Thursday, July 31, 2014

Anime Review: Knights of Sidonia (Season 1) (TV)

Knights of Sidonia (Review)
Japan/2014
Format Viewed For Review: Netflix Instant
Netflix Streaming: Yes
Amazon Prime: No

"...an action-packed anime with an engaging and interesting story."

On the brink of extinction, humanity lives on a spaceship called Sidonia and attempt to survive encounters with a deadly alien species called "Gauna."

I'll try to keep the story details short for the sake of this review. Knights of Sidonia follows under-dweller Nagate Tanikaze when he's captured stealing food and brought to mainland Sidonia. Soon thereafter, captain Kobayashi promises guardianship to Tanikaze as long as he becomes a pilot for Sidonia to fight off the Gauna -- of course, Sidonia hasn't been attacked by the Gauna in over 100 years. As you'd expect, Sidonia eventually faces their first encounter and Tanikaze's journey to becoming a Knight of Sidonia begins. There's plenty of action packed into these 12 episodes, as well as some surprisingly effective romance and humor elements. The climax is epic, and the ending leaves you wanting more.

Right off the bat, Knights of Sidonia shares a handful of similarities to an anime I recently reviewed, Attack on Titan. A highly skilled and "special" protagonist, a mysterious enemy who attacks humanity for no apparent reason, 100 years since the last attack... the Gauna even have to be killed in a similar manner. Fortunately, Knights of Sidonia differentiates itself through different action sequences and a greater focus on a specific set of characters. The latter, in turn, I think makes Knights of Sidonia slightly more effective than Attack on Titan, at least during certain moments.

But, enough comparisons, Knights of Sidonia is an action-packed anime with an engaging and interesting story. The story kept me hooked from beginning to end, especially the very interesting background information. In fact, I was so interested in the background story and the characters, I wished the season was longer. Every time an episode ended, I wanted to jump right into the next. The only aspect of the story I didn't like was the cliché rivalry subplot -- fortunately, it's short-lived and actually becomes refreshing during the ending. The action is very fluid and thrilling. The pilots fly out into space in their mechs and weave and dodge through several types of Gauna -- its exciting, fast, edge-of-your-seat style action. If you want lose and emotion, there's plenty of that -- fortunately, the melodramatics are limited.

I watched the Netflix Instant stream, which features both Japanese and English dubs. I opted for the Japanese because it never disappoints. The Japanese voice acting is as genuine and as enthusiastic as ever. I'm not certain because I'm not a huge anime fan, but Knights of Sidonia seems to blend computer and traditional animation for its style, and it doesn't skimp on animation. The series looks amazing with fluid movement and a very vivid use of vibrant colors and amazing particle effects. The music is also fantastic in creating an epic mood and atmosphere. Directors Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita are great in crafting their vision with minimal filler.

Overall, Knights of Sidonia is a fantastic anime. This first season is epic and thrilling, with a balanced blend of character development, action, humor, and some romance -- all of which are very effective. Aside from a few striking similarities, Knights of Sidonia is also original and refreshing. (That may be because I'm just getting back into anime, though.) There was only that one subplot that I didn't like; otherwise, it was an amazing experience.

Score: 9/10
Parental Guide: Violence and blood. Some brief nudity. (you really never see anything "specific", but most characters in this series must be nude for photosynthesis -- I forgot to mention that in the review, but that's how they adapted to stay nourished.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

TV Review: True Detective (Season 1) (2013)

True Detective (Season 1) (Review)
United States/2013
Format Viewed For Review: Blu-ray (HBO Home Entertainment)
Netflix Streaming: No
Amazon Prime: No

"...truly fantastic television."

Louisiana state homicide detectives Rustin "Rust" Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin "Marty" Hart (Woody Harrelson) hunt a demented serial killer across 17 years.

True Detective intertwines the past and present. In the past, Rust and Marty track an elusive and sadistic serial killer -- their characters clash, often frustratingly and violently, but they get their work done. In the present, a similar case causes two new detectives to interview Rust and Marty about their previous work. The story is overall very atmospheric and dark, in fact getting darker and darker as it progressively spirals into madness. The investigation and mystery is engaging, it really kept me hooked from beginning to end. And, the ending is great, I thought it offered enough closure and closed up most loose ends -- it was even contemplative.

Although I loved the story, I loved the focus on character more. True Detective is a provocative character-driven crime drama. The characters, particularly Rust and Martin, are intricate and complex; they have realistic personalities, whether you like them or not. It's the type of well-developed character where you actually feel like you personally know said character. Furthermore, their relationship is also very well crafted. The standalone characters and their relationship make the story so much more effective; it amplifies what could've been just-another-crime-drama.

The acting is phenomenal. Matthew McConaughey, who I loved in films like Killer Joe, is superb as the pessimistic Rustin "Rust" Cohle. Woody Harrelson is also fantastic, giving McConaughey a run for his money. What I like about most of the acting is that it is very genuine and subtle, it doesn't feel overacted. The cinematography is superb; the series is beautiful despite its horrific subject, and the style is mesmerizing. The music is subtle, blending well with the show. Writer Nic Pizzolatto is superb, as is director Cary Joji Fukunaga; the dialogue really stood out, it really hits you hard.

Overall, I loved True Detective. This is truly fantastic television. The story is dark and engaging, the characters are riveting, the dialogue is provocative and contemplative, and the show is a technical feat. Also, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson deliver magnificent, must-watch performances. I love crime films like Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, and shows like Hannibal; if you like any of the above, I think you'll love True Detective.

Score: 10/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood, sex and full nudity.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TV Review: House of Saddam (2008)

House of Saddam (Review)
United States/United Kingdom/2008
Format Viewed For Review: Amazon Prime Instant Video
Netflix Streaming: No
Amazon Prime: Yes

"Yigal Naor delivers a tour de force performance..."

The ruthless rise and inevitable fall of the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein (Yigal Naor).

The miniseries goes over several significant events during President Saddam Hussein's reign. It begins in 1979 as Saddam intimidates himself into presidency and cleans house -- that is, brutally executing the suspected traitors and promoting the loyal. It briskly skips to 1988 for the Gulf War after a conflict with Kuwait. Fast forward to 1995 and we have the United Nations' weapon inspection and a cat-and-mouse game. And, finally, the story ends with Saddam's evasive maneuvering and hiding during 2003 as U.S. forces fiercely hunt him.

The main focus of House of Saddam is of course Saddam Hussein, and it mostly succeeds at crafting his character. From what I gather: Saddam Hussein was ruthless, demanding, power-hungry and even deluded. And, it does seem fairly accurate. I wish it had more background information, though. House of Saddam abruptly drops you into Saddam's rise to power with very little buildup. Also, the story seems to be somewhat hollow as it skips over some key events or barely even mentions them. We get four key dates, but there is so much more to this story to be told. This story would've feel more in-depth as a full series, at least ten episodes.

Although Saddam is the main focus, we also get a decent look at Uday and Qusay, Saddam's sons, as well as other members of the family. Again, not all that in-depth, but decent. Thanks to the focus on character and the interesting story, the miniseries works very well as a drama. There's some great dialogue, great tension and suspense, as well as a firefight or two. All in all, it's a very entertaining and honest look at Saddam, his family, and his house. It might not be 100% accurate depending on which side of the fence you stand by, but I think it's as close as a TV show meant to entertain can get.

On the technical side, House of Saddam is great. The cast is all-around magnificent, but you have to hand it to Yigal Naor. Yigal Naor delivers a tour de force performance as the vicious yet charismatic dictator. The cinematography is great, as is the music. It's television that looks and sounds like Hollywood. The writing is fantastic; like I said, although the story is somewhat hollow, the characters and dialogue are very well written and engaging. I can say the same for the direction.

Overall, House of Saddam is a great drama miniseries. The story is very interesting and engaging, the focus on character is refreshing, and the drama works -- I guess that's the best way to put it -- it works. However, the first episode is a bit abrupt and the story can feel hollow overall due to its short length and moderate details. In other words, this could've been better as a full series instead of a miniseries.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Some strong violence and blood.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Film Review: The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)

The Raid 2: Berandal (Review)
Indonesia/2014
Format Viewed For Review: Blu-ray (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Netflix Streaming: No
Amazon Prime: No

"...Infernal Affairs meets The Raid."

Surviving SWAT member Rama (Iko Uwais) is sent undercover to weed out major police corruption and take down the major crime families.

The Raid 2 follows Rama immediately after the events of the first film. Rama joins a new task force that takes him undercover for a tough operation: get in, get close, and gather evidence. Of course, Rama's exemplary fighting skills will be used to join a family and partake in the "dirty" work. The film does well in balancing its story, character and action. The superb climax is unforgettable -- a breathtaking achievement in action. The ending, albeit abrupt, leaves me hoping we see at least one more film.

The Raid 2 blends a great crime story with exhilarating and brutal fight scenes to deliver an engaging, balanced, and unbelievably entertaining film. It's kind of like Infernal Affairs meets The Raid. The refreshing focus on story does give us a few more breathers from the action, unlike the original film which is practically nonstop action. However, the focus on story and character makes the film much more effective and balanced. A handful of characters in this film will become iconic because of this focus. Also, the undercover aspects add a new layer of suspense and subtle action.

I'd even argue that despite having a few more breathers than the original, The Raid 2 has just as much action, if not more, than its predecessor. And, the action is scaled up tenfold. Rumbles in the yard, rumbles in the halls, high-speed chases, hammers and baseball bats. The action is simply superb. It's ferocious and exciting, it's action that literally gets your blood pumping. I can go on and on about the action, but that's all I really have to say: it's superb. 

Iko Uwais is not only an incredibly talented martial artist, but a great actor, too. Iko Uwais is as charismatic as he is vicious -- and he's plenty vicious. The rest of the acting is also top-notch -- no complaints. The film is shot very well; thanks to the array of locations, the cinematography gets a chance to shine, and shine it does. The camerawork is very engaging, keeping up with every blow; it can be occasionally nauseating, particularly if you have sensitive eyes, though. The camerawork during the car chase stands out as exemplary. The fight and stunt choreography is magnificent. Writer and director Gareth Evans masterfully crafts a superb blend of crime and martial arts; instead of all-out action, Evans focuses on amplifying its amazing set pieces through an engaging story and memorable characters -- and it works.

Overall, The Raid 2 is a fantastic crime martial arts action movie. The story is engaging and entertaining, the characters are unforgettable, and the direction and writing are superb. The action sequences, though, are fantastic. It's difficult to use words to explain how much I loved the action, so let me try to form a comprehensible yet cliche sentence: The Raid 2 is one of the best actions films of all-time. Don't miss it.

Score: 10/10
Parental Guide: Graphic violence and blood, some nudity and sexual references.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Film Review: The Raid: Redemption (2011)

The Raid: Redemption (Review)
Indonesia/2011
Format Viewed For Review: Blu-ray (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Netflix Streaming: No
Amazon Prime: No

"One of my favorite films of the last decade, action or otherwise."

An elite police squad plans to stealthily infiltrate an apartment block owned by a crime lord. When their plan is foiled, the police must fight to survive.

The Raid: Redemption mostly follows rookie Officer Rama (Iko Uwais) in this simple yet engaging and exciting plot. The police get spotted during their raid and must fight to either escape or complete their mission, which is to arrest the crime lord. Well, the survivors opt to finish what they started. And, this leads to a bloody barrage of fights through several floors of gangsters with martial arts skills, firearms, and machetes. Although every fight offers an unbelievable level of intensity, the climax is truly the most unforgettable. I really enjoyed the simple crime story, and the great ending -- a promising ending for the future of the series.

The Raid: Redemption is a pure action film. The story is interesting and has some minuscule background information -- information that will likely connect to the sequel(s). But, at its core, The Raid: Redemption aims to be all-out action film, and it succeeds. The action sequences are fantastic. Refreshing, exciting, exhilarating, intense, brutal... I can go on and on. And, there are so many amazing scenes. It's practically nonstop action. I loved it. It subtly plants its roots to develop into a deeper crime/martial arts series, yet it focuses on pure action.

Iko Uwais, who also stars in Merantau, is great as the lead; something about him is very human-like and genuine, despite the character being fairly simple. The dark style is great. I also really liked the cinematography. The settings are memorable; I feel like these apartments will become iconic. The music was also great in pumping up the mood. The English subtitles on the U.S. blu-ray are spot-on. Writer and director Gareth Evans masterfully crafts this epic action film; the pacing is ferocious, the action is consistent and versatile, the editing is great, and the story offers enough to hook and tease for the future.

Overall, The Raid: Redemption is an action-packed masterpiece. It's one of the greatest martial arts action films of all-time. I know it sounds overwhelming, but I genuinely loved it. One of my favorite films of the last decade, action or otherwise. If you love martial arts films, especially the fast, contemporary type of martial arts, The Raid: Redemption is for you.

Score: 10/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Film Review: Sanctum (2011)

Sanctum (Review)
Australia/2011
Format Viewed For Review: Netflix Instant
Netflix Streaming: Yes
Amazon Prime: No

"...the sense of adventure is great."

An expedition into Esa'ala Cave, led by master diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), becomes a fight for survival when a storm hits.

Sanctum is fairly straightforward and simple. The story follows Frank and company, which includes his son Josh and the expedition bankroller expedition bank-roller Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd), as they attempt to survive and escape these uncharted caves. That includes bickering between father and son, exhilarating swims, and deadly climbing. There really isn't much more to the story, otherwise. Sanctum leads to a decent ending -- the final act has a few genre clichés, but it works out for the ending.

Sanctum, despite its attempts at character and story, is a barebones survival-adventure film. The story is simple, which is both good and bad. On one hand, it's simple and easy to jump into. On other hand, the story feels hollow and uneventful. Also, there are a few problem characters. For example, Josh is excessively self-righteous and Carl's girlfriend, Victoria, is stupid; I was going to be nice and call her ignorant, but she's borderline stupid. (she does the opposite of what she's told all the time.) Fortunately, the sense of adventure is great. It's an exhilarating and exciting battle for survival. Sure, it can feel repetitive, but it's refreshing and lively. I loved this great feeling it invoked.

The acting is decent and mediocre. Richard Roxburgh was decent. Ioan Gruffudd and Alice Parkinson are mediocre. Maybe it was the writing or the delivery, or both, but the dialogue feels unnatural. I watched the 2D version on Netflix, but the film looks like it should be watched in 3D. (i.e. The 3D set pieces stick out like a sore thumb.) Otherwise, I though the film looked great. The music was also fantastic; the music is really helped in building the sense of adventure the film invoked. Director Alister Grierson builds the atmosphere and sense of adventure well; I think the hollow and often generic writing is more to blame for Sanctum's downfalls.

Overall, Sanctum is an exciting adventure film. The film has more than a handful of breathtakingly thrilling scenes. The cinematography and music are also great. However, the story is uneventful, the characters are irrational, the runtime is bloated, and the acting is merely decent. It could've been so much more with better resources and writing. As it is, it's worth watching for thrill seekers.

Score: 6/10
Parental Guide: Some violence and blood, and very brief nudity.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Film Review: La Ultima Muerte (aka The Last Death) (2012)

La Ultima Muerte (aka The Last Death) (Review)
Mexico/2012
Format Viewed For Review: Netflix Instant
Netflix Streaming: Yes
Amazon Prime: No

"...engaged from its eerie beginning to its surprising climax."

When a young, amnesia-stricken man (Kuno Becker) stumbles near his cabin, Jaime (Álvaro Guerrero), a doctor, attempts to recover his lost memory.

La Ultima Muerte mainly follows Jaime as he tries to piece together this young man's life. This young nameless man is injured and scarred, but can't remember why. He doesn't have any identification, either. As Jaime gets deeper into the mystery, he realizes he's being followed and he's not safe. The truth is much darker than expected, and the ending is satisfying -- it does feel a bit abrupt, but I did enjoy it.

La Ultima Muerte, also known as The Last Death, is much deeper than I explained. The mystery keeps you engaged from its eerie beginning to its surprising climax. There are twists and turns at every corner -- it keeps you guessing and guessing. There are a few chase scenes to help the pacing, too. And, it all takes place in a cool but subtle SciFi world. There aren't any floating cars or androids, but there is some cool technology and visuals. If you like mystery films and SciFi settings, this slick blend is for you.

Kuno Becker is great as the nameless man, but I think Álvaro Guerrero steals the show. Guerrero is very genuine and even powerful with his performance. The film is often poorly lit, so you can't see what's going on. Other than those few scenes, the film has a slick style and cinematography. The music is great; it really amplifies the thrills and suspense, and also matches the mood and setting. This is a Spanish film, and the English subtitles are great. Director David Ruiz pulls great performances from his cast, and expertly crafts an engaging and mysterious thriller -- it's a mystery that's actually mysterious!

Overall, La Ultima Muerte is a great film. The story is engaging through a great mystery and solid suspense, the performances are impressive, and the film is technically well-made. There are a few minor issues, but fans of mystery-thrillers will find a great film in La Ultima Muerte.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Some violence and blood.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Film Review: Homefront (2013)

Homefront (Review)
United States/2013
Format Viewed For Review: Netflix Instant
Netflix Streaming: Yes
Amazon Prime: No

"...just another action movie."

Former undercover cop Phil Broker (Jason Statham) moves to a small town with his daughter and soon runs into trouble...

Homefront is a simple story. After his daughter fights a bully at school, an angered mother sends her drug dealing brother Gator Bodine (James Franco) to mess with Broker. And, so he does. Eventually, that spirals into more violence as Broker's identity is revealed and used as leverage. That's about it. The film ends as you'll likely expect, although it leaves some room for future installments.

But, I don't think you'll be watching Homefront for its story, or at least not solely for the story. The action, although somewhat limited at times, is exciting and thrilling. You get your signature Jason Statham fighting, which is still thrilling and vicious. You get a few bloody shootouts. And, you get a great chase scene towards the end. There are some tense and suspenseful scenes, too, which are built more off of dialogue than action. The story may be underdeveloped and even disappointing, but the action is great.

Much like Safe and any other movie he stars in, Jason Statham plays Jason Statham -- its the same performance we've seen time and time again. I thought most of the acting was really stale, none of it really felt like the backwoods. However, I thought James Franco was really good. Otherwise, the film looks and sounds like a Hollywood action film. The editing a bit choppy at times, particularly during some of the action scenes. Director Gary Fleder doesn't seem to have a distinct vision, and he doesn't pull much from the cast -- he's barely okay as director. The screenplay by Sylvester Stallone is a little sloppy, too.

Overall, Homefront had great potential to be much more than just another action movie. But, it's just another action movie. Fortunately, the story offered enough to keep me interested and the action was satisfying enough to make me feel like I didn't waste my time. Worth a rental for action or Statham fans.

Score: 6/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood, some drug use, and a very brief sex scene. (the sex scene is less than 5 seconds long and you don't see anything.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Film Review: Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

Wolf Creek 2 (Review)
Australia/2013
Format Viewed For Review: Netflix Instant
Netflix Streaming: Yes
Amazon Prime: No

"...one of the most exciting horror films in recent memory."

Psychopathic marksman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) ravages the Australian outback...

Wolf Creek 2 is a really simple horror film. The story begins by introducing Mick Taylor with a mind-blowing sequence. Then, it introduces us to a young German couple backpacking through the outback. After some gruesome fun, we're introduced to a friendly Brit, Paul (Ryan Corr). Regardless of who the story focuses on, the story is basically Mick Taylor trying to kill them. Fortunately, it's well-paced and well-balanced with different "brands" of horror. It leads to a great ending, too.

Getting past the hollow story, Wolf Creek 2 is a gruesome throwback horror film. There's some genuine tension build through dialogue, great suspense during the many chase scenes, and some ridiculous violence. And, it all blends very well to create a consistent and balanced horror film, as previously mentioned. I especially enjoyed the thrilling chases; there's also a pinch of disturbing torture, if you're a fan of that. Mick Taylor is to thanks for the brutality and tension of the film, but we also get to thank him for the black and cheeky humor.

Although none of the characters are particularly in-depth, the acting is good all-around. Ryan Corr does well in showing fear and pain, so that's something. John Jarratt, on the other hand, steals the show with energetic and irreverent performance; a performance you hate to love, but you have to. The music is mostly run-of-the-mill thriller music, but I loved the use of its licensed music. The film also looks great; loved the scenery. The special effects are mostly superb, I loved the gore and makeup; some of looks out of place, though. Director and co-writer Greg McLean may have a weak and hollow story, but he sure knows how to build suspense and execute thrilling set pieces.

Overall, Wolf Creek 2 is a great horror film. In fact, I think it's one of the most exciting horror films in recent memory. It filled to the rim with tension, suspense, thrills, and gore, and it's covered in a throwback style reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other similar classics. Well worth purchasing for those that do not mind a hollow story and horror movie logic.

Score: 7/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and gore, some nudity.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Film Review: Haze (2005)

Haze (Review)
Japan/2005
Format Viewed For Review: Amazon Prime Instant Video
Netflix Streaming: No
Amazon Prime: Yes 

"...a film with nightmarish visuals that you can interpret for yourself."

A man (Shinya Tsukamoto) wakes up in a claustrophobic concrete maze and subsequently attempts to escape and recollect the moments prior.

Haze is a very short film, or at least the original 25 minute cut that I viewed for this review is short. So, I'll try to keep the review short. The story follows this nameless man as he moves through this bizarre maze. He experiences nightmarish visions and brutal torture. He attempts to recover his memory and find out why he's trapped. Is he a war prisoner? A victim of a sick pervert? A victim of a cult? What we get is a story and visuals that I believe are open to interpretation -- and I loved that aspect. The ending is very effective and haunting in this manner.

This is far from a traditional Japanese horror film, like Ju-on and Ringu. It's a film that builds an ominous and engaging atmosphere. It's a film with nightmarish visuals that you can interpret for yourself. It's a film with minimal story and character that has more contemplative value than most feature length films nowadays. The maze itself was a little complicated to follow, I don't really think it follows the rules of gravity. It still effectively creates a dreadful claustrophobic feeling, though.

Shinya Tsukamoto is good in showing pain and fear, and his monologues sound genuine and natural. The film is as dark in cinematography as it is in subject-matter. Sometimes it's hard to see what's going on, which is why I got momentarily lost in this maze. Some of the shaky camerawork was also occasionally nauseating. I like the industrial sounds its uses for music; I'm a big fan of Silent Hill, so I love these sounds. Director Shinya Tsukamoto, who also plays the lead, does well in crafting the horror in this film; the focus on atmosphere, visuals, and psychology is refreshing.

Overall, Haze is a great short horror film. The horror is very refreshing, especially for the region. The story and character, despite being minimalistic, are engaging and thought-provoking. It's all-around a very effective horror film. There are some technical aspects I did not like, though. Definitely worth seeking for fans with an open-mind.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood.