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"Making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil."

~Ephesians 5:16

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Rurouni Kenshin (Film) Review

Himura Kenshin is one of the few manga to be consistently 5 star quality. Each of the main characters are given fantastic development throughout the 27 volumes. It being samurai based, there's this feel of nobility which author Nobuhiro Watsuki conveys throughout, especially in the title character himself. Many manga have the character go through this arc of being a troublemaker/punk to a hero, but Kenshin from the onset is a noble character, with a tragic past. It's a refreshing read in the modern age. I would say it's shocking it hadn't gotten a live action adaption until this one, but the fact is that many popular manga have not been adapted. (One Piece, Naruto) and when they are, they're usually either unfaithful to the source material or just plain bad. (Dragon Ball Evolution, and more recently the Attack on Titan adaption.) With a noble character like Kenshin, adapting it would prove tricky with this track record. Director Keishi Otomo delivers a worthy adaption, expertly nailing what the character is all about.

If you've read the manga you know what to expect here. The film adapts the first main arc, and very faithfully at that. There are movies out there over 2 hours where you look at your watch while watching (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) but not this one. That's the first sign of success. While there's certainly a lot of great positives to go over, there are some negatives. The fist one is how Sanosuke is introduced. Muneteka Aoki did a really good job portraying the character. He got the look and personality down. The problem is the writing. He joins with Kenshin and then the dojo unnaturally fast. His plot from the manga was partly cut, probably to save time. In this case, I think adding an additional 20 minutes deepening his character arc would have been better. Another thing is that Megumi also joins up with the dojo rather quickly.  She barely had any words with Kaoru. This stuff happened smoothly in the manga but in the film it's a little choppy.

The biggest negative would have to be Teruyuki Kagawa's portrayal of Takeda Kanryu. Now Kanryu is not a likable character in the manga, and the film doesn't pretend he is either. But, Kagawa's rather comical acting took away from any little menace this guy possessed from the manga.

With those out of the way, we can discuss the many things the film did right, namely Takeru Satoh as the title character. This definitely rivals Kenichi Matsuyama as L from the Death Note series. Satoh grasps the peaceful nature of Himura, expertly delivering his quotes. His transition to serious Battosai mode was also fantastic in his battle with Jin-e. Kaoru was solid. It's still a little funny how she leads this dojo but loses every real fight she's in, but that's how the manga did it too in the arc. Yahiko was also solid. The character isn't given much to do, but again in this particular story he doesn't really do anything. Megumi's character arc was certainly interesting in the manga and the film manages to convey it well.

The fights are a lot of fun, and very well choreographed. One of the best things was the careful attention to detail. The choreography makes it a point to show in present day Kenshin is not killing anyone. With over 30 men rushing at him this is truly an accomplishment. Like the manga, the arc really ends when Kenshin battles Jin-e. While perhaps not as deranged as his manga self, Koji Kikkawa did a solid job portraying him and shows what a stark contrast he is to Kenshin. Saito has always been a fan favorite, and rightfully so. His hardcore demeanor with his sense of justice as a samurai police officer has always been compelling. The film nicely sets the kind of relationship he and Kenshin have in the prologue flashback. I'm looking forward to more of their interactions in the sequels. The soundtrack is very solid. Every theme which played at the onset of a fight scene was done well.

Overall, KENSHIN could be the archetype of a live action manga adaption. The first step is grasping who the main character is, and that is done here. The next is a faithful adaption of the story, and it adapts the first arc wonderfully. (It sadly does cut out somethings which would have made it feel truly complete.) The flashbacks to Kenshin's past were done really well, showcasing who he was back then in contrast to who he is today. The theme of redemption and not letting the past rule over is a major theme in the franchise, and I'm thrilled to see the film utilize that well.


Sunday, February 14, 2016


"Hey have you seen Return to OZ?"
"Yeah I've seen Wizard of OZ."
"Of course, everyone has. But I'm talking about its sequel."
"There was a sequel?"
"In the 80's."
"Never heard of it."

