Friday, September 26, 2014

The Transformers The Movie Review

The Transformers the Movie
Kid Rhino/Sony Entertainment
Movie - 86 minutes - 1 disc
$21.99 (2006) 2-disc
$19.95 (2000)
ISBN 603497664429
English Audio - English Subtitles
Director - Nelson Shin
Studio - Marvel Productions/Sunbow Productions/Toei Animation

Synopsis: The year is 2005 and the Transformers have been active on Earth for 20 years.  Over this span of time many intense battles have raged between the two Transformers factions.  The heroic Autobots led by Optimus Prime strive for peace while the violent Decepticons led by Megatron seek conquest.  Humanity has found friends among the Autobots who protect the Earth from the constant attempts by Megatron to pillage the natural energy resources of the planet.  Spike Witwicky and his father Spark Plug were the first humans to befriend Optimus Prime and his group.  Now Spike has a family of his own and his son Daniel is growing up among the amazing alien robots.
Spike's son Daniel fishes with Hot Rod
The evil Decepticons now rule Cybertron and the Autobots are preparing a massive assault to bring peace once again to their home planet.  They have built the sprawling Autobot City on Earth and turned both of Cybertron's moons into staging areas for their upcoming assault.  Many Autobots have relocated from Cybertron to Earth in order to prepare including the brash Hot Rod, veteran Kup, speedster Blurr, brave Springer, lithe Arcee, and powerful Ultra Magnus.  Hot Rod and Daniel have become particularly good friends.
Megatron brutally dispatches an Autobot
Out in space a massive artificial planet roams the galaxy devouring robot worlds and harvesting their resources to fuel its never-ending travels.  The planet is called Unicron and a scourge on the universe.  What happens when Unicron sets its sights on Cybertron?
The massive, planet-devouring Unicron prepares to feast
Megatron sees the perfect opportunity when a transport is sent from one of Cybertron's moons to Autobot City on Earth.  He and a massive force of Decepticons hijack the transport and kill the Autobots inside.  The stakes become real when Megatron leads a devastating assault on the unprepared Autobots with Optimus Prime off-world.  Both new and familiar Autobots must fight for their very lives in all-out war.  Will Optimus Prime and the Dinobots arrive before it's too late?
The Decepticons lay siege to Autobot City on Earth
What happens when a leader falls and the Autobots face their darkest hour?  Unicron is the most powerful (and malevolent) sentient creature in the universe, but why is it afraid of the Autobot Matrix of Leadership?  Journey across the galaxy as these questions are answered and more new faces (sometimes five-faces at once) join the fight.  A new generation of Transformers emerges, but will they save the day or arrive just in time to perish in Cybertron's extinction?
Optimus Prime and the Dinobots race back to Earth to save the day
Pros: Story is more mature than the television series (with one instance of cursing, several early character deaths), animation is better than the television series, voice acting is very well done (final voice role for Orson Welles as Unicron), many new characters introduced, relatively cohesive story progression to save Cybertron, soundtrack is classic '80s synth-metal, some great match ups (Dinobots vs. Devastator, Soundwave's and Blaster's cassettes mix it up), some light-hearted moments (like when Kup tells Grimlock to get his noodle out of his face!)
The Dinobots battle Devastator
Cons: Animation still has a lot of errors - perspective problems (Unicron's size fluctuates in comparison to other characters), incorrect colors (especially for similarly designed characters like the Seekers), 20th anniversary edition's widescreen format is actually full screen version with top and bottom cut off (i.e. some of the actual picture), sound quality is not great, some beloved characters die far too easily (a simple blast never killed anyone in the TV show), focuses more on new characters than the fan-favorites
"One shall stand, one shall fall!"
Mike Tells It Straight: This movie is the pinnacle of mainstream US animation from the 1980s and absolutely screams retro!  The soundtrack is a non-stop orgy of progressive synth-rock played by different bands, but sounding exactly the same (well, maybe Weird Al's Dare to Be Stupid sounds different).  Being a child of the '80s I have fond memories of this movie and it made an incredibly lasting impression.  I was right at the target demographic age, but not old enough yet to question the plot or see through the paper-thin corporate agenda of Hasbro.  See, this movie and the entire The Transformers television series were one big commercial to sell toys to male children.  They succeeded very well as the hundreds of versions of Optimus Prime in existence today can attest.
Optimus Prime and Megatron have a truly epic showdown
Let's start by describing the origins of The Transformers toy line.  Japanese toy company Takara Tomy had two transforming toy lines which were licensed to Hasbro for release in the US.  Hasbro hired Marvel Comics to create the characters and story unifying the different transforming toys.  Hasbro launched their toy line in 1984, Marvel began publishing a comic book series based on the toys and the backstory they had created, and Marvel/Sunbow Productions began airing a television series which deviated from the original Marvel backstory.  It was an absolute blitz of The Transformers on mainstream American kids and they literally ate it up.  The exact same formula had worked for Hasbro/Marvel with the relaunch of the G.I. Joe franchise two years earlier.
"I'll rip out your optics!"
By 1986 a new wave of toys were being introduced to the line and two seasons had elapsed for the television series (some 70 or so episodes).  By popular demand a theatrical movie was created which would bridge the gap between the second and third seasons of the television series and introduce the new toy lineup.  Hasbro used the movie as an opportunity to get rid of the old lineup of characters (most famously the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime) and killed most of them off in the first third of the film.  I'm still reeling from the shock of Optimus Prime's death.  The sheer gravitas of it all presented in a children's cartoon was astounding for the time.  Prime was the hands-down favorite character in the franchise and seeing him pass was a bold move.  You won't see that happen again in a mainstream cartoon.  The other deaths (Ironhide, Ratchet, Prowl et al) were not as grand as Prime's death and seemed utterly callous considering Hasbro's corporate motivation.
Optimus passes the Autobot Matrix of Leadership to Ultra Magnus,
but it nearly gets dropped
The new characters had bright colors, futuristic themes, and I don't think they quite resonated with the audience who had grown accustomed to the original lineup.  They did have solid personalities and grew on me by the end of the movie.  The animation was a big step up from the television series, but still suffered from the same production flaws - incorrect coloring, constantly changing sizes of characters, and simplistic animation.  The plot was very straightforward and it felt like the movie was cut up into nicely segmented scenes for later airing on television (which it was).  It's an action movie with a pumping soundtrack that never really lets up.
Kup, Arcee, and Hot Rod must travel back to Cybertron
Where this movie excels and why I think it made such an impact is the age demographic shifted higher.  The television show was strictly for kids and characters shrugged off massive amounts of damage with no fatalities.  Each episode was highly formulaic with the Autobots eventually winning a battle against the Decepticons and a return to the status quo.  I believe the movie's creators considered the audience for a theatrical release to be older than the typical television viewer.  The story elements changed significantly.  The movie brought in a truly menacing villain (Unicron) who immediately devours a planet of sentient robots.  He's quickly established as an extinction-level threat who can obliterate the status quo.  Then Megatron slaughters a bunch of Autobots and Optimus Prime dies.  Many of the younger viewers of the television series may not have even understood what death meant before seeing the film.
Starscream crowns himself king in Megatron's absence
Now this movie blew me away as a kid when I had only watched the first two seasons of the television series (rushing home from school to catch it each afternoon).  It was a serious game-changer in my early viewing experience.  Optimus Prime died for God's sake and one of the characters even swore (Spike's infamous 'sh*t!' when Unicron eats one of Cybertron's moons).  The emotional impact of the movie coupled with the intense marketing propaganda of the show made a lasting impact on many viewers leading to an enduring franchise legacy some 20+ years later.
Megatron is reborn as Galvatron (left), the unwilling puppet of Unicron
Now let's talk about watching the film today.  The original viewers had only seen at most two seasons of the show when the movie hit.  It was a big deal.  The level of saturation of The Transformers is much higher these days after four live-action films.  Optimus Prime has almost a hundred different figure variations (even a gorilla - Optimus Primal) and several subsequent television series have followed the original Generation 1.  If you are unfamiliar with The Transformers then watching the animated movie first is ill-advised.  The emotional aspect will be entirely lost on you.  Sit through the first two seasons of the series and then watch the movie.  Understand the animation is not at the same level as today - it's hand drawn (which I actually prefer for character animation).  The nostalgia factor is high and the easily the biggest draw for this movie.  If it meant a lot to you as a kid then it will be a bittersweet reminder of those bygone days.  Enjoy it for what it is.  I prefer the Rhino version and hope it gets a quality Blu-Ray release someday.
Grimlock and his new friend, Wheelie, take on some Sharkticons
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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fairy Tail Season One Anime Review

Fairy Tail Season One
Feari Teiru
Complete Collection - 8 discs
600 mins. - 24 episodes
$54.98 (2013) Blu-Ray/DVD
$54.98 (2011) Part 1-2 Blu-Ray/DVD
ISBN 704400087677
Japanese/English Audio - English Subtitles
Director - Shinji Ishihara
Studio - A-1 Pictures/Satelight

Synopsis: Lucy Heartfilia is an inexperienced celestial wizard with one goal in mind - join the Fairy Tail guild!  She ran away from home to make it big as a wizard and Fairy Tail is the guild with the most radical reputation for strong wizards.  By coincidence she meets Natsu Dragneel and his companion Happy, a flying cat, who invite her to join Fairy Tail.  Natsu is a Dragon Slayer type wizard with mastery over fire and an equally hot-blooded temperament.  When Lucy joins Fairy Tail the true adventure begins!
Lucy joins up with Fairy Tail (from left) - Natsu, Gray, Erza, and Lucy!
The famous guild is populated by a misfit crew of wizards including:
  • Natsu Dragneel is known as the Salamander and a Dragon Slayer wizard type.  He's hot-blooded, quick to act, and incredibly powerful.  Raised by the dragon Igneel, he has the physical properties of a dragon including enhanced strength, resistance to fire, eat flames to increase his power, and project flames from his body (including breathing fire).  Natsu is susceptible to a debilitating motion sickness when on moving conveyances (like trains and wagons).  Despite his rash nature he's kindhearted and can usually back up his boasts with incredible power.
  • Gray Fullbuster is an Ice Make wizard and can create powerful objects made out of ice.  He was taught magic by the powerful wizard Ur.  He is usually very serious, but has an odd habit of stripping down to his underwear almost unconsciously (likely because of his resistance to cold temperatures).  Due to their opposite types of magic Gray has a fierce rivalry with Natsu (Ice vs. Fire).  Despite their differences both wizards are fast friends and support each other when needed.  
  • Erza Scarlet is known as Titania and uses Re-Equip magic to summon various weapons/armor to suit any battle.  She is considered the most powerful female member of Fairy Tail and has a fearsome personality which keeps her other guild mates in line.  Despite her rough exterior she truly cares for her friends, but is not above smacking them around if they get out of line.  She becomes fully naked when re-equipping.
  • Lucy Heartfilia is the newest member of Fairy Tail and recruited by Natsu.  She summons celestial deities by using various Gatekeys.  She comes from a rich family and is running away from her careless life to become an adventuring wizard.  The initial deities she uses are Cancer (who appears to be a humanoid crab hairdresser), Taurus (a lecherous minotaur), Aquarius (a mermaid), and Virgo (who dresses as a maid with broken chains around her wrists).  
  • Happy the flying blue cat is also a wizard although not human.  He is Natsu's sidekick and the pair are fast friends.  He loves eating fish and can carry one person when flying.  
  • Elfman Strauss is known as Beast Arm and uses Take Over magic, specifically Beast Soul where he assumes the powers of any magical creature he has defeated.  His control is limited to transforming his right arm.  A tough guy who is always telling others to "man up" or "this is what a real man would do". 
  • Mirajane Strauss is know as Demon Woman and Elfman's older sister.  She also uses Take Over magic, but no longer uses her powers.  She works as Fairy Tail's barmaid in their guild hall, is incredibly beautiful, and very kindhearted.  
  • Cana Alberona uses Card Magic with her magical deck of cards.  She has the unique ability to consume enormous quantities of alcohol yet somehow retain a beautiful figure.  
  • Makarov Dreyar is the old master of the Fairy Tail guild and one of the Ten Wizard Saints, the most powerful wizards in the Fiore Kingdom.  His primary ability is Giant/Titan where his diminutive size is increased to massive proportions!  He is a fatherly figure who cares greatly for the members of his guild. 
Erza pulls Natsu and Gray (with Happy and Lucy tagging along) to
take on the dark guild of Eisenwald
Fairy Tail wizards are constantly looking for work and mission postings are placed on the guild hall board. The toughest missions are called S-Class and prove to be extremely treacherous.  Many missions entail battling 'dark' wizards or guilds who operate outside the influence of the sanctioned Magic Council.  Erza shows up at the guild hall to enlist the aid of Natsu and Gray on a particularly dangerous mission.  Happy and Lucy tag along to help.  
Natsu suffers from extreme motion-sickness while riding the train
The group becomes very close-knit and perform all sorts of missions together with varying results.  The missions include battling a dark guild who plans to assassinate the Magic Council with an cursed flute called Lullaby, stealing a book from a corrupt duke, helping villagers on an island who turn into demons at night, and stopping a secret wizard cabal from resurrecting a powerful demon with ties to Gray's past.  Between missions the Fairy Tail guild members manage to get into all sorts of trouble as Natsu challenges Erza to a fight, we learn Happy's origin, and all of the guild members magically switch bodies!  
Lucy uses a Celestial Key to summon Aquarius
Rivalries between guilds are not uncommon and Fairy Tail is besieged by the Phantom Lord guild.  Each guild is populated by powerful wizards and led by one of the Ten Wizard Saints.  The battles are fierce and stakes are high as Fairy Tail comes under fire.  Lucy's past comes back to haunt her as her friends put their lives on the line to defend the guild.
Natsu's unleashes his powerful fire magic
Pros: Good animation and backgrounds, exciting action and spectacular fights, some interesting characters and origins (Elfman's was particularly tragic), story and missions become increasingly better as the show progresses, Natsu is entertaining when he fights, nice message with emphasis on friendship and camaraderie, fan-service (for gals too since Gray is always stripping)
The origin of Happy the flying cat wizard
Cons: Blu-Ray + DVD = 8 discs total - couldn't they just offer one or the other (and for less money)?, first few episodes were not great and I almost stopped watching this series, recurring joke about Gray taking off his clothing gets old fast, Lucy is not the most interesting character, fairly standard shounen anime, Happy the flying cat is kinda silly, this show is a mashup of One Piece and Naruto, first season ends in the middle of the Phantom Lord story arc
Mirajane is the beautiful barmaid at Fairy Tail's guild hall
Mike Tells It Straight: I had heard some favorable reviews of Fairy Tail and decided to give it a shot.  Based on the popular and long-running manga of the same name by Hiro Mashima (Rave Master).  It's a major shounen series (like Naruto and Bleach) with lots of characters, adventures and sweeping story arcs.  The series started off rather bland and I almost stopped watching after the first handful of episodes.  It was just too easy for Lucy to join Fairy Tail and the first set of bad guys were pathetic (the Salamander impostor and Duke Everlue).  Happy the flying cat was pretty silly and I couldn't take him seriously.  I groaned at the thought of sitting through another lame shounen series with a million episodes.
These freaks are the Ten Wizard Saints?
I stuck with it and was relieved to find later story arcs had some decent characterization and the emergence of an overall theme of friendship.  Things got better once Erza showed up and the Galuna Island/Deliora arc kept my attention.  Natsu, Gray and Erza were all interesting characters along with some of the other members of Fairy Tail.  I particularly liked Elfman's tragic origin during the Phantom Lord arc at the end of this first season (which is actually the middle of the real first season of 48 episodes).  Lucy didn't strike me as a particularly strong character and hopefully she'll show more pluck later on.
The villagers of Galuna Island are cursed with demon parts
While I found Fairy Tail to be relatively enjoyable it was a typical shounen anime - long story arcs bookended by comedy episodes and containing successive 'power-up' episodes (as perfected by Dragon Ball Z).  The show does have mild fan-service (beautiful women/girls and even Gray stripping in every episode where he appears).  Natsu literally looks like a cross between Naruto (spiky hair) and Luffy from One Piece (open shirt).  The series is not overly dark and keeps a fairly light tone throughout with only a few emotional scenes.  It's not a mature show and suitable for younger viewers (they're the target audience after all).  I recommend the series for fans of shounen genre anime, but definitely not a mature show (i.e. latter half of Fullmetal Alchemist).  I'm looking forward to the second season (mainly because this first season ended in the middle of a story arc) and will post a review soon!
Gray is always losing his clothes!

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Anime Movie Review

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Movie - 100 minutes - 1 disc
$39.98 (2009) Blu-Ray
$29.98 (2009) w/book
$19.98 (2009)
$26.98 (2005) w/Millennium Actress
$29.99 (2004)
ISBN 678149175721
Japanese Audio - English Subtitles
English Audio (Blu-Ray only)
Director - Mamoru Oshii
Studio - Production I.G/Studio Ghibli

Synopsis: The future of humankind in the year 2032 is the progression of technology and its affect on organic life.  Scientific advances have allowed complete transference of human consciousness into prosthetic, cyborg bodies.  More commonplace is the addition of cybernetic enhancements to natural bodies.  Society has leaped forward with access to boundless information over the net and crime has followed.  Special units have been developed by the governments in an attempt to control the infinitely devious forms of cyber-crime.  Can you hack a person's soul?
Your standard black market sex doll dressed up as a geisha
Public Security Section 9 investigates the most serious cyber-crimes and has access to the most advanced technology.  They were once led by Major Motoko Kusanagi, a full-body cyborg, but she went rogue after merging with a completely artificial intelligence called The Puppet Master.  The rest of the group remains intact and continues to operate.  Batou was the Major's second in command and was very close to her when she disappeared.  He's a stoic tough-guy with a soft side as seen only by his pet basset hound.  Batou continues to search for clues to the Major's activities.
Let's just say you don't want to buy a malfunctioning sex doll
Batou's is now partnered with Togusa, the most human member of Section 9 (least artificial enhancements), who is a family man and was recruited from the police force.  The two investigate a series of gruesome murders perpetrated by life-like sex dolls.  It seems the dolls have malfunctioned and killed their masters.  Now the two Section 9 detectives must unravel the mystery behind the killer dolls.  Is it possible the artificial intelligence programmed into the dolls has gained a life of its own?  Could the Major somehow be behind the evolution of the dolls?  When a faint ghost is discovered in the most recent killer doll's body all bets are off!
Batou and partner Togusa are called in to investigate the grisly murders
Pros: Great animation, exhaustively detailed CG for the time period, lush backgrounds, focuses on Batou who was a favorite of mine from the first film and the manga, more Section 9 characters show up, presents an interesting detective case in the form of the dolls' artificial sentience, a lot for action than the first film, return of the Major (sorta)
The case runs deeper as Batou and Togusa investigate the sex dolls
Cons: Original DVD versions didn't include an English dub, English subtitles include sound effects ("helicopter approaching"), CG effects don't mesh well with regular animation and are too stiff (reminded me of a 3D video game background), Batou is a less compelling main character than the Major from the first film, too many quotes in the dialogue, action for action's sake, indulgent for the director (too much basset hound)
Batou is a complete hardass until he comes home to pamper his basset hound
Mike Tells It Straight: The first Ghost in the Shell was a classic, iconic film which helped define anime for a generation.  Oshii created a cutting edge masterpiece with international appeal and cemented himself as a major director.  The movie was so good it influenced the creators of The Matrix franchise.  Although it deviated from the original manga by a great degree GitS the movie was a standalone experience with its own philosophical and haunting voice.  A sequel was welcome news for fans everywhere and especially with Oshii at the helm again.
These sex dolls bear a striking resemblance to a certain Major
Animation technology had advanced considerably by the time the sequel was in production.  Computer graphics evolved in leaps and bounds with entire backgrounds being rendered digitally.  Even figures could be rendered, but the technology still lacked an organic feel to the human eye.  Oshii went with a combination of the two processes by digitally rendering the backgrounds with seemingly hand-drawn characters.  Western animators would fully embrace the all-digital process (Toy Story, Shrek), but Japanese animators were slower to adopt all digital and make a point to keep character renderings 2D in appearance (which I personally agree).
Batou has a difficult time buying dog food at his usual store
This film is an intense mash-up of incredibly rendered digital backgrounds with traditional ('organic') characters.  The attention to detail is ridiculous and works fairly well until we get to scenes with actual movement (like cars driving down a city street) where the differences become fairly obvious.  The combination works particularly well during the scene where Batou has a shoot out in a convenience store.  The first film was on the cutting edge of animation technology and Oshii continues this trend in the sequel.  Despite the lush backgrounds I felt the CG elements awkwardly interacted with the 2D elements at times and distracted me from the story.  In a few scenes I felt like I was watching a video game with the 2D characters moving through a poorly rendered background.

The CG work in this film is incredible.  This particular parade scene is crazy!
Oshii makes a real case for animation as high level art with this film.  The story is an obvious progression of his viewpoint on society and technology's potential for change, but I felt his execution and particularly the script was a bit too much.  It's a long movie and has quite a few drawn out scenes.  The dialogue was rife with literary quotes which stifled any natural feel to the character interactions.  Try talking in quotes all day and see how long people take you seriously.
Batou and Togusa follow up a lead with an unsavory hacker
With the Major out of the way at the end of the first film, Oshii would shift focus to fan-favorite character Batou and explore deeper into the consequences of limitless advances to technology.  The stage was set for a repeat performance of the first film's success.  Even the composer returned for the sequel.  It was a no brainer, right?
Oshii has mastered the fish eye lens
Batou's personality in the movies is much different than in the manga and Standalone Complex television series where he's a bit of a clown, but Oshii makes him a stoic hardass.  He's just not as compelling or deep of an individual as the Major.  The DVD released by Dreamworks had no English dub which cut it off from a majority of fans of the first film.  Unless you're into foreign films with subtitles then the pre-2009 Innocence releases were not aimed at you.  Thank goodness someone finally added a dub to the Blu-Ray release.
Batou has commando training and he gets to use it!
Dreamworks even pissed off the hardcore anime fans who hate dubs by making the subtitles closed captioned = including sound effects.  My favorite is the very first subtitle in the movie - ("helicopter approaching").  Despite its flaws I thought GitS 2 was a beautifully rendered movie and the story was mildly compelling.  It dragged on forever with those damn quotes, but I got what Oshii was trying to say. Check out this movie if you liked the first film and want to see where Oshii's vision goes.  Definitely get the Blu-Ray version with English dub and crisper visuals.  Standalone Complex is much more interesting and I recommend watching both television series if you haven't already (they were both run on Cartoon Network several times).
Is that the Major?  Is she behind the malfunctioning sex dolls?

TO BUY and Recommendations: