Tag Archives: Fantasy

Big Fish & Begonia (2018)

Other than vague knowledge of the famous story of Journey To the West novel I know absolutely nothing about Chinese mythology, yet I don’t need to in order to be completely absorbed in Big Fish & Begonia. Embodying one of my favorite aspect of animation is it unique ability for visual storytelling. Some nuances might be lost in translation unless you’re well verse into that country’s culture, but what is never lost are the limitless possibilities of what you can experience through animation.

Look how that cute Fish is. Worth all the trouble it brings.

Big Fish & Begonia is set in in the realm of The Others, a sort of parallel dimension that controls the seasons and tides on Earth and is where the souls of humans go after they past. Our leading lady Chun, a 16-year-old girl, travels to the human world in the form of a dolphin and forms a connection with a human boy. The first thing this movie gets out of it way is it world building. Setting up the important pieces of how souls are handle in this world, and later on expanding on them to fuel it main conflict. All the important details involving the world function is fleshed out while leaving enough unanswered to give it world a mysterious allure.

One of my ongoing issues about fantasies is the quick fix magic becomes in their stories. You’ll get that quick magic fix here, but there’s an effort to express consequences for one’s action I feel don’t come across as strongly in other fantasy stories. There’s a comment made by a character how the newer generation doesn’t value life when he frequently sees them throwing it away so easily. The whole film is dedicated to characters making sacrifices for another love one in multiple situations. Doing so in a way that paints the subject with some manner of complexity. Detailing it in a way where the reasoning behind it makes sense, but the action taken is unreasonable with drastic results.

Taking a boat ride through the clouds with this thing, illogical all the way.

No other character embodies this better than Qiu. He has the most tragic arch out of any character in the film. Through Qiu, the film tackles the theme of unrequited love while adding to the already well explored theme of sacrifices, and consequences. Everything revolving around Qiu is fully realize becoming the heavier emotional core of the film. It’s nearly impossible not to sympathize with Qiu wanting to protect his childhood best friend Chun as the world crumbles around him. While the film still get its happy ending, there’s a mid-credit scene that ensures you don’t forget about the significance of these characters sacrifices.

The story is structured nearly flawlessly. Allowing plenty of room be taken under it spell through a sense of wonder when Chun briefly explores the human world, and realm of The Others. Through Chun the viewer will be able to see a harsher side of The Others realm like Chun never witness before. Doing a magnificent job getting across how hard hitting it is for Chun to see everything around her crumble for the value of another life.

Preventing itself from becoming heavy handed the film also has some nice subtlety to its storytelling. None of the characters action are over explained. Instead the film drops some subtle visual reminders in certain scenes to help viewers make the connection easier. One area I’m most happy with is handling the discussion on the worth of human life. From Chun perspective her experience make her value human life a lot more than the adults of The Other realm that simply sees the existence of Kun (a human reincarnated into a Dolphin) as anything more a harm to the balance of the worlds. This plot point nicely sits in the shades of grey having it a strength.

Ray woman here, kinda pointless.

There’s a rat woman character in the movie who goes into the human world who gets forgotten about. Providing a false villain for no reason considering she didn’t add much to the overarching story besides adding a plot hole. Another issue is how Chun affection for Kun is handle. It feels like Chun falls in love with Kun over the fact that he just saved her life, and is willing to sacrifice everything for him. This is salvaged by the fact that through montages it gets across the bond they build over time. There’s also the absent of dialogue shared between Chun, and Kun unable to build the bond to a point where it easy to accept Chun goes as far she does to rescue Kun’s life.

When looking at the sums of it parts there’s some oversights on the storytelling front. On the whole, in its effort to create vast sweeping emotion it makes it possible to be lost in the moment. By pacing itself just right it narrative shortcomings aren’t lingered on for long. Going head first with beautiful visuals, and big emotions expressed by it characters. I’m not excusing the story’s shortcomings, but when I got swept up in the moment those shortcomings were the furthest thing from my mind. Well, except maybe the 3, or 4 times it had the someone got pooped on jokes. Those jokes took me out of its majesty temporarily.

So beautiful. If only I could frame gifs!

Animated by B&T studio the animation is richly detailed with a mixture of digital animation, and some light usage of 3D. My biggest surprise is the 3D in Big Fish & Begonia blends nicely with the 2D art. It is very noticeable, but good enough that it doesn’t take you out of the moment. There’s plenty of times where the animation shine creating dreamy like imagery like a scene involving Chun getting a ferry ride through the clouds, and giving off a oceanic like effect when riding roaring through the clouds. All the while maintaining high detail with so much moving on screen. Like a scene involving a giant stuffed rat that houses a vast array of real rats that leave it to forage before sewing themselves back up inside has much details to marvel at.

In particular the finale has plenty of chaos incurring in the background of the world brought to life by stunning details, and smooth movement sparring no details on its particle effects. At night the ocean reflects the sky, it’s stars and the sublime hues present; while during the day it is almost invisible and many objects look like they are floating through air to create a dreamy mood. It’s beautiful movie to look at with its lush color palette creating one very colorful movie. Sometimes giving off the visual finesse comparable to a Miyazaki movie.

The movie is filled with great imagery like this.

The English dub is great, especially with Stephanie Sheh, and Johnny Yong Bosch in the leading roles. Johnny Yong Bosch in particular as Qiu is gut wrenching, and a emotional powerhouse. It’s easily one of his best performances as a voice actor. He steals the show with ease. Then Stephanie Sheh who is also good manages to pull a convincing performance. She’s able make you believe what her character believes in a short amount of time. One downside to the English dub are the mouth movement are mistimed with the English dialogue. So you’ll characters speak while their mouths don’t move for a bit early on. It doesn’t happen constantly, but is noticeable.