That's a conversation which is common when one brings up the sequel to the 1939 classic. I remember as a kid when Blockbuster was still around always seeing that cover with the giant pumpkin head. I was always greatly curious about it, but never got around to renting it. Though the film has always been in the back of my head to check out someday. We've all seen the Wizard of OZ, hailed by many as one of the greatest movies of all time. Imagine back in the day you saw the film as a kid, and almost 50 years later it gets a sequel. Unfortunately, it didn't fare well at the box office and critics at the time weren't kind to it. Still, with a 55% on Rotten Tomatoes that means quite a few liked it, with many saying it to be a more faithful adaption of the books than the classic. Interestingly, this is Walter Murch's only directed film. What we have is a truly interesting sequel that pays respect to the classic while introducing lots of welcome new elements. An excellent, relatively unknown novelty is how I would describe it.

Taking place 6 months after she returned to Kansas, Dorothy Gale keeps recollecting about her adventures in OZ, much to the dismay of her aunt. So, the latter brings Dorothy to a psychiatric ward for evaluation. But what ward in film has proven to be legitimate? As expected, they try to sabotage Dorothy but someone there helps her escape. Soon Dorothy winds up back in OZ and finds out it has been taken over by the Nome King. It's up to her to overthrow him and save King Scarecrow!

One of the big things I liked about the beginning is how it uses the events of the previous film. The tornado which destroyed Dorothy's old house is mentioned. Its consequences on the family is made known to the viewer, which is interesting. The ward is appropriately a pretty frightening place. I liked the dynamic between Head Nurse Wilson and Dr. Worley. Wilson is stern, while Worley is the seemingly nice doctor whom gets the patient to trust him. The lead-up to OZ is intense, and the only complaint I have is that the ECT didn't turn out to be anything more than a machine. With its design and words of hype, it's a shame it wasn't given more to do. Anyways, the real action of course begins when Dorothy wakes up in the middle of a barren OZ. From here the story is nicely paced as, like in the previous film, she meets her upcoming friends. Let's take a look at some of those friends.

Billina is Dorothy's chicken which accompanies her throughout the story. Billina is a very fun character to have around, providing funny lines. Denise Bryer did an excellent job voicing her. Tik-Toc was excellent, being sort of like the Terminator guardian to Sarah Connor in Terminator: Genisys. One of my favorite scenes was in the climax when Tik-Toc pretends to have his action stopped so Dorothy can get a head start at finding Scarecrow. Jack Pumpkinhead (Jack's a pretty popular name) is introduced later in the plot. In retrospect, he didn't actually do much, but was nice to have around if only for his cool design. Scarecrow is the only character from the previous film to have a role with dialogue. While it would have been nice to see Tin Man and Cowardly Lion more, it was good to see the film introduce the other major characters in the OZ series.

How about Dorothy herself? While Fairuza's Balk portrayal isn't quite as iconic as Judy Garland's, she was still very good throughout. Her politeness, even to the Nome King, was fantastic. While there's great continuity between both films, there are some things missing. For one thing, Glinda the Good Witch isn't mentioned at all. The Munchkins which inhabit the land of OZ are also missing. Ozma is basically a much younger version of Glinda. While not quite as enchanting as the later, Ozma was still very good.

As many have said, the film is noticeably darker than the 1939 classic. Is this a negative thing? Many would say so. It's true the film does have surprisingly grim aspects. The headless dancing girls eludes to decapitations, and we actually see those heads later in the film as Mombi says she uses those heads on different occasions. The masks on the Wheelers when they first appeared were also creepy. I think the tone is fantastic and grips the viewer from the start until the end. These things, while dark, never leaves the overall fantastical atmosphere of OZ. I think Return is the very definition of how to properly do a "darker" story in a film sequel.

The biggest highlight may be the antagonist, the Nome King. From early on he is established as a true menace with his commanding voice. Every scene in the climax he's in was fantastic. The writing was incredible, having him be a manipulator. One of the best scenes is when he shows Dorothy the Ruby Slippers, stopping her in mid-sentence, saying "No, MY Ruby Slippers." He taunts her with the idea of she being able to return home, saying there's nothing she could do about her friends. Another great line is when he says, "Perhaps you'd like to visit my fiery furnace" which is followed by a scene of flames appearing. He's a fantastic character and Nicol Willamson did a superb job portraying him. His sarcasm and great anger made him a blast to watch. The climax features an intense race against time, followed by a last stand against a giant monster. The way it goes down, while perhaps meant to be funny, is a little anti-climatic. Still, the last act of the film was fantastic, on par with the climax of the 1939 film. The stop-motion used throughout was very good; the Nome King's final form looked really realistic. The servant face in the mountain was also very good. The soundtrack isn't anything special sadly. The best theme was in Mombi's palace, when the heads all woke and started chanting Dorothy's name. The viewer feels a sense of immense urgency when that started to play. (That, and the fact there were over 20 heads talking!)

Overall, Return to OZ is a very fun watch. It's a really cool sequel to the classic movie we've all seen and have ingrained in our memory. The story is much like a classic fantasy adventure with a character wanting to save the land from an evil ruler. It pays tribute to Wizard while introducing all these new elements. If you haven't seen this, I definitely recommend it. It's far better than the recent OZ: The Great and Powerful.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Fantastic Four (2015) Review

The Fantastic Four haven't had much success on the big screen. The two major film adaptions are usually in any "top ten worst comic book films" list. "How difficult is it to make a film about a family of superheroes?" is often the question. Apparently very, since FOX laid the series dormant for eight years. In this case, it was wise to reboot it. Last year saw the release of the revamp. Marketing was rather poor leading up to it, releasing perhaps the most generic trailer of all time and "hyping up" characters, such as Doom being a blogger. (Which thankfully was pretty much cut.) I've always enjoyed the Fantastic Four because of the family dynamic, which is really at the core of every FF story. This is something director Josh Frank's reboot didn't seem to understand. While not the worst comic book movie out there, it definitely deserves its razzie. Still, unlike the first origin story, it's certainly not boring and provides a rather bizarre experience for a longtime comic fan.

Transported to an alternate universe, four young outsiders gain superhuman powers as they alter their physical form in shocking ways. Reed Richards becomes Mr. Fantastic, able to stretch and twist his body at will, while pal Ben Grimm gains immense strength as the Thing. Johnny Storm becomes the Human Torch, able to control and project fire, while his sister Sue becomes the Invisible Woman. Together, the team must harness their new abilities to prevent Doctor Doom from destroying the Earth.
The beginning played it very good, showcasing how Reed Richards and Ben Grimm met as kids. It's interesting to see the dynamic back then since the comics haven't really explored it all too much. Fast forward to modern day when they're at college. This is where the problems begin. At the science fair the teacher literally witnesses something get teleported away, yet dismisses it as if it wasn't anything extraordinary. There's no indication that this is a world in which stuff like this happens, so the reaction was incredibly strange. The action really begins when Franklin Storm asks Reed and Ben to join up at Baxter Foundation to complete a device which Victor Von Doom had started.

It'd be good to go over each individual character, which accounts for a good chunk of the negatives. The blatant one at first is Susan Storm. (Kate Mara.) She literally smiled about three or four times in the two hour run-time. She showcased virtually no emotion and her face pretty much had the same expression throughout the whole film. In the comics Sue is one of the most caring individuals in the Marvel Universe. Here...nothing. I'm not sure if the writing forced her to act like a statue or Mara just can't bring emotion into her role. A primary example is when she finds out that Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Victor are in great danger. Her statement "I'm trying" and her completely stiff face expression was just sad. I'm tempted to say she's just as emotion-less as Bella in the Twilight movie series. (If that were even possible.)

You're going to see a pattern here with the acting. One of the most laughable scenes was in "the other dimension" (which in itself wasn't explained at all) with Victor grasping the hand of Reed before plummeting below. There's yelling but it looks and sounds fake. The point of peril in films is for the viewer to feel the character's anguish and danger. One doesn't get the feeling here. It watches like the actors are just reading lines off the script and yelling when necessary. The film often feels like a low budget college project in this regard, which leads us to our next negative. While as terrible as the last two Fantastic Four movies were, they at least retained the feel of the classic comic books. What the writing and directing tries to do here is make it a gritty (generic word, but it's the only one that fits) almost alternate history type of story. There's unnecessary language being thrown around just to have some edginess for example. Even worse, there's a scene where some of the characters get drunk. (Basically, the opposite of stuff you find in the comics.) Take away the name, switch around the powers and this wouldn't resemble an FF movie in the slightest.

Back to characters, Milles Teller as Reed is often a mixed bag. Sometimes he's good, but the acting is so lousy sometimes it's hard to say anything positive. In the climax for example, his one-liners to Doom such as "Victor don't do this" was so terribly acted one has to imagine how this got pass the green screen. Michael B. Jorden as Johnny Storm wasn't bad. He definitely got the humor down which the character is known for. Perhaps the film's biggest positive is Ben Grimm. When Jamie Bell becomes the Thing, he completely nails the character.

As they say, a story is as good as its villain. Unfortunately for the previous two films, they didn't pass the test with their depiction of Dr. Doom. With a reboot, FOX had another chance. Did they succeed? It's an interesting answer. The problem I have is not with Toby Kebbell specifically, but before transforming into the antagonist the writing should have tried to develop the hate relationship between him and Reed. Later in the climax Doom states to Reed,"You always thought you were smarter than me." This makes no sense, since the two had only known each other for about...a few days, weeks maybe?" There's no buildup to such a statement. With that said, when Doom becomes Doom, he was a very enjoyable antagonist to watch. He commanded the screen, something the old Dr. Doom never quite achieved. Sadly, the writing strikes again since his goals and motivations are poorly explained.

If it isn't evident yet, the writing is pretty bad most of the time. Not only in the lines spoken by the characters, but on the plotlines themselves. There are two primary examples. Remember the laughable scene when Victor seemingly plummets to his doom? (Unintentional pun, I promise.) This wasn't mentioned by anyone afterward. It's almost as if the writing forgot about it until later. Another thing is that Ben blames Reed for his condition. When Grimm captures Richards, he makes the bold statement of "I'm not your friend." Yet about 20 minutes later they're pretty much back to being buddies, and by the end that line is completely rendered irrelevant. Despite there not being too much action, the film thankfully manages to move at a solid place. The climax isn't terrible, and there are some nice effects utilized. In retrospect however, it's probably the worst action film climax of 2015. Nothing really "big" happens, and looks low budget when compared to say Age of Ultron or Jurassic World. (Even tiny characters in Ant-Man provide a more grand climax, though to be fair few can beat Thomas the Tank Engine.)

Overall, Fantastic Four is one of the strangest comic book movies out there. It doesn't necessarily deserve its 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, but also doesn't really deserve anything above 30% either. The problem first from a comic book fan's perspective is that it doesn't look or feel like an FF movie. At least the previous two movies kept the family dynamic; here it's as if the goal was to make a sci-fi film with the characters in name only. It's truly bizarre, and an example that the "gritty reboot" isn't always the right call. I will however give credit for it having virtually no romance. But the language, the tone, the drunk scene, this is not the Fantastic Four. From a non-comic book fan's perspective, the writing is just bad a lot of the time. There is no great acting to be found here. The best FF film is still the unreleased Roger Corman one from the 90's.