KONG: SKULL ISLAND Review

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It’s been 12 years since the last King Kong film. Peter Jackson’s 2005 film is a remake of the classic 1933 story of a giant ape who falls for a woman and ends up meeting an unfortunate demise. Skull Island takes a break from this plot to tell a unique tale using elements from the original story. This isn’t the first time Kong has deviated from the usual story of course, with one example being TOHO’s King Kong Escapes where he battles a mechanized version of himself. Skull Island brings an ensemble cast to the titular setting for an adventure that feels both familiar and new. It lacks enough quality writing to call it a “great” film, but it’s still an enjoyable, fun trek.

The primary reason why people would come to watch this film is to see the title character in action. Kong himself doesn’t disappoint. The sequence with him taking out the helicopters was excellent and rivals Godzilla’s grand airport entrance in the 2014 film. The music going silent when the tree struck the first helicopter changed the mood drastically, and as one by one each helicopter was destroyed the viewer got a sense of how ferocious Kong was. This is his most violent portrayal yet, and in this early scene the viewer actually begins to think that Kong might actually be bad in this one. The story smartly destroys that thought later on. The writing perfectly balances Kong’s gentleness with monstrous ferocity.

Again, his big scene with taking down the helicopters was incredible. It featured some of the best cinematography and editing ever in a monster movie. It’s actually a shame that the very first scene in the film featured a full face shot of Kong, because the helicopter sequence later on would have been a much better way to first show the character. Kong commands a presence every time he’s on screen, and the film features him a lot, which is a nice change of pace from monster films hiding the beast for extended periods of time.

Like in the previous King King films, Skull Island is home to many dangerous creatures. Unlike the previous films, the creatures in this film aren’t ones we’d find in a book. Instead, they’re either abnormally giant (the spider) or completely brand new, such as the Skullcrawlers. The creatures are used to great effect. The spider sequence was very well done (it features one of the creepiest deaths in a monster movie) and how the characters managed to overcome it was pretty smart. There’s even a giant octopus which Kong battles. (It reminds the viewer of his encounter with another giant octopus in the original King Kong vs. Godzilla.) The Skullcrawlers are the film’s primary antagonists, and they are really well utilized. They’re genuinely creepy and also command a presence. (The quick death scene of a character turning around only to be chomped by a Skullcrawler was something straight out of a horror film.)

Of course, the climax couldn’t feature Kong simply taking on a bunch of little creatures. The final battle featured a giant Skullcrawler. It got some quality buildup beforehand, and it doesn’t disappoint. It takes what made the little ones creepy and amplifies it. The fight was very well done. The battle is brutal, the setting is used to great effect, and above all else – it’s satisfying. There are no extended cutaways, there are some surprises, and it’s just fun to watch as a moviegoer and as a longtime kaiju fan.

The main thing the story suffers from is an unnecessarily light tone. There is some seriousness to the atmosphere, namely when the music stops when that tree struck the helicopter. Despite scenes like that the story appears more on the light-hearted side at times. John C. Reilly’s character for example kinda takes the viewer out of the realism at times with his dialogue. With horrific deaths taking place on an unknown setting, it seems like the overall atmosphere should be consistently more serious than what it is. Perhaps the idea was to differentiate itself from Godzilla, since that film was completely series from beginning to end. This is not to say Skull Island is a comedy, because it isn’t. A more serious tone throughout just could have been better.

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A rather big drawback is that the Island natives don’t really do anything in this film. It felt like they were just there for tradition’s sake. (They barely do anything other than stare and nod.) An additional 10 minutes could have been added to explain more about their relationship to Kong and the fascinating backstory only briefly mentioned. Moving on to the characters, the film features a cast with quite a few familiar names. Just about all of them are fun to watch. (It could be a fun game counting how many zoom-ins they give Samuel L. Jackson.) Ultimately though, there’s no standout performance. Maybe it’s assumed that simply having these big name actors on screen is good enough. (We have Tom Hiddleston grabbing a sword and slashing like a samurai.) The characters needed to be fleshed out just a little bit more.

The pacing is solid. Some of the early scenes on the boat were a little on the boring side, but it doesn’t take too long for the characters to arrive on the Island. There’s just the right amount of Kong scenes and humans, whether the latter be talking or running away from another creature. The soundtrack has some great moments. There’s also some classic music thrown in the mix, being set in the 70’s. This is used to great effect in the helicopter sequence.

Overall, Kong: Skull Island is a worthy addition to the large catalog of monster movies. Director Jordan Charles Vogt-Roberts’ vision of Kong is truly special. The ape steals the show, having the perfect balance of being the kind creature viewers have come to know and displaying monstrous ferocity. If Kong had a reputation of being on the weaker side before, this film changes that. The other creatures are really cool to watch, especially the Skullcrawlers. The big one made for an excellent final boss, with the actual battle being a satisfying finale to the story. The characters aren’t bad. They’re fun to watch, and are given enough personality to keep them from being dry. Still, they could have used just a bit more development. Some of the lighter elements and humor didn’t work, but they don’t ruin what is Kong’s most explosive film yet.

7.5/10

 

Guilty Crown Review

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Guilty Crown is an original piece, not being based on any previous form of media. To summarize the rather convoluted plot: the story follows a high school student named Shu Ouma. He’s taken from his normal life when he runs into a mysterious girl named Inori. From there things get interesting as the writing slowly unveils there’s something bigger at play than a simple resistance versus the tyrannic government. This is perhaps the show’s biggest disappointing aspect: there are some unique ideas but the poorly explained plot and characters stop Guilty Crown from being the science fiction masterpiece it could have been.

The first episode did an excellent job establishing a tension-filled atmosphere. We’re introduced to Inori in a fast-paced escape sequence. There’s a lot to like here, from the gorgeous animation/overall style to the interesting backstory with Japan reliant on foreign aid and having an unstable government. It sets the tone for what should be a stylistic and action-packed story. It definitely has those two things, but the characters and terribly explained plot progression stops it from being something that can be called great. Shu is one of the biggest examples of the writing going all over the place and demonstrating how not to do character development.

The first few episodes did a great job introducing Shu. It’s clear what the writing was going for: Shu is a shy, anxiety-filled student. His meetup with Inori, and then the resistance group Funeral Parlor leads him on a journey to becoming an extroverted hero. This isn’t bad in concept; in fact, it’s quite good. For a little while the writing was succeeding. (I particularly liked the inner monologue in the first few episodes.) But, he starts to go downhill in Episode Eight, which was the worst episode of the show. We see Shu attack his friend over flirting with Inori even though Shu said it was fine earlier in the episode. In a later episode Shu states to Funeral Parlor, “I’m not the one that betrays people here.” Yet in the episode previously mentioned he betrayed his friend, thus making Shu a hypocrite.

Later in arc two the writing has Shu become a tyrannical leader, bordering on being evil. This plot development comes about after the death of someone close to him. Now it makes sense something would happen to his character development, but this was just an abrupt change. Everyone falling in line with him was too sudden, and worse this character arc lasted only a couple of episodes. He goes from tyrant to being a noble hero looking out for others in just under three episodes. Does the writing expect us to forget about what just happened and be engaged with him now? It doesn’t work that way. This type of character development needed more episodes and better writing to make it work. Shu’s character was just all over the place and ended up being a missed opportunity for something truly interesting.

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Inori…where to start with her. First, the romance between her and Shu makes little sense in the first arc. Unlike an anime like Tsubasa, it takes awhile for the romance aspect of Guilty Crown to feel remotely organic. Inori is often little more than a plot device, or worse- a tool. The main character often reaches into her chest (yes it’s a strange visual) to pull out her Void. The viewer often wonders why Inori acts the way she does, because she doesn’t act or talk like a normal person. Finally in a big (and poorly explained) plot twist it turns out she is the clone of the main character’s sister who happens to be evil used by aliens(?) to bring about an apocalypse. That sentence was tough to type, but the point is made. The anime really went off the deep end in arc two, not really explaining much of anything. (So how did Shu block out all those vital memories?)

The show could have ended at the end of the first arc and it would have been a little more decent. The ongoing tension with Funeral Parlor against the government was engaging. Gai was little more than the generic tough, win at all costs leader at first. But as he got to interact with Shu and work with him Gai ended up being one of the best characters. Of course, arc two brings him back for convoluted development and throws away his sense of nobility. There are many other characters of note. Some of them are good, such as Ayase, and Shibunji. Some interesting, such as Kenji and Arisa, are unfortunately rendered an almost non-factor by the end.

