than what this film goes into.

Anime Breakdown: Tokyo Ravens (2013 – 2014) Series Review

I picked up Tokyo Ravens around the same time I was watching Blue Exorcist. I went looking on message boards attempting to read any recomendations and went for one whose name stood out to me. That anime was Tokyo Ravens which I picked just for the heck of it. Once I got caught up with the series I had to view each new episodes on a weekly bases. For a short time it would my go to show even if it was just to pass the time. Then the longer it went on the more it dragged getting to the finish line. Leading to a routine of weekly disappointments and cohesive disjointment of quality witnessing a decline in a showed I started off liking. Now that it’s over all I have to say is there’s a reason why Tokyo Ravens will continue to generally go unnoticed even among the anime community.

Premise:

In some event known as the “Great Disaster,” Japan has been thrown into chaos by onmyouji (a kind of magician). Harutora Tsuchimikado was born into an onmyouji family, but he has no power whatsoever. He lived normally as a regular boy, but his estranged childhood friend Natsume Tsuchimikado suddenly appears to him one day. When they were younger, he made a promise long ago to become her shikigami (familiar/spirits protect and serve their master), and she is back to make him fulfill that promise! A battle between onmyouji is about to begin.

Good: Magical Battles

Tokyo Ravens seems to be limitless when it comes to specializing in visually interesting action scenes with some decent staging. Fights in the series are done with magical techniques based on the elements of nature (water, fire, earth, and what not) and occasionally some ugly looking CG creatures that stick out roughly against the hand drawn world. While I can’t explain in detail how it precisely works because of its complexity (that and I forgot what rules were not being changed consistently in each battle). One thing I can say for certain when it comes to showing off magical battles Tokyo Ravens deliver on that fronts with taunt atmosphere setting the mood immediately. High stakes are always felt due to how fatal every attack looks on screen. The only thing more difficult than surviving a magical attack is attempting to read your opponents moves and countering it. Like a standard fight scene if a competitor blocks his opponent attacks than he/she has a open window to do what he pleases in either doing a direct attack or countering his opponent move. In Tokyo Ravens that rings true to an extent as the characters ever so rarely physically hit each other having to rely on a series of spells to get out alive. Here a simple counter just doesn’t means your attack gets reverse, but can equal a mistake that can puts the odds in your opponent favor.

Seeing how combatants have different methods to fighting is part of the fun as you never know what they’re thinking or plan of strategy they are implementing. Resulting in unpredictable battles where the outcome is not exactly how you envisioned to have played out. However, the staging of them is not as enticing as the visuals that accompanied them. Despite having convoluted rules, Tokyo Ravens rarely has any moments where the battle choreography stand out. Like a card game, a majority of the fight consist on someone taking their turn, waiting, and then taking their turn. The whole waiting mechanic of these battles tends to leave opponents open for long duration of time. While it does seperate the ammature from the masters what it doesn’t do is provide a standoff feel to it like that of a western. When two combatants in Tokyo Ravens wait, and stand off against each other it become repetitive no matter how much goes into the combat situation. Still, compared to everything else the magical battles are reliable for pure entertainment from beginning to end. A rule that doesn’t apply for everything else.

Mixed: Too Many Characters

The first half of Tokyo Ravens does a decent job, if clumsy at times, developing the cast of characters. We get acquainted with the central three with Harutora, Natsume, and Touji taking most of the screen time. In its entirety it introduces new characters pacing itself to sufficiently develope these central three. As for the minor cast they rather serve as a means to move the plot. Kon, a mixture between a fox and a little girl who doesn’t have much used in battles nor gets any development from looking adorable (she’s not) until the end of the series. Kyouko is at the first the rival turned friend and then later a potential love interest. At first Kyouko inspite of being given a typical role starts out interesting even if her designed role is contrived. While she doesn’t do a whole lot of fighting she does contribute in helping to developed the characters. It’s only until when it reaches the end when the character is undone by being given a new unexplained power and a contrived conflict with Natsume that is easily resolved. Tenma is useless. A bit a cruel since he’s a plot device to create conflict in the middle of the series and by the end finally does something to serve the story on a positive level. However, nothing ever really comes out of Tenma throughout the show. Finally Suzuka is…just Suzuka. Yeah this character sucks. Simply put in the show she’s belongs an elite group that’s exclusive to 12 members, but never demonstrates why she got that position showing little expertise in combat and a lack of brains outside of school.

Once it passes episode 14 you get a barrage of new characters who motives are lost and made overly complicated. Taking away from the central story whenever it follows characters that sometimes won’t make another appearance in the series. The many characters in its cast is the series physical manifestation of filler. Once it strays off course the characters we do followed that do affect the plot have little to offer.

The heroes are also hypocritical instead of changing for the better start back at square one. Tokyo Ravens first major arc deals with Harutora and Natsume preventing Suzuka Dairenji resurrecting her brother which through an exchange of dialogue we learn resurrection is forbidden because it requires the sacrifice of a single life. Yet, when the heroes decides to use this same exact forbidden magic it justifies because Harutora is powerful. Defeating the whole purpose of the first major conflict presented regardless if the heroes reasonings was for someone he loved. Characters don’t grow significantly at least when it comes to Harutora and Natsume. These two are never made a couple in the series despite both knowing the other likes them. It’s a missed opportunity to standout among the dozens of anime that teases these kind of relationships, but that’s just one of many traits that prevent it from standing out.

Mixed: Story Progression

At first I wasn’t entirely sold on wanting to see Tokyo Ravens from first impressions in episode 1. It appeared to be just another romance anime with light fantasy elements, but was wrong to some degree. The romance angle was set up competently presenting two love interest for Harutora; one who’s he been great friends with for a long time and a childhood friend he hasn’t seen in years. This setup while very convenient to get the series moving presented an interesting conflict. It also ended in an unexpected note that could lead anyone curious enough to see what happened next. The first three episodes actually took me by surprised by the direction the series was going. Not only did the love triangle dissolve quickly (the character still appears in the intro even after she dies), but managed to create interesting characters put into unexpected situations who weren’t sure to how to handle them. These were characters that were easily relatable, having good intentions, and were compelling made it worth following.

The further Tokyo Ravens went on the more it began to grow and become comfortable with itself. Finding the right balance between goofing off and moving the story forward. Pacing itself just right that in the end even if the episode didn’t deliver something specific you wanted you knew for certain it was going to get there. When it came to delivering the main arcs they offered the best moments of the series. Sure it helped the series has some nicely drawn magical battles that keeps the excitement going. While those battle do impressed so did twists in the story that put earlier events into different perspectives. What we thought originally gives Harutora conflict on his feelings for the one he love more complexity debating nonstop if he does love the one he sets his heart out for is an illusion or reality to what he wants. Characters we followed were growing, their battle skills were growing, it was becoming more sophisticated, and the stakes grew higher. It knew how create an exciting set up, a story arc that valued the action as much as its characters, and did so executing everything it kept doing right.

Then comes the second half which is when everything started going downhill. I can’t say for certain what episode completely lost me, but I can tell you why it lost me as a viewer. For starter, it shot itself in the foot when it decided to introduced so many characters, organizations, groups, and history on a family or specific character. In the first half there’s a time when the explanations stop finally letting itself loose to tell stories either be comedic or centered around an important arc with emphasis on magical battles with significance to the story. In the second half the explanations never stopped to the point that it can take several episodes to finished explaining what is important to the plot in a previous episode. The longer it went on the more the episodes dragged taking its sweet time dedicating entire episodes to exposition only to end on a cliffhanger that could possibly lead to the next arc. Being disjointed as several episodes were either explaining too much not moving the plot or had too much action losing its characters and story. Rarely in the second half of Tokyo Ravens did it get its balanced right that it soon started effecting how the series progressed.

What was once an easy to follow sosphiscated story became convoluted and difficult to follow complicated mess. Character motivations that were once clear became lost under the talk of reincarnations, stopping terrorists, concealing true gender, coping with everyone knowing true gender, preventing magical disasters, who betrayed whom, what’s the real intention of a group of suspicious characters, what the where about of a family, the ever growing love interests for the protagonists to choose from, secret societies bend on using forbidden artes, and so many yet to be listed. All of those plot elements I’ve mention were either introduced in the second half or made more complicated. Everything it brought to the table resulted in the same repetitive format; several episodes where characters explain nonstop, followed by episode heavy on the action, once the climax of an arc ends it transitions roughly be it comedy center episode or immediately starting the next arc further adding confusion.

The series ending is rushed taking a toll on the over crowded cast and mess of a complicated story. Without spoiling the events of the series simply put the series wasn’t sure whether or not to kill protagonist Harutora. It’s this fear that leaves many questions on the series ending that’ll never get answers. This wouldn’t be a problem if what came before it made it easier to accept the ending, but it leaves several storylines unanswered and the conclusion of the story only closes a small fraction of the story it set out to tell.

Mixed: Animation

If it weren’t for the magical battles the whole technical aspects of the series would have failed severely. As oppose to magical battles which complement the animators to create complex visuals the non action scenes are the very definition of the word simplistic. Nothing about the character designs is memorable nor are the plain looking backgrounds very lively. Not a single thing presented in the world of Tokyo Ravens makes it stand out from a design perspective. As for the fantasy elements they’re mostly made prominent with the usage of magic in battles. However, the usage of familiar is limited in screen time as the character once master their skills used their familiar less and less. The strange usage of CGI will take time to get accustomed to, but the CGI never blends into with the rest of series aesthetics. The 3D models aren’t as smoothly animated with some ugly color choices making the CG stick out severely. Some of the designs are mecha-esque whose mechanical design contrasted poorly against the organic creatures. This issues is fixed later on as the series uses less CG the more it progresses. Animation won’t impress, but is always consistent in middle ground quality. It might look bland, but it’s never a distracting issue.

Bad: Forgettable Music

I could leave this area blank with the simple bullet point above, but that wouldn’t justify my position on the music. There’s no better place to start than with the opening and closing themes of the series. Getting it out of the way the ending theme ‘Kimi ga Emu Yugure’ by Yoshino Nanjo is a slow moving acoustic guitar song with overly sappy lyrics that’s forgettable. ‘Break a spell’ is about determination for a new truth undone by auto tuning instruments and the singer which eliminates authenticity on three ends. Now up first opening theme ‘X-encounter’ by Maon Kurosaki is average. The song did grow on me with it techno beats and lyrics that basically said spread your wings complemented with the events of the show. It didn’t reveal anything major about the plot rather metaphors the endeavor of a bird unable to fly similar to the show’s heroes who have difficulty fighting with little experience and knowledge.

The songs are in Japanese so why bother analyzing the lyrics if I have to read what they mean? Well if I didn’t I would have given a free pass to ‘Outgrow’ by Gero which repeats the same Ravens gimmick. Unlike the techno ‘X-encounter’ whose rhythm basically force singer Maon Kurosaki to composition her lyrics awkwardly. ‘Outgrow’ sounds more natural by comparison. With it combination of alternative rock and techno the song is a collection of loud instruments with no specific arrangement to clutter the ear waves. While it doesn’t strain the ears it doesn’t have anything noteworthy that warranted it to replaced ‘X-encounters’. Basically all that is said in the song is they’ll be better days as a flock of birds capable to change the destination. However, it also discuss the flock desired to be independent despite our heroes needing to be saved by a more powerful force either be a spell, person, and plot convenience. Contradicting events that occur in the show. It forces itself to use the Ravens metaphor for a song that has ‘Blow up the dark’ and ‘Just keep the faith’ for lyrics it becomes lost in what exactly it’s trying to say.

The rest of the music offered variety without a single one of the track being memorable. The score is directionless at times and hard to get a grasp on. Most of the relaxing cues seems to be piano and guitar playing for little or no reason. Providing a warmth and soothing feeling that makes you feel at ease. Take it outside of the series and it doesn’t work the same way sounding like hundreds of other soothing tracks. Without lyrics to these tracks you’ll be constantly be thinking “I’ve heard this before” and never put your finger on where exactly you heard it. Says allot when the original produced music is outdone by artists whose songs weren’t specifically created for the show.

Final Thoughts:

Tokyo Ravens never convinces it was destined to be great, but it was a show that was easy to get into and like. However, the longer it went on more of what made it worth seeing disappeared into the background creating more problems instead of fixings the issues it had. Disjointed in quality and disappointing the further it goes. Ending on a contrived whim that leaves you dissatisfied where you end up.

Action: 2/2

Characters: 1/2

Story: 1/2

Animation: 1/2

Music: 0/2

Rating: 5/10 – Tokyo Ravens only offers half a show worth seeing. Ending up in a complicated mess of a show with no closure to many of it loose threads.