The music is composed by Kiyoshi Yoshida. It’s sweeping, and epic doing justice every scene it’s used. Offering a peaceful quality during calmer moments, and a feeling of other worldly dread when things escalate. Finally, the ending theme “Jiao Xi Ru Feng” by Xu Jiaying appropriately ends the movie with a epic ballad that’s somber, and warm.

Visually one of my favorite still from the movie, and also one of the best scenes.

In a 24 minute documentary about the making of this movie it started life as a short film through a group of very passionate individuals in 2004. Through the course of 12 years B&T Studio would hone their skills doing various commercials, and short films, but would lack funding to complete the feature film. The studio goes into a failed endeavor making a game which dug them into a bigger financial hole than before. People leave the project, and it seems hopeless. Much like the movie itself, the trails to finished the movie required plenty of sacrifices. Every product has their share of setbacks, but few of those works have their passion seep through every frame on screen. One thing that is vividly expressed in everything about the movie, even without knowing it’s production history is the passion is strongly felt from watching it.

Big Fish & Begonia is an monumental achievement for Chinese animation. It’s visually absorbing from beginning to end, with a highly imaginative world it takes advantage off, and a story that’s easy to get become lost in makes one wonderful experience. The sums of it parts are muddle, but the whole thing is nothing short of amazing. I highly recommended Big Fish & Begonia for any fans of animation, and movie fans in general.

Rating: 10/10

Cinema-Maniac: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

If you enjoy watching animation of any kind you’ll eventually come across a debate of people arguing what’s most important in animation. Typically you’ll have one person saying that writing is more important than animation, and another person saying animation is more important. A common debate I ignore simply for the fact that storytelling is a balancing act of both writing, and visuals. Undermining the importance of either by placing greater importance on one trait is something I go against. For me, it’s typically about the execution itself more so than the individual parts. There might be weaknesses in the creation of any media, but by the end of it how well it was done matters more to me. Today’s movie is undoubtedly a case of style over substance offering nothing new in its storytelling, but still provides something worth checking out, in particular its animation.

Sit down boy for I have a story as old as me.

Kubo and the Two Strings follows the title character, a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) who must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past. Fantasy anything love to use the classic trope of collecting three of mystical items during your journey to vanquish great evil. This is set up through a fictional story that Kubo tells the towns folk pretty early on in the movie. Not deviating from that path for part of it detriment. Creating the biggest issue of predictability. Unfortunately Kubo’s mother is to blame for this mcguffin sharing her story with Kubo, and in turn the movie dedicating an entire sequence to showing the audience what happens on the eventual journey Kubo takes.

The story told here doesn’t offer anything new, and still acts like it does. There’s a obvious plot twist regarding the true identity of two other characters who join Kubo on his journey. This plot twist wouldn’t be so predictable to see coming if the film actually bother having more important characters to throw you off. I would have personally just made the mystical charm protector Monkey (Charlize Theron) protector, and a amnesiac samurai Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) be different characters instead of what the movie actually did. Something else the movie does in raging success is removing any sense of adventure. Everything just feels like it all falls into place for Kubo, and due to the quick pacing there’s no sense of accomplishment garner from the journey.

Another disservice that comes with staying within the story path is alluding to more complex ideas, but keeping them simplistic. The backstory behind how Kubo parents met implies Kubo is hiding from a much greater role that his mother didn’t tell him about. However, instead delving into the details of what that could be the movie just moves on. It does this for a number of things choosing to entertain a younger audience without trusting them to handle something complex. None of this is better exemplify than the false threat that are referred to as the Sisters; who are basically supernatural like entity related to Kubo mother who goals are to kill the mother, and take Kubo. Aside from the obligatory first, and final encounter with Kubo group the Sisters are non threatening. If the Sisters were human it would be reasonable why they are always behind Kubo, and his group, but dedicating dialogue to bluntly tell the audience they don’t need to sleep, or eat brings it up the forefront of how lacking in stakes the film has overall.

Even against a giant skeleton, no there’s no feeling of stakes.

What suffers the most from the overly simplistic writing is the villain motivation being all over the place. It’s revealed early on that the villain wants Kubo eye, but for what exactly is left unanswered. Covering the lack of sensible motivation under an idealistic fight of embracing emotions, or detaching oneself from it. The last thing I would criticize is something crucial to the movie, and that is the lack of conflict between the characters. Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle get along just fine with little arguments between each other. Without much of a conflict to overcome from each other while working together there’s no sense that the group learned to cooperate together. So when the eventual reveal of Beetle, and Monkey identities happen it doesn’t feel like the group is united through organic means.

You’ll see every plot point coming before it happens, but the good thing are the characters at fleshed out. They never become engaging characters because the movie tells you their fates ahead of time. Leaving no room to fear for their life. Everything else surrounding these characters is interesting, especially their past. While I complained about the structure of the story there’s the compliment everything played out naturally, and was foreshadowed properly. No resolution in the movie feels convoluted because of it. Another good choice in the writing was to not take itself too seriously. Understanding this kind story has been done to death it does it best to be fun before it eventually has to get serious towards the climax. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything it tackles in the story. Never reaching the poignant stage it wants everything that should function in the story works like it should.

Look at that animation. So smooth!

Easily the best part of Kubo and the Two Strings is the stop motion animation done by Laika studio. Everything is nicely detailed, and moved very smoothly. My favorite moment in the movie is easily the scene where Kubo uses origami paper to tell a story to the town folk. The origami paper is able to shift into different complex shapes leading to impressive visuals. You’ll both awed by how visually creative it is, and be wondering how did Laika studio pull it off. Being in doubt inspired by Eastern culture you’ll see certain designs in buildings, and clothing that are distinctively Japanese. With the story granting Laika the opportunity to create a number of different landscapes they take full advantage of it. They don’t forget the small details either like animating Monkey fur blow in the wind in several scenes.

The best sequence that shows off Laika animation talent is a sequence that takes place in a cave. Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle basically fight against a giant walking skeleton while looking for a sword. This sequence is quite daunting to imagine animating because the skeleton is larger with bigger body pieces, and almost all of them have to be moved individually to look smoothly animated. Not to forget having to animate the actual smaller characters while the giant skeleton is moving. Once there’s dozen of smaller pieces crumbling from the ceiling does the sight of several dozen moving pieces make you realize what a nightmare it must have been to do all this with stop motion animation, and impressive feat the sequence it was accomplished. There’s also another brief sequence where Kubo uses origami papers to make dozen of paper birds fly. While smaller in scale it’s still feast for the eyes. Of course, can’t for forget about the surprisingly good lighting in the movie, and even using shadowing effects to properly get it right. Putting plenty of efforts in the animation it makes a predictable story at least visually interesting.

The origami animation in this movie is terrific. 

The voice has a good cast with the likes of Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, George Takei (in a bit role), and Ralph Fiennes being the big names of the cast. Each of them do a good job in their roles, though the number of big names is more impressive than their actual performances. Charlize Theron is the caring mother, Matthew McConaughey is the comedic relief, Rooney Mara is adversary, and Ralph Fiennes the imposing villain. From this list Theron comes out the best creating very sympathetic character. When she says something caring she feel genuine in expressing that through her line delivery.

Art Parkinson who plays the title character of Kubo I would give the biggest round of applause too. Being the youngest in the cast (14 around the time of the movie release) he handles himself well in the role like he’s been voice acting his whole life. He hits all the right notes every time regardless of the scene he’s. Finding the right balance of portraying his young character without ever making Kubo come off as pouty, annoying, or a too much of a cry baby. Parkinson best moments comes when he’s alone expressing the lost he feels in certain scenes. If he decides to, Art Parkinson can have a great career in voice acting.

Kubo, and the Two Strings is a standard movie elevated by stellar animation. You might have seen the story a dozen time, but never quite through the visual flourish provided by Laika stop motion animation. There’s not much to look into on the story front, but on a technical level there’s a lot admire.

Rating: 7/10

Anime-Breakdown: The Boy and the Beast (2015)

Out of all genres when it comes to storytelling fantasy is easily my least favorite. It’s for the sole reason almost anyone who writes a fantasy story in general lacks the creativity to depart from being a Lord of the Ring copycat, or don’t bother putting their own spin on tired formulas. Among these tired formula is the young child being transported into another world, and growing up after their journey is completed. A simple setup like this allows the writer to come up with anything fantastical they want. In this case, the writer is Mamoru Hosoda who also directed the movie, and it shows his incompetence as a lone storyteller. Quite the bold statement to make, until you realize screenwriter Satoko Okudera who shared screen writing credits on Hosoda previous films from The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), and Wolf Children (2012) is absent from screenwriting duty this time. You would think working with someone like Satoko Okudera (an experience screenwriter in TV, and films) during his career that Hosoda would learn how to craft a compelling story with fully realize themes on his own. Apparently not since The Boy, and the Beast comes off embarrassingly amateur on every front.

You’re not the best, around! Everything’s gonna keep you down!

The Boy, and the Beast tries to be a coming of story following Ren, a pre-teen with a bad attitude who runs away from home after the death of his mother. This eventually leads Ren to discover a portal to Jutengai: The Beast Kingdom where anthropomorphic creatures roam free. Inadvertently, he become entangled in a feud between two powerful warriors vying for Lord of Jutengai. Detailing more about the little snippets of story this film has to offer would be spoiling it. Simultaneously accomplishing the impossible task of meandering, and being rushed in its writing. Meandering in the way it takes longer than necessary to establish, or get across simple plot points. Taking it sweet before introducing any sort of an overarching story thirty minutes into the movie. This late start dampens the experience since the introduction sequence tells you about the world of Jutengai, and the conflict between two powerful warriors vying to be the lord of Jutengai. So minutes when characters are explaining this to Ren it makes the introductory narration pointless.

The biggest issue this introduction brings up is the fact this is one pointless usage of a fantasy world. For starter, it hardly bothers to explain much about Jutsengai being more akin to duplicating the human world in how it function. There’s so little effort to make Jutengai its own distinct entity apart from the human world that if one removed the fantasy setting hardly anything in the story would change. There’s one scene where Ren, and his temperamental master Kumatetsu go traveling to learn what true strength is from eight different gods across the land of Jutengai. I presume it’s eight since eight letter of introduction is given to Kumatetsu, and it’s establish they’re just letter of introduction. Showing the audience only half of the lords in the land. This half explored idea rein true for the entire movie; concepts are half baked, and dropped as a moment instance despite the fact they could provide the much needed substance the movie needs.

The dramatic focus of the story is Ren tackling several inner turmoils that the movie poorly handles. For starter, in the second half of the movie Ren becomes confuse if he’s human, or beast. This simple idea of uncertainty where Ren belongs has the foundation to be a compelling character arc, but instead glosses over it since Hosoda doesn’t know how to show Ren conflicted being a part of two worlds. Another issue is Ren coming to terms with his father, and learning to forgive him for leaving him at a young age. Instead of showing the steps to that character arc it’s resolve in three exchange; the reintroduction, the fight, and the resolution. That’s all! Being it very bothersome because his father absent is one of the main motivation for Ren running away in the first place.

This is about as imaginative this movie gets with it setting

Bringing me to my biggest problem of Ren writing which is he has no consequences for running away from his problems. Ren doesn’t learn from Kumatetsu to suck it up, smell the roses, and endure the worst temporary aspects of one’s life. No, Ren turns out well for himself. I’m left to presume this since the movie skips over a decade to him being an adult. During that time I’m left to presume that Ren never felt alone as the only human in Jutengai, out of place, or any kind of conflict during this time. It’s now when he’s an adult returning to the real world for the first he has any spontaneous issue living in Jutengai. If you think the movie would wisely show Ren attempting to adapt again into the human world you’re wrong. Anything regarding his education is brushed aside since he has a friend who helps him study, and presumably quickly since the passage of time isn’t properly established. Fixing up his relationship with his estranged father is done in a haphazard manner. Ren sees his father just whenever the story feels like it. Ren is a simply a tool that goes through the various motion without having much to take in, even on a surface level. On top of this, Ren even has a home to return to in the human world so even less conflict to overcome.

We then  come to the characters of Tatara, and Hyakushubo who only purpose in the movie is explaining to the audience the moral of the story, and the significance of scenes. Being very insulting to the audience intelligence since the film tells a very simplistic story. They explain the growth of Ren when in the hospital looking after Kumatetsu, explain what Ren is doing when imitating Kumatetsu movements, and sometimes other characters do the spoon feeding when Tatara, and Haykushubo are absent on screen. Like two important figures commenting both Kumatetsu, and Ren learning from each other, even though the visuals clearly got that across. There’s also the time Kaede explains to Ren that metaphor in the novel Moby Dick, which in turn is actually meant to tell the audience Kumatetsu is an extension of Ren. Something that is obvious to interpret from the simplistic writing. Instead of trusting its viewer to connect the dots it dedicated the creation of two characters to spoon feed you the events you’re seeing on screen.

The movie lost me before the Whale appeared, but it certainly helped in lowering my interest.

This wouldn’t be needed in the first place if Hosoda actually fleshed out his themes, and characters. For the first half, the story attempts to have Ren, and his master Kumatetsu learn about finding strength, and learning to cooperate with each other to achieve their individual goal. When the time skip occurs the characters haven’t changed much. Being one dimensional prevents meaningful growth, especially when the movie has it characters telling the viewer things they could pick up on easily.

The climax is simply a clusterfuck. Introducing a villain that was poorly foreshadowed leading to a battle of ideology. It’s at this point the poor world building comes into effect. So, when the villain is causing havoc in the human world there suddenly some explosions in Jutengai. The world building is virtually absent that this only in this point in the movie is it even mentioned in throwaway dialogue that chaos in the human world also means chaos in Jutengai. No, I don’t know if the same applies in reverse since this is the first time anything of the sort is brought up. The only other mentioned of this is when Kumatetsu is warned that if a human is consumed by darkness it could affect more than him. A warning so vague it could translate to anything. By the time I saw the sight of a CG whale brought to life by the fact that Ren dropped a book called Moby Dick I knew I was already in too deep, and might as well finish it. Leading to a very cheesy resolution in the climax, and a callback makes it hilarious to consider that Hosoda idea of foreshadowing is just briefly mention something once, and have it be absent for a long time.

Smooth animation!

Animation is handle by Studio Chizu, and it’s fine. The movement is smooth regardless of how many characters are on screen. Character expressions are very exaggerated same with body movement. Where the animation falls short is the visual design; it’s mundane. Studio Chizu applies as much real world function to Jutengai as possible making it barely look any different than the human world. When it comes to designs the background are very detailed, and vibrant. Unfortunately, the characters in them lack creative design. This is mostly due to the baffling decision to have all of its fantasy creatures where Japanese clothing retroactively homogenizing every beast visually. Hardly deviating from the anthropomorphic animals designs not creating anything unique of their own. The few action sequences are fluid, but not exciting to watch since there’s hardly any dynamic camera angles. The few usage of CG blends in well with 2D animation preventing things from sticking out like a sore thumb.

Voice acting is the only aspect of the movie I consider to be fine. If you ask me, I would say the Japanese audio is better simply for the fact Kumatetsu is voiced by Japanese award winning film actor Koji Yakusho. Providing a welcome change in the reluctant master role in his more relax portrayal. Typically, a voice actor would play temperamental characters by simply shouting, screaming, or yelling their lines into the mic. For example, Josh Swasey who voices Kumatetsu does exactly that for the entire film. Preventing there being any wiggle room for him to get across a softer side of Kumatetsu. Koji Yakusho on the other hand simply plays him like he would any other character. He puts himself into the mind of Kumatetsu, brings out his temperamental side without purely relying on shouting, and lay on some charm through a rough, charismatic voice. Unlike Josh Swasey portrayal of Kumatetsu, Koji Yakusho makes an unlikable character likable. As for the rest of the cast they’re fine in both languages. However, with one actor portraying Kumatetsu properly, and the other one doing it badly. The Japanese audio is the recommended choice if everything I wrote doesn’t dissuade you from watching it. Music is easily forgettable while I’m at it.

The Boy, and the Beast is terrible movie that made me feel every minute of its two hour runtime passed by. Checking multiple time when the movie would be over since it provided nothing of value, even on a surface level the animation isn’t enough to enjoy. It’s a simple story about finding one self, conquering the darkness, and growing up stretched to a at time unbearable length. If you removed 75% of the film content, you would have a stronger movie which is the saddest part of all. So clumsy in its exploration of ideas, and so little to grasp on in everything else ensures this is (currently) Mamoru Hosoda weakest movie. He needs to learn in order for his ideas to work they need to be properly fleshed out, clearly defined by how his characters face these ordeals, and most importantly don’t spoon feed the audience the meaning of your story simplistic story.

Rating: 2/10

Cinema-Maniac: The Shape of Water (2017)

The Best Picture Oscar is an award that puts movies on my radar, but don’t go into with high expectations. For me, there’s a general discontent between me, and the Oscars in what is consider great filmmaking. On occasion I can agree with them like the decision to not nominate The Dark Knight (2008) for Best Picture since it was essentially a gritty live action Saturday morning cartoon. Then, there’s everything else that baffles me on the Oscars standards; 2014 had Gravity (2013) nominated for Best Picture despite it’s glaring weak writing, 2016 Mad Max: Fury Road for Best Picture again for glaring weak writing, 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight which got over hyped despite the fact itself is a quiet film that was well made, and now The Shape of Water joins that rank in 2018. Much like the other best picture winners, and nominees mentioned I don’t think they’re bad movies. They just don’t live up to the pedigree when being associated with the category of Best Picture anything.

Michael Shannon doesn’t look evil enough here, give him some devil horns.

The Shape of Water is set during the 1960s, centering around a lonely janitor forming a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity. Out of the films in Guillermo del Toro filmography this is the most plain, and least subtle of his films. It’s themes about outsiders being demonize is clear as day, characters being good & bad is nearly impossible to miss with their dialogue, and the whole intention of this being a fairy tale set in a real world is always seen. When it comes to this film’s theme, and writing everything is easy to grasp, but without much depth to it. That’s fine, but not when the contrast is stark between two conflicting halves of a movie. In the same way it’s real world aspects conflicts with the fairy tale like narrative.

For starter, the first half is a slow, absorbing movie chronicling the average lives of an “other” to put it simply, and how they feel lonely in the world. Characterizing the mute heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins), Soviet spy scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and a tormented artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) pretty directly. They all at some point talk about being lonely, misunderstood, and not knowing the companionship of a soulmate. These topics are further accentuated by the discovery of an unknown Amphibian Man who is experimented on. Through Elisa interaction with the Amphibian Man, and the cruel experiments Hoffstetler is forced to witness all set out to understand the unknown creature. All the meanwhile being held captive in a secret laboratory with the racist head honcho Stirland (Michael Shannon) seeking to kill that which he doesn’t understand. When describing the movie like this it’s easier to see why I consider it’s storytelling to be similar to a fairy tale; simple themes, simple story, and simple characters. What holds this first half together wonderfully is how intimate everything feels from the natural dialogue between friends to the individual characters hardships longing to belong somewhere.

Where the illusion of being a fairy tale more or less falls apart is in its real world aspects, and the second half of the story. Mentions of the cold war, racial discrimination, gays not being welcome at a diner, and other details reflecting real world issues are sprinkle throughout. Figuring out what Guillermo del Toro was trying to do by incorporating these elements is uncertain. The commentary of the acceptance, and understanding of people different from us is obvious, but what about the other details surrounding that. It’s uncertain, and the film’s writing doesn’t provide these answers. In the same way it handle it themes, details that mirror the real world aren’t looked into. It’s wasn’t Guillermo del Toro intention to delve into these issues; instead all I could ponder about is maybe the film is also about old fashioned ideals that brewed hatred, and how it’ll brews disdain, and violence of those you discriminate against when choosing to keep yourself in a bubble. I’m not going to spoil this movie specific plot points, but I did see enough in what it told where coming to such a conclusion is possible to interpret.

The movie is filled with lovely sets like this. Top notch production design all around.

Of course, the second half is likely where it’ll lose viewers. Further losing the illusion of being a fairy tale with 1960s aesthetics, and in its place is gap in logic, and plot conveniences that increases as the film progresses. One such event includes a moment when the Amphibian Man run outs of it hiding place, and goes out in the open with our characters having to search for it. In all this commotion, not a single person spots the Amphibian Man, and even more convenient is the place where the Amphibian Man is found doesn’t have a single person inside it either. Another example of leaps in logic is how simplistic the plan to get the Amphibian Man free from the laboratory is, and further astonishing is that it actually works. Making you also question with such a valuable specimen why is it so lax in security for it. Questions like this only increases in the second half. Another trait lost in the second half is the relationship building between Elisa, and the Amphibian Man. The first half dedicated time to Elisa, and the Amphibian Man making a connection, and finding a way to communicate. In its second half, it rushes through this. Maybe it’s intentional by design since time in the first half moves slower compare to the events that transpire in the second half. I could definitely see it being Elisa, and the Amphibian Man romance making time feel minoot when with a soulmate. Although, as a film, it’s also a missed opportunity to naturally let it grow.

Del Toro eyes for visuals is capture through cinematographer Dan Laustsen, and production designer Paul D. Austerberry creating creating multiple atmospherically rich worlds. From the cold, and harsh interiors of the laboratories to Elisa apartment filled with green for an underwater feel. Submerging the viewers in a clammy wet mood, rain streaming down the windows, and shadows wavering on the walls elegantly set the mood. Capturing the pleasing, and old fashion style of 1960s America with a dark underbelly when Michael Shannon is on screen. Echoing a darker world amidst it’s beauty. When it comes together set to the ever changing moody score from Alexandre Desplat’s from wistful, and sorrow will immortalize certain images in your mind.

Sally Hawkins delivers a nuance performance portraying plenty about her character without saying a word. She’s understated in capturing every ounce emotion providing a sense of wonder, intrigue, and tragedy through movement. Her eyes, and the way she expressive herself is one of the film’s many technical strength. Michael Shannon receives the short end of the stick out of everyone in the cast. He’s has to play a racist, and misogynist villain, and make him unlikable. Shannon mores than hams it up in his scenes ensuring every bit of his mannerism, and expression is as slimy as possible. Only thing less subtle about Shannon performance would be him literally hanging a sign around his neck written with “Obviously evil bad guy” on it. Richard Jenkins is basically a more vocal version of Sally Hawkins, but equally just as tremendous in action. Sorta being the emotional voice that Sally Hawkins cannot have making every scene he’s in believable, and his friendship with Sally Hawkins seems more genuine for it. Octavia Spencer is humorous through her many scenes, and sympathetic when needs to be. Michael Stuhlbarg is much like Michael Shannon in getting a role that doesn’t require much from him, but plays it it well.

We shall eat your children tonight Creature of the Black Lagoon

Doug Jones plays the Amphibian Man in a costume that is impressive in detail, and allows Doug Jones to do everything he needs to bring the creature to life. Acting like a scared animal, Jones makes the Amphibian Man alluring in its behavior. Meticulously moving unlike a human, and sounding more like a beast through his screams than a man. Creating a creature with a soul that’s easy to be lose sight over the thought it’s a mere man in a costume. It’s quite a joy to see a costume so rich in detail from the wet scales, the fish like fins around its arms, and the several combination of different Amphibian creatures into a human like structure. Plus, it’s possibly the only time you’ll see an Amphibian Man in a musical number which personally was a treat to view since I do have a soft spot for some silly B-movie pictures too.

The Shape of Water doesn’t live up the pedigree of a award winning film, but if one can get over that hurdle there’s plenty to like about the movie on a technical, and writing level. Del Toro eye for visuals is just as strong as ever, and so is his love for old cinema replicating the feel, and look of a classic movie. Being a heartfelt mishmash of his love for old school creature feature like Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) with his love of classic cinema like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) portraying otherworldly bonds. It’s a film that from Guillermo del Toro that feels as every bit as passionate, and sincere as its leading characters. It’s second half is where most viewers will be tested containing the biggest lap in logic, and rushed relationship which is meant to be the centerpiece of the film. Being best described as a E.T. the Extra Terrestrial for adults it’s dreamy in its imagery, but much like Sally Hawkins character that lives above a theater roaming with fantastical images, the real world eventually creeps in, and ends the fantasy. It’s nowhere near the pedigree of other Best Picture winners like many will allude too, but it’s a movie I wouldn’t mind revisiting to be lost again in its dream.

Rating: 10/10

Anime-Breakdown: Berserk (1997) Series Review

Fantasy, for me, is the least accessible genre. Be it books, movies, anime, or anything fantasy has rarely been an interesting genre to me. Sometime breaking its own establish rules when in a corner or the fantastic ideas far outweigh the actual quality of the story. However, I’ve managed to get into fantasy stories like “The Once and Future King”, “The Hobbit”, “The Alchemist”, and “Gormenghast” which I like allot. I like a good story and great characters regardless what genre it belongs too. Berserk writing leaves a far greater impression than it’s violent, bloody content.

Good: An Absorbing, Fantastically Told Story

This is the kind anime that is deliberately slow paced, progressing leisurely to make everything in the story flow naturally. While you might not always have confidence in Berserk methods when telling a story. The anime is always confident in the direction it’s headed in. Never does Berserk wander off to tell a single side story that has no relevance. It’s singled minded in its goal, ensuring every event serves a purpose. Whether it’s either to display the change in a character with a simple expression or allow viewers to ponder about the cost of ambition, the value of living, and many other topics.

One of the best aspect about the writing is how it uses small details to full use. Character development is also done in similar fashion. Providing an initial impression of a character, then through the course of the series witnessing a gradual change to a character. For example, it’s not until episode 4 where Guts finally receives some backstory providing insight on what turned him into the stoic, tough, simple minded fighter he has become. In later episodes, how he interacts with other characters says allot about Guts progressing as a character.

From a story perspective, seeing the first episode drives home the “man having no control over his own will” theme. Seeing the end results first and solely focusing the road that led to it. It’s because of the first episode that it becomes difficult to know when the breaking point for Guts will be shown. Despite the first episode introducing some fantasy elements, for a majority of its run it characters treat stuff like magic and mystical creatures as myths. The story sparsely uses fantasy element for a more realistic feel. This one element makes the world more relatable. Whenever a mythical creature or object of the sort is shown there’s a new emphasis on mystery and horror behind it. Seeing a creature that shares a quality of a demon becomes as or more threatening than menacing general on a battlefield.

The one fatal flaw that can’t be overlooked is the ending of the anime. It’s a non-ending that will leave some questions unanswered. However, those unanswered questions are not important to the story it is telling. It completes the story it was telling while at the same time leaving it open for another season that never came. It will leave viewers with mixed feelings when face with the closing credits when it reaches the finale, but the post credit sequence that’s seemingly insignificant by itself will guide your feelings towards the anime.

Good: Simple Characters With Plenty of Depths

Berserk second biggest strength are the characters. Guts, the protagonist of the series, is simpleminded when we first meet him. Guts, like the story, is simple to grasp and comprehend. He’s a stoic, battle-hardened fighter wandering aimlessly through everyday existence. As he progresses on his journey the more complex he becomes as a character. Suddenly there’s layers of depths to Guts simple words about his only pleasure in life being swinging his sword in battles. In some ways he speaks the truth about himself, but also when spoken we know there’s more to them than he’s leading on. How he views the world, how he become to value his life, and fuels him in his fight become clear. Best of all, every change he goes through is seen.

In contrast to the seemingly invincible like appearance of Guts is the more angelic presented Griffith. By only his appearance with his long white hair, armor the shines brightly on the battlefield, and a welcoming personality in such cruel time makes Griffith character immediately appealing. He’s smart, slick, and a natural leader without a doubt of hesitation in his action.

Another stand out in the series is Casca. She’s the only prominent female character in the anime and also one of the most interesting characters. What makes her outstanding is due to the setting of the story she has to overcome more than soldiers on the battlefield. Casca has to stand against the role society believes she should have and prove gender doesn’t define greatness. There’s more to Casca than just going against the label given to her by her time, but also what defines her as a person. Her struggle to follow her own path is explored in several episodes making her more than a woman going against expectations of her time.

With three well developed characters it becomes more interesting when the web of relationship becomes more complex. Seeing the characters interact with each other becomes as engaging as seeing a battle unfold. Characters have varied personalities preventing the anime from being serious all the time. No matter the position of a character the anime will give them a motivation that does more simply make them a straightforward villain or hero. Berserk knows when there’s more shades to a character the more they can get tackle, but also knows the proper usage of characters that are simply meant to be good or evil.

Good: Production values overcome budget limitations

In the animation department Berserk is impressive. For a series entirely hand drawn the raw appearances of movement further helps Berserk. During the action the scenes the raw appearance adds to its depiction showing the ugliness and raw nature of war. Characters come in all shapes and sizes offering distinct looks. Sharp lines are given to armor emphasizing the weight and thickness. This also applies to weapons every time a sword pierces through a piece of armor of flesh it can be felt.

Another plus from the animation are the subtractive colors blending together. There are certain scenes in Berserk, where the darken effects of subtractive coloring make certain scenes visually powerful. In particular, episode 6 which mostly takes place inside of a castle where the only source of light are from torches. When Guts faces a against the rumored Zodd the Immortal his appearance is demon like and is painted in the same color as blood. In the few instances where Zodd gets blood on him the contrast between Zodd imposing figure the blood of the soldiers he killed is distinct. Giving Zodd appearance an appropriately unearthly presence.

There are visible examples throughout the series when you can tell Berserk is on a limited budget. No other method than still images are used more frequently. The still images are detailed and vividly drawn. Sometime use as an effect to get across the true power behind an attack or the emotion between two characters. There usage makes for some powerful imagery when required, but are also used in some battle sequences since the amount of soldiers on a field are generally in large numbers. The bigger the scope of a battle the more likely still images will be used. For dialogue scenes it’s usage is more frequent, though sometime the slow movement goes hand in hand with the anime pacing.

Voice acting is a bit trickier to discuss. In Japanese, the cast of voice actors is filled with great actors, but some miscast roles. One strong point the Japanese voice cast has over the English cast is, Toshiyuki Morikawa, is a perfect realization of Griffith whereas Kevin T Collins is some time off with some monotone delivery. Kevin T Collins is still great in the role of Griffith nonetheless. In comparison with the English cast is just as good being emotionally driven and having good comedic delivery in the few instances where comedy is present, but is clunky in some line delivery which in turn makes it feel more natural. An advantage the English dub has is casting is better done with each actor better fitting their roles.

If you have to choose, I will recommend the English dub for two reasons aside from the fantastic voice cast. One is the story is set during the middle ages. Hearing characters speak in English is more fitting than hearing Japanese which can be distracting. Visually you can see the characters, clothing, armor, and the environment is not reflected towards Japanese culture. Second reason is the cast members from the English dub do reprise their roles for Berserk: The Golden Age Arc theatrical films. This guarantees the voice actors you like or hate will appear in the films as well. Being a welcome reunion as oppose to the Japanese voice cast, which are entirely different from the anime series and the theatrical films. If you’re planning to see everything in the Berserk franchise go for the dub, but if you’re only planning to see the anime then pick what better suit your preferences

The soundtrack of Berserk is composed by Susumu Hirasawa and the series frequently reuses great tracks. It’s favorite of choice is “Gatsu” used in the anime most important moments and “Behelit” for any occasion it feels like. Hirasawa score is a mixture of pounding medieval instrument and passionate folk singing are powerful in a collection of well orchestrated music. Perfectly fitting the anime setting, while great, there isn’t variety as it reuses tracks frequently. Prepare to hear “Behelit” and “Gatsu” for over ten episodes. The English J-rock opening theme of the anime, “Tell Me Why” by Penpals feels out of place with the anime. While the lyrics do reflect the central conflict of Guts it doesn’t fit due to its more modern feel compared to the other pieces of music that sound like they belong with the period Berserk is set in. The closing theme “Waiting So Long” by Silver Fins is a more proper fit with the series more in line with the rest of the other tracks.

Personal Enjoyment: It became so engaging time flew by fast

Berserk is not a series I can say I enjoyed. For it’s rare moments of humor there’s a dozen dismembered bodies and dark themes that overshadow those laughs. Instead, I’ll say Berserk was engaging from beginning to end. To the point it rivaled my favorite anime (Death Note) in absorbing me into its story. It introduced me to a fantastic cast of characters and fully realized world that served as a gateway to read the manga. While the ending did leave me wanting more what I got was far more satisfactory than I expected it to be.

Possible Complaints (If you just skip the entire review to vote):
Music reused frequently
Deliberately slow pacing
Supporting cast not receiving much development
The ending, but a post credit sequence prevents it from being as bad as it could have been
Hand drawn animation looks dated compared to digital animation

Calculating Points:

Story: 3/3

Characters: 3/3

Technical (music, voice acting, animation, etc.): 3/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Berserk is supplied with plenty blood and gore, but the true strength of the anime is it writing. Providing an engrossing story and engaging characters that remain strong from beginning to end. Leaving a far greater impression from the story it told over the violent and dark content it has. What more can you ask for from an anime that’ll leave you wanting more.


Cinema-Maniac: Dragonslayer (1981)

Dragonslayer is an interesting film in Disney ridiculously large catalogue of family films. For starter, it’s a more realistic take on a typical fantasy story, contains partial nudity, some blood and gore, and no memorable characters. It says something when the best remember element of the film is a special effect that isn’t on screen for much of it duration leaving a bigger impact than anything else with longer exposure. It has some intelligent ideas and semi-subvert dark take on an overuse formula, but it’s characters and actors hold it back from greatness.

Dragonslayer is about a young wizard apprentice sent to kill a dragon which has been devouring girls from a nearby kingdom. Now the way the film is set up is also it biggest downfall. It build up is done right in sparingly showing the dragon and creating its image as this big menace that is seemingly invincible. Giving the world a true sense of danger as the dragon unprecedented timing of attack raises fear. Leading to characters to pursue any option possible from a gaining helping from a bumbling sorcerer’s apprentice to a so call…”Virgin Lottery” (brought to you by Disney) to sacrifice to the dragon. Seeing the influence the dragon has over the kingdom holds your attention and so does the dragon when he appears on screen. While also doing away with some narrative points in its genre that prevents it from being part of the norm. Maintaining it’s overall dark tone with deaths being prevalent throughout even for major characters you expect to survive. It characters bog down some of it more complicated religious and politics subjects. As mention earlier the “Virgin Lottery” (brought to you by Disney) is challenged making a statement against Authoritarian. This plot point correlates some religious ideals. It’s not the inherent quality of the belief (or tool, or skill, or invention) that determines whether it’s good or bad, it’s how it is used.

Then there are the human characters that are a mixture of cheeky comedy, satire, and seriousness minus a balance. Much like the actors that play them, they aren’t compelling as if their performances were meant for different films. Peter MacNicol is not a capable, commanding presence. He is barely more masculine than the female lead and probably a few octaves higher. MacNicol looks and acts exactly like his character should even if he is the star of the film he always fits with the cast without standing out. However, he fails to make the hero compelling with his clumsy transition between comedy and drama. Ralph Richardson performance is artificial with his limited screen time. Richardson dies in two scenes in the film coming across as an old man bad role play of a cheesy fantasy board game. Caitlin Clarke is fair playing against gender type with her character. She’s able to conceal an important trait of her character physically and verbally, but once that trait is revealed she plays naturally in a routine love interest going through the rocky, a dragon is trying to kill me motion. John Hallam plays the obligatory rival with no redeeming value. Whenever he’s on screen he has one mindset; I’m angry. Peter Eyre is both hilarious and pathetic, as a king who can think of nothing more forceful than bleat. Chloe Salaman is okay as the film progresses so does her performance improves with material that gives her character some emotional turmoil to showcase. As a whole the acting is fair, but limited by the material giving the actors a hard time when deciding to switch direction.

Matthew Robbins textures his film with muted brooding colors for the coarse-flavored peasant environment to the more brightly-colored dragon sequences. Effects-wise the film sometimes shows it age in some poor blue-screen rendering, especially in the big climactic action scene. The dragon is a mix of richly detailed animatronics and stop-motion animation, to produced a monster that shown realistically in close-ups, yet could be given motion in a wider shot with little difficulty. And though there are moments when the inevitable choppiness of stop-motion work shows on the whole it still looks menacing. Probably the best marriage of old and new might be to use digital techniques to erase the telltale signs of a stop-motion or other type of puppet, allowing the tiny model to move as fluidly as a “real” creature. A minor but vital character to the film’s design is fire, and there are several distinct colour schemes – the blazing amber-redness of the dragon’s breath, the swirling green that signals the rebirth of sorcerer Ulrich, and the bluish-amber in the pools of intense heat which pepper the dragon’s cavernous lair. As for the confrontation between human is dragon is realistic as the hero has a difficult time even holding his own against the dragon with good weapons.

Dragonslayer is darker than most of Disney live action films, but also missing are some compelling leads that made some of their classics widely remembered. It subvert from the norm of Disney with it dark themes and a more gritty take on fantasy that doesn’t pander (much) to what viewer expects. While none of the actors or characters ever share the glory as the special effect driven dragon it has other elements worth getting into.


Cinema-Maniac: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013) Review

A sequel that delivers more of the same can share several ranges of quality. Depending how it predecessor did it could be either good or bad if we get the same thing twice. In the case of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monster it all depends on your feeling of the original because when it comes to delivering more of the same this sequel stays closely to its predecessor in every imaginable way.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monster follows Percy Jackson and his friends embarking on a quest to the Sea of Monsters to find the mythical Golden Fleece while trying to stop an ancient evil from rising. Following suit of the original this sequel has good ideas, but rushes through them before they could even develop. Introducing several mythical creatures, new characters, and diving into established characters past without the proper time to explore them. Instead of getting into one thrilling adventure it all feels like a series of side trips. Any obstacles upon being presented is easily defeated by plot conveniences or the villain forgetting basic knowledge of our heroes. These flaws hold back any sense of danger in the heroes journey. The dialogue ranges from cringe worthy recycling of bad lines to entire scenes fill solely with expositions. What it does get right does not contribute in favor of the writing in any significant way. Never is there a dull moment moving from set piece to set piece in its own fast pace. With it’s brisk pace making it easy to look past it’s unexplained moments. Telling a simple story that’s easy to keep a track of and understand the characters even if they are not compelling. It’s has a consistent tone that isn’t fighting against itself on what to be. Like the original the story had potential that could be seen which unfortunately it never reaches.

Logan Lerman reprises his role as Percy Jackson and does another solid job. Lerman has charisma and charm to carry the film to the finish line, but when it comes to expressing his character emotions he’s given little to work with. Only seeing a half of Percy character and half of Lerman potential as an actor. Alexandra Daddario returns as well as Annabeth. Her performance allows her to portray a vulnerable layer to her strong character and a convincing chemistry with Lerman gets across the idea of a potential romance angle better than the film itself. Although she is not given enough scenes to showcase her strength like Lerman both in her character and acting. Brandon T. Jackson screen time is considerably reduced. He’s plays the stereotypical best friend comedic role well. It’s the only thing that script requires him to do. The rest of cast fare out in the same way. Not enough material work off from and not enough time to evolve their roles. Strictly delivering what the script requires of them. Solid acting from the cast, though nothing inherently deep. Thor Freudenthal like Chris Columbus goes more for modern music because when you think of Greek Mythology you want Fall Out Boy. This results in the music being forgettable with no sense of anything becoming epic. What it’s not light on is CGI effects which are passable. Every time CGI is used everything including the actor all look plastic. Sure some of the CG deliver some decent creative set piece and unique monsters designs, but doesn’t leave any lasting effect failing to pack any kind of punch.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is bigger, but repeats past mistakes with a pace that does not allow its story to take shape preventing it from reaching its true potential once again. Saying it’s more of the same is an understatement carrying over the same strength and weaknesses from its predecessor. Depending on your position on the first film should help you make the decision easier as it does little to innovate the franchise in any better or worse direction.