There’s a lot to like in the first arc, perhaps the best part being Shu being taken into custody. Segai, by far the show’s best antagonist, shows Shu the government is seemingly not evil and that in fact Funeral Parlor is the organization that needs to be stopped. The dialogue here is brilliant, as Segai showcases deceptive tactics in an attempt to get Shu on his side. Another really well done aspect of the first arc was the hostile government takeover by Keido. It was a well written, explosive sequence. Arc one isn’t perfect however. The school scenes were painful to watch for one thing. The fan service was a major drawback. As stated earlier, Episode Eight was the worst. A major part of it is dedicated to the beach. It doesn’t end with that episode unfortunately, as even good characters such as Arisa and Menjou are victim to it. In fact, almost all the major female characters are reduced in one way or another to fan service scenes. Classiness unfortunately doesn’t often exist in Guilty Crown.

One character that needs to be mentioned is Yuu. He was an interesting antagonist, but the problem (now stop me if you’ve heard this) is that his character is poorly defined. There’s virtually no backstory as to what he is, or what Da’ath even is. His relationship to the Mana aspect was overly complex and his explanations ended up making the story more convoluted. By the time he’s gone the viewer is left wondering who he even was. The climax has some exciting fight scenes, though with a cheesy, save-the-day deus ex machina moment.

The soundtrack is outstanding, one of the best. Almost every theme is excellent and sounds like something out of a film production. The second ending’s visuals with the two main characters running against an emotional theme was very well done as well. The action scenes are often exciting and diverse. We have classic military gun fights, mechas, and of course fantasy elements with Shu being able to use Voids. At the very least, Guilty Crown is never boring. Despite the second arc being the show’s downfall, there are some well done elements. The idea of being trapped in a building part of a state on lockdown was interesting to watch.

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Overall, Guilty Crown is one of the biggest missed opportunities in anime history. There’s some great concepts that either aren’t explored properly or are just too convoluted to appreciate. Shu’s character journey is poorly written with only pieces of good writing. Inori is often just there for Shu to use as a weapon, and her character arc isn’t great thanks to -once again- horribly defined backstory. This is not to say the show is unwatchable. It has many exciting moments and a somewhat good cast with a fantastic soundtrack. As a whole though, there are better options.

5.5/10

 

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

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Star Wars is enjoying a revitalization this decade. Last year Episode VII, the continuation from Return of the Jedi, released and ended up being one of the highest grossing films of all time. This year saw the release of another installment in the series. This time however instead of the next chapter, we have a prequel detailing some of the major events leading up to A New Hope. The idea of a standalone-ish film important to the overall saga is an excellent concept; and it’s something Rogue One succeeds at marvelously. Gareth Edwards of Godzilla fame directs a film that puts the Wars in Star Wars.

Rogue One tells a familiar tale at the surface. It follows a group of rebels in a mission to halt the progress of the Empire. Perhaps the biggest contributions to the franchise here are how the Death Star came into existence and how the Alliance acquired the plans of the weapon’s weakness. As a longtime Star Wars viewer, it’s great to see how this connects to A New Hope, a film almost 40 years old. There are other things to look out for, along with other references to the franchise such as The Clone Wars. Of course, the film doesn’t sell itself as one only focused on being one big reference; it’s an excellent showcase of quality written characters and some of the best action sequences of the series.

The opening act shows the main character, Jyn, as a young girl and how she got separated from her parents. It’s a well done sequence as it establishes her hate for the Empire, Krennic’s menacing persona, and how Jyn’s father got taken into the Empire to build the Death Star. The jump to modern day is interesting as we see Jyn a battle-hardened character. Felicity Jones does an excellent job portraying that throughout the film, especially in the first and middle act. Rey from The Force Awakens was a fun character, but Jyn is more interesting thanks to her more down-to-earth, realistic persona. Her journey from hardened prisoner to inspiration for the rebel cause was engaging. This nicely complements the rather grim atmosphere the story has.

Perhaps the most notable character is K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial Droid for the Rebel cause. One of the reasons why A New Hope is fondly remembered is for its introduction of C-3PO, who was constantly bringing humor. K-2SO plays a similar role in Rogue One, and it’s fantastic. (Also, unlike C-3PO he can actually fight.) K-2SO’s scene in the climax is one of the most powerfully written in the entire series. Most of the other characters are good. One of the few that wasn’t particularly notable was Rook. It’s easy to see what the writing was going for in his personality, but it didn’t work most of the time in making him likable and there was a severe lack of backstory. Saw Gerrera wasn’t memorable either and may have actually been the weakest character. The viewer doesn’t feel any sense of emotional attachment so when he stops appearing it’s more of an empty scene.

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Even though the original trilogy took place in a galaxy controlled by the Empire, Rogue One is the first one where the viewer really gets a sense of what it’s like to live under this occupation. There’s a down to earth tone which lacks in the other films. This is also helped by the careful usage of humor. The Force Awakens most of the time had an upbeat tone with plenty of comedic scenes, sometimes forced. Rogue One is a lot smarter in this department. Its “funny” scenes are spaced out and when they appear they are genuinely good. Action films can learn a thing or two from the style of Rogue One.

As stated earlier, the film features some of the greatest action scenes in the franchise. The first major fight sequence on Jedha when Andor and Jyn arrive comes to mind. Not only is it choreographed well and there’s a great amount of tension, but the viewer also gets a sense of a brutal war backdrop. The climax is a big highlight; the Rebellion plan is fun to watch unfold, which leads to some -once again- great action sequences and emotional scenes. The tagline for the film is “A rebellion built on hope.” The final act of the story is unexpectedly somber, but with a glimmer of light in the end since it leads straight into A New Hope. It’s one of the most effective and well done climaxes in recent history.

On some last notes, the soundtrack features a few classic Star Wars themes. They are used effectively. (The opening crawl was unfortunately missed.) The other themes are very similar and while not as iconic as John Williams’ work, Michael Giacchino does a solid job complementing the legendary music. Darth Vader was one of the most highly anticipated aspects of the film. (He hasn’t been seen in film since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith.) He could have used maybe one more scene, but what is there is spectacular. It’s as if you can watch this film and then jump into A New Hope and not see any difference with the villain. If this is truly Vader’s last appearance in a film, he went out showcasing that he still is one of (if not the) greatest villain in cinema.

Overall, Rogue One might be the most well made Star Wars film to date. It goes darker than previous entries while containing pockets of genuinely humorous moments. Jyn’s character journey is engaging, and the theme of hope shines throughout. As iconic as the original trilogy was, there was sometimes a lack of tension because of cheesy writing. The serious tone in the latest installment coupled with the most intense Stormtrooper action scenes in the franchise gives the film a consistent atmosphere that The Force Awakens -or just about any film in the series- doesn’t have in comparison. Rogue One is a great film of diverse, likable characters and an excellent prequel to A New Hope.

9/10

Seraph of the End: Vampire Reign Season One, Part Two Review

Seraph of the End Season One reaches its conclusion with the latest Blu-ray from FUNimation. Part One was good, not perfect, but still did a solid job establishing the setting. The concept of humanity being wiped out aside from pockets of resistance almost always makes for a compelling story. The ending of Part One introduced new concepts to the table and another dimension to the human/vampire conflict. Part Two explores these concepts in detail while advancing the overall storyline. With the characters already established, the rather poor pacing found in the beginning of Part One is almost non-existent here. There are some lackluster elements, such as Yu being more on the mediocre side when it comes to protagonists and an out of control climax. There’s still of course a lot more to like than dislike.

The first episode (technically Episode 13) establishes a couple of things for the story. Before we dive into them, one thing of note is Mitsuba’s characterization. We’ve seen some emotion from her in Part One, but here in this episode it might be her best scene. She’s given a promotion, but says to Yu, “I don’t deserve a promotion, I’m a failure.” This is referencing events in Part One. The writing sometimes fails (we’ll talk about that soon) but more often than not it succeeds in delivering genuine emotion from the characters.

One of the biggest scenes in Part One was Yu running into his old friend, Mika. We know of course that Mika is a vampire which makes Yu want to do something about it. In this episode Yu is doing research on the possibility of turning a vampire back into a human. This is fine, but what happens later with Yu and Mika makes this scene moot. Not only that, but what happens later is the single worst moment of the anime. We’ll address it soon, but first it’s worth mentioning that Episode 13 also introduces a major player to the board, Kureto.

As Yu sees his friends being tortured by Kureto for information, the viewer knows something is going on behind the scenes with the humans. Perhaps the biggest scene of Part Two is Kureto telling Guren his master plan: after taking out the vampires, he wants to destroy all the remaining human pockets of resistance and put the world under one government, the Japanese Imperial Demon Army. This is a fascinating backdrop because it changes the face of the war from “good humans against evil vampires.” The writing for Kureto is very good as he borders from someone genuinely concerned about the future of humankind to deranged sociopath. The scene in the climax with him saying that if God is their enemy they’ll fight Him fully established Kureto as a character with a superiority complex. He is a character begging for backstory the anime sadly hasn’t given. Hopefully if there is a Season Two we’ll see that.

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Speaking of Guren, the writing does an excellent job making him complex and likable. All throughout Part One it was the opposite. Part Two changes things by making him in contrast to Kureto’s “anything to win” mentality. Perhaps the best part is the flashback to when Guren took Yu in. It did an excellent job showing how the relationship between the two started. Guren showcases some of his best moments in the second half of Part Two in his tag team battle with Shinya (perhaps the best new character in Part Two) against Crowley. The big plot development with Guren in the final two episodes is a bit sudden, but should be interesting to see fleshed out if there’s a second season.

Easily the best parts of Part Two are when the Moon Demon Company venture out into the streets to take out the Nobles. The action scenes are excellent as well as the soundtrack. The music was very good in the first part, but here it’s even better. The most engaging sequence is when Guren’s and Shinoa’s teams attempt to take down the Crowley. There’s an incredible amount of tension in these scenes as we see everyone outclassed by Crowley. Crowley is one of the best written characters and may be the most compelling antagonist of the entire anime.

Like in Part One, there’s an ongoing subplot with Mika. Here in Part Two his main goal is to find Yu and take him someplace away from everything. The main thing I personally found engaging about Mika’s plot was his constant inner struggle to not give into his vampire side. There are a few instances where for a second the viewer thinks he’s going to, but then he doesn’t. It’s an excellent part of the story…and then it’s all for nothing.

The sequence with Mika battling his way through Moon Demon Company soldiers to get to Yu was engaging. The episode “Yu and Mika” is supposed to be the big payoff one for viewers, the culmination of everything since the haunting very first episode. For a bit the episode is great, until Yu basically forces Mika to drink his blood. Mika repeatedly tells Yu that he doesn’t want to be a vampire forever. If he does drink human blood, there’s no going back. As stated earlier, Mika spends the the show fighting his desire to drink human blood. Despite this knowledge, Yu continually insists that Mika drink his blood, thus condemning his best friend to be a vampire. Yu should have honored his friend’s wishes in this case, even if Mika was severely weakened and needed the blood. This scene was brutal and it was hard to be engaged with Yu in anything afterward.

The climax is a mixed bag unfortunately. The build up to it is excellent and provides a sense that a grand, final showdown is about to take place. The actual battle is all over the place because it introduces too many new elements to the field. We have a gigantic demonic monster appearing out of nowhere, an angel, and Guren’s plot development among other things. The core humans vs. vampires story was lost in all of this. Everything is thrown at the viewer without much explanation which hurt the effectiveness of the climax. The biggest crime however might be the under-utilization of Queen Krul. She was established as the vampire leader of Japan and main antagonist in Part One, but here she barely does anything. By the end, she can’t even be called the main villain anymore. The writing really dropped the ball with her.

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Overall, Season One of Seraph of the End isn’t perfect. Part Two has a few problems preventing it from being truly fantastic. Despite these things however, the show is still extremely engaging from beginning to end. The biggest theme is family. Sometimes family isn’t by blood. As seen with Shinoa’s brother and Mitsuba’s sister, sometimes blood relatives are less family than those friends that are close to you. While Yu isn’t an amazing protagonist, most of the other characters are well written. The final episode sets some things up for a presumable Season Two. Seraph isn’t the greatest anime, but still one worth checking out.

7.5/10

Doctor Strange Review

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Marvel Studios has cemented itself as a company viewers expect great things from. For the past two years it has been consistent in delivering quality. This year saw the release of one of the finest films in the franchise, Civil War. Now the company takes a short break from the ensemble to focus on introducing another character to the fold. Directed by Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange is an enjoyable installment with a unique spiritual backdrop. The main thing stopping it from being truly great is a mediocre climax.

In some ways Doctor Strange is similar to the first Iron Man. Like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange is introduced as an arrogant man only looking out for himself. The path to his redemption is engaging. The opening act does a good job establishing who he is as a surgeon. Everything seems to be going right, but one event can change everything. In Iron Man’s case it was the terrorists killing Tony’s companions and kidnapping him. In Doctor Strange it’s the car crash that sets him on a path he didn’t expect to be on.

As stated in the first paragraph, the film has a unique spiritual backdrop. Scott Derrickson is a Christian, and he brings quite a few Biblical themes to the table. The conversation between Stephen and the Ancient One on life in general comes to mind. Ancient One shows him in a fun sequence how there’s more to life than what is happening in front of them. Derrickson delivers something refreshing with utilizing aspects of faith which is unfortunately rare in films.

The core of the story is found in the middle act with Stephen traveling to Nepal in hopes of healing his hands. This is one of the main aspects of the origin: Stephen training alongside other sorcerers. It’s well done mostly, but falters in perhaps being too long. There isn’t a big action sequence for quite awhile after the opening scene. The biggest problem with the training aspect might be that the film doesn’t let the viewer know how much time has passed since Stephen first walked through the doors. If we take the film at face value, it hasn’t been that long, so it’s hard to believe that Stephen was able to master all these techniques so quickly. He learns spells and actually outsmarts Wong.

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Benedict Cumberbatch owns the role as the title character. By the end of the film he’s one of the most engaging Marvel protagonists. His role as Sorcerer Supreme will be a lot of fun to watch in future films. The story does a good job detailing the type of work the Ancient One and her fellow sorcerers do. Wong’s dialogue stating,“The Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats.” was excellent. Speaking of Wong, he was a lot of fun to have around. Every scene he was in with Strange was a highlight. Going back to the Ancient One, she was a compelling character. The writing gave her the best lines; Tilda Swinton delivered them with excellence.

Baron Mordo is an interesting, likable character. Anyone who has read the comics knows what happens; nonetheless, the writing does an excellent job building up to his big plot development in the after-credits scene. Before moving on to the antagonists, there’s one more character of note. Christine Palmer doesn’t appear too much but when she does it’s almost always a good scene. The viewer can feel her sadness when Strange early on basically tells her that without his work, life isn’t worth living, even with her. This plays into the excellent development later when Strange admits he was wrong. Romance doesn’t play a huge part in the story, but what is there is very genuine, in contrast to what is seen in some other Marvel films. (Thor and Ant-Man come to mind when it comes to poorly developed romances.)

The film has two main antagonists. The first is Kaecilius. He wasn’t that interesting, but at least the idea of a former student turning over to the dark side was done alright. The true villain behind everything is Dormammu. He gets a lot of hype throughout the story, and rightfully so. In the comics he’s a powerful figure, on the level of Thanos. Marvel had the opportunity to introduce a major character, and it failed miserably.

Dormammu is Doctor Strange’s greatest antagonist and an extremely powerful character. In the film he is described as a destroyer of worlds but we never get a glimpse of that. Instead when he finally appears he is just a floating head with a deep voice. In the comics he has a menacing, humanoid appearance with a flaming head similar to Ghost Rider’s. We didn’t see that here. Marvel is typically good with accurately bringing characters from the page to the screen but this is just as bad as what FOX did with Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The climax also doesn’t help. Instead of a grand final battle, Strange beats Dormammu in a most unsatisfying way. It’s amusing after the first couple of times (though the ability is too overpowered) but becomes an annoying running gag considering it’s at the expense of Dormammu actually doing something. This was a massive disappointment and could potentially ruin the film for longtime fans of the villain.

The visuals are perhaps the film’s best feature. They are unlike anything we’ve seen in previous comic book films and rival that of Inception’s loopy visuals. They made for some really unique action sequences. From the opening fight scene to the battle in the mirror dimension, it’s an experience witnessing reality being warped. The soundtrack is another highlight. Marvel films don’t typically have notable soundtracks, but Doctor Strange breaks that trend. It’s still not spectacular (there are a few generic themes in there) but it’s solid thanks to the epic choir throughout the film.

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Overall, Doctor Strange is an engaging introduction for the Sorcerer Supreme. Scott Derrickson brings excellent themes to the table. Time is limited – we’re not here forever, so we need to make the most of every opportunity to do good. This is something the Ancient One says to Stephen later in the film. There’s a lot of excellent dialogue. The visuals are unique and something to be experienced on the big screen. Unfortunately the climax is disappointing and a major drawback.

8/10

The Empire of the Corpses Review

The Empire of the Corpses saw release in Japan a year ago. Not too long after seeing a limited theatrical release in the United States, FUNimation released the Blu-ray. Empire is a truly interesting film. It a science fiction thriller with some horror elements. It finds a fine line between telling a realistic story while delving into sci-fi territory. Not only is it a must watch for anime fans; it’s a must watch for anyone who have enjoyed the classic universal monster stories.

Set mainly in an alternate 19th century England, Empire’s plotline is engaging from the start. The narration by John Watson sets the tone for what’s to come. The driving force behind the story is the search for Victor Frankenstein’s notes. This is an excellent backdrop and one could even see the film as a brilliant take on Frankenstein’s Monster. (In this film referred to as “the One.”) Even though Victor is long dead, his presence is felt because he’s the one who discovered how to reanimate a corpse. The military uses this discovery to reanimate the dead for battle. The dead are also used for chores among other laborious tasks. It’s an interesting status quo, and gives the film a Walking Dead feel.

Even though people have managed to bring back the dead, no one has managed to do what Victor did: give the dead a soul. This is the driving force behind Watson’s character arc. He’s managed to bring his friend and colleague Friday back. Watson is desperate to give him his soul; because, while the body of Friday is there, without a soul it’s an empty shell. This might sound well intended, but the ongoing theme is to destroy the notes so that mankind won’t have that kind of power. Watson however when he finally comes into possession of the notes he hesitates, which leads to the deaths of many. People cannot play God, and when they try disastrous results take place.

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Watson is portrayed as a man bent on bringing his friend’s soul back, to the point where it consumes him. It’s interesting to watch, especially when the One arrives on the scene for the first time. He questions whether Watson will become like Victor, a haunting message. The writing is fantastic from beginning to end. There are however some things that may have been resolved too fast. The consequences for Watson not destroying the notes were brushed to the side quickly. The scene with Burnaby yelling at Watson that it’s the latter’s fault was excellent, but right after that they’re back to being friends. It’s understandable that Burnaby would put aside his hatred to help Watson stop the One, but the resolution was rather quick.

Speaking of Burnaby, the cast is strong. Burnaby is a great character and without him the film would have been more dreary than it needed to be. Hadaly was good, but the writing needed to develop her better. Her first big appearance is a deus ex machina moment, and then later the plot twist is a little much to take in. If the film had shown a flashback, it would have been better. Her “father” was Thomas Edison, which is fascinating but again the story needed to show her backstory for it to be more effective. Nikolai appears early on. Watson does’t at first trust him, giving the viewer an interesting dynamic. Nikolai made for a nice contrast to Burnaby’s personality. (They were very similar to Fai and Kurogane from Tsubasa.) It was disappointing what the writing did with Nikolai toward the middle act. It was a powerful and effective scene nonetheless. If it wasn’t apparent before, this scene made it apparent: the destruction of Victor’s notes was top priority.

Frankenstein has been portrayed in various ways throughout the years. This version in Empire does the Monster justice. Here we see that he is disgruntled with human beings. All of his dialogue is excellent. From his ominous arrival to the final act, he might be the greatest character in the film. His endgame plan has a classical, tragic appeal to it. He shares the antagonist role with M. M isn’t as interesting, but the writing still makes good use of his ideology, even if the dialogue is just thrown at the viewer in the climax.

The film moves at a great pace. There’s a lot of dialogue, especially in the final act, but there’s a good number of action sequences to balance it out. The soundtrack is standard, but it does have a thematic quality to it. It works well with the 19th century setting. The greatest theme might be the piano melody played by the One. (It sounded like something straight out of a Universal 30’s film.) The ending of the film could have been better. It leaves the viewer confused and unsatisfied. In contrast, the after-credits scene is upbeat and a fun homage. (If you thought John Watson was just a borrowed name, you’re in for a treat.)

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Overall, Empire of the Corpses is one of the best anime films from the last decade. The 19th century setting gives the story’s atmosphere a sense of elegance. The biggest aspect is that it’s also a sequel to the Frankenstein story. The driving force behind everything is Victor’s notes, which made for an excellent backdrop. Watson is a likable, flawed character. He’s a human obsessed with bringing back his friend’s soul from the dead, to the point where it jeopardizes the mission. The fallout of being obsessed with this was fascinating to watch. Themes are explored, such as free will.  The One is one of the greatest versions of Frankenstein’s Monster. Every scene he was in he commanded a presence. Even though the film could have used an additional 15 minutes to flesh out some things (the explosive climax throws too much at the viewer), it is nonetheless a must-see.

9/10

GARO: The Animation Season One, Part Two Review

Season One, Part Two of Garo: The Animation arrived on Blu-ray not too long ago. The first half (the previous Blu-ray) was an interesting story set in a medieval-like time period. The concept of demonic monsters called Horrors looking to possess humans and Ultraman-like beings called the Makai Knights combating the creatures made for an exciting tale. It did suffer from a few elements, preventing it from being called “great.” Part Two fixes the primary problems, making it the stronger half. It’s not perfect but still a compelling watch from beginning to end.

Part Two picks up a little after the events of the Episode 12. The ending there had Leon attempt suicide by jumping off a cliff. Obviously, it didn’t work and he’s found by a girl named Lara. She takes him to her quiet farm where Horrors seemingly aren’t a factor. This part lasts about a quarter of the story. Leon in Part One was sometimes not that likable. Starting here in Part Two that changes as he learns to live a simple life caring for Lara and her family. This part of the story is very low-key, but nice as Lara grows on Leon as well as the viewer. It’s here where Leon begins to learn what being a protector is all about.

The first quarter is divided between Leon helping out Lara’s family and back in the Kingdom with Prince Alfonzo and German. The latter is where the action is as Alfonso and German vanquish various Horrors. Interestingly, the two plot points don’t intersect at first. For awhile there was really no main story arc and the show felt almost episodic. This isn’t a bad thing however since two of the primary negatives in Part One, the characters of Leon and German (especially him), are fixed here. There is one negative however from not having a main ongoing conflict. Some of the “villains of the week” were too well written to be confined to one episode. The conflict in Episode 14 was worthy of being a multi-parter. Perhaps worst in being underused was Doctor Fabian, a fascinating antagonist. (He even bested German, but thanks to poor plot reasons the Doctor ended up losing.) These antagonists would have been much better to have around than Mendoza

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The death of Lara was the turning point of Part Two. It was a very well done, emotional scene. The viewer could see how devastated Leon was. In just four episodes the writing successfully established how kind Lara and her family were. Starting here is when Leon truly steps into his role as Garo, protector of humanity. It was fun seeing him alongside Alfonso taking down Horrors.

It was surprising to have Mendoza be the primary antagonist so soon after being defeated back in Episode 12. He’s still not a great focus, but at least he was more interesting here than in Part One. German plays an interesting role later on. Seemingly sent to protect Mendoza, he “betrays” Leon and Alfonso. What happens next is an excellent, emotionally-charged conflict between father and son. It’s also intriguing because it’s written in such a way that makes the viewer question whether German is actually betraying Leon or not.

The climax has Mendoza gain a new form, which leads to a climatic battle against Leon. The dialogue is my personal favorite aspect of this, because the two characters go back and fourth on ideologies. In the end, Garo showcased what heroism was: willing to put his life on the line to save the world. The final moments inside the black hole were engaging, genuinely emotional, and an excellent way to finish the primary conflict. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of Anima. This monster was hyped in the last few episodes as an all-powerful creature. Yet when it appears it’s quickly dispatched.

Ema had a great role for most of Part Two. Even though she appeared frequently in Part One, she was still a mysterious character. The only thing viewers knew about her was that she was a Makai Alchemist, so it was good to see the show diving into her emotional backstory in Part Two. There’s only one negative regarding her, and it’s a big one. Leon and her have remained friends, with no hint at a romance in Part One. Yet, the writing decided there should be one here. It was unneeded and didn’t make a difference since it’s barely mentioned at all after the one scene. Octavia also has a substantial role, mainly later on. Her complete loyalty to Mendoza still seemed forced, but her character arc was still interesting to watch.

The fights are still great. The CGI when used looked excellent. Just about all of the soundtrack is lifted from Part One, but it’s hard to complain when we have such great themes. The epilogue episode is interesting, though it would have been nice to see what Leon and Alfonso were up to.

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Overall, Part Two of Garo ends the season on a high note. Leon is given excellent character development. He goes from the brooding, revenge-filled character of Part One to a heroic protector here. German was a primary negative of the previous Blu-ray, so it’s good to see the writing dial back on his flirtatious personality. Ema was very good and we also got to learn about her past. The romance between her and Leon was a head-scratcher however. Mendoza isn’t going to win any best anime antagonist awards. He’s still better than in Part One, but as stated earlier some of the one-shot antagonists would have been more interesting to have around. Despite that, Garo is a solid anime to add to your library.

8/10