February 27, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

The new Star Destroyer in The Force Awkens

The Finalizer from 'The Force Awakens' courtesy of Star

It is both better than and not as good as what George Lucas could make

I have been a huge fan of Star Wars since May 28, 1977, the day my parents first took me and my little brother to see “A New Hope” at the big Northpark General Cinema theatre in Dallas Texas. Yes, me and millions of other people.

So as a big fan of Star Wars, of course, I was waiting with great anticipation to see “The Force Awakens” on opening day Dec 18, 2015. I watched the trailers over and over again, studying each frame to see the new characters and settings. December 18th didn’t seem like it could come fast enough.

Finally the day came, and my fiancé and I saw it in one of the first IMAX showings in Tokyo. It was worth the wait, and the film lived up to the hype. It was thrilling to see the old characters, the new, and the many great sci-fi action sequences.

As the credits rolled, I felt happy and delighted. But after exiting the theatre, I got a sense that something was missing from the movie.

Why “The Force Awakens” is not as good as what George Lucas could Make

Abrams can make a great action movie. He has proved it with “Mission Impossible 3”, “Star Trek 1” and “Star Trek 2”, and “Super 8”. He works great with actors, and is really good at creating atmosphere and intrigue for action and sci-fi movies.

His handling of “The Force Awakens” was masterful. He was able to blend the original characters with the new, and keep the fast pace of editing and motion that Star Wars movies are known for. It really “felt” like a Star Wars movie, even though George Lucas was barely, it at all, involved.

But a few things are missing from “The Force Awakens” for me. These are a sense of grand visions and fairy tales, and mysteries that Lucas brought to the original six films. With the release of every single Star Wars movie that Lucas has made, there was always something new and eye-opening to bring feelings of awe, inspiration, and wonder.

The story and settings of “The Force Awakens” did not convey this sense of awe and wonder for me.

In some ways, it seems like a remake of episode IV. This by definition signifies a lack of originality. The film has a droid with secret information hunted by Imperials. The final battle takes place at a Death Star. These are all things we have seen before.

Also, where was the mystery of the force? It was mentioned and used by the characters, but it seemed like some kind of mutant power that the characters innately had, and not a mystical and majestic energy field.

I can understand that Rey is strong in the Force, but how could she possible perform the Jedi mind trick and wield a light sabre in a way to defeat the expert Kylo Ren? In all of the other Star Wars films and TV shows, there was always a mentor figure that taught others how to use the Force. Max Katana seems like she fit the role as a Force mentor, but she was only telling the characters things out of a kind of knowledge, and not showing them anything.

Additionally, there were no new and exciting planets, like we got in every one of the 6 original films. Planets like the swamp world of Dagoba, the beehive-like mountainous Genosis, and the giant sink hole riddled Utapau to name a few. Each one of Lucas films showed us totally different planets that we have never seen before.

The Force Awakens gives us two green forest like planets with Takodana and D’Qar. We have seen Tatooine in 5 of the original films. There is nothing special about another desert world in Jakku.

We get an Ice planet (probably Ilum) which is similar to Hoth. That is it! Four planets that are not new.

Additionally, the scale of the locations on the planets seems much smaller. Nima outpost on Jakku was puny. I understand that it fits the story, but it doesn’t lend to the Space Opera style of the other movies, like Mos Eisley does on Tatooine.

Granted, The cantina scene on Takodana was filled with many new characters that were very well done, even better done than the original one in Episode 4, but it is only one part of the planet, and we don’t get a sense that the planet is very big.

The “alien marketplace” designs in the “Art of The Force Awakens” seem much more interesting than what we got in this film.

Also, compare the Resistance Bunker on D’Qar to the original Rebel Base on Yavin IV in Episode 4. The Resistance base has an airfield with seemingly not enough ships on it, and a bunker operations center, that seems claustrophobic, even smaller than the headquarters in the ice mountains of Hoth. The Rebel Base in Episode 4 and a feeling of scale, of it being a large indoor hanger inside a huge temple complex, but the base on D’Qar didn’t.

I guess part of the plan with the new Trilogy is to start smaller like Episode 4, then build up to bigger locales and conflicts like the original trilogy did. Maybe this is the reason “The Force Awakens” feels too small for me.

Besides the locations and scale of the film, one of the things I always looked forward to in new Star Wars movies was totally new designs of everything, from space ships, speeders, robots, creatures, buildings etc.

The Force Awakens seems to have less new designs. Many of the visual items in the film are redesigns of classic ones. X-wings fighters, Tie Fighters, and Storm Troopers look almost the same as they did before.

In terms of new spaceships, the new designs for Han and Chewie’s freighter, as well as Leah’s troop carrier really don’t look cool and inspiring at all. Kylo Ren’s shuttle was very cool looking, but it was still very derived from Darth Vader’s shuttle from Episode 6.

Granted, there are some totally new designs in “The Force Awakens”, and these were refreshing. The new Star Destroyer does look cool. The Jakku junkyard was appealing visually, and the new design of a rounder and smaller BB-8 was delightful and cute. But these things weren’t enough to instil deep feelings of wonder and awe in me. Just medium shallow feelings.

So for these reasons above, “The Force Awakens” feels like it doesn’t fit with the other films. It doesn’t feel like an Episode VII to me, more like Episode 1 of a redesigned franchise (like Abrams did with Star Trek).

But having said all of the above, I still loved the film, and look forward to more instalments.

Why “The Force Awakens” is better than what George Lucas could make

Many criticised the prequel episodes I – III as not having the personal charm of the original Star Wars. Trilogy. I agree with this. The characters of Obi-Wan, Padme, and Anakin were fun to watch, but were never as compelling as the original trio of Han, Leia, and Luke.

Poe, Rey, and Finn are wonderfully compelling and fun new characters. Abrams did a good job here, and I am sure this is one of the reasons ”The Force Awakens” is doing so well at the box office. George couldn’t make these kinds of characters in the Prequels.

I especially think that Rey is awesome. She is wonderfully portrayed by Ridley Daisy. She is a complex and likeable character. To see her pilot the Millennium Falcon brought chills down my spine in the way that it totally represented the blending of the old and the new. She is also the first strong Force using lead female character shown in the films, and this is refreshing and inspiring.

Finn was also an excellent new character. He is a new kind, a warrior without necessarily having Force powers. John Boyega’s performance was fresh and magic. His chemistry with Rey was fun to watch. His fierce drive and lively energy did bring a new freshness to the Star Wars universe.

The character of Kylo Ren was also delightful. He is following a reverse Jedi path, trying to resist the temptations of the light side. This is new and very interesting. His sword is the coolest thing since Darth Maul’s double blade. His voice is also really cool.

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron was also well done. Right away with his first meeting of Kylo Ren, he exhibits class and humour in a Star Wars kind of cocky way that was thrilling to watch. It is also neat to see a genius pilot that is not a Force user… or is he?

I also liked the new Storm Troopers. They seemed more dangerous and skilful than the ones in the original films with their nazi like cruelty and more militaristic manner.

So, as proved in “The Force Awakens”, Abrams strengths lie with characters, action, and pacing. He excelled at creating excellent chemistry between the characters and in displaying their unique characteristics. These elements did bring a newness and freshness to the Star Wars universe that was lacking in the prequels.

So in the end, Abrams is better with characters and situations, and Lucas is better at visuals. Too bad they couldn’t have co-directed, and then we would have had the perfect Star Wars.

Filed under: Arts and Entertainment — Brad @ 3:03 am

February 16, 2011

GANTZ Live Action Movie Review Part II

GANTZ Live Action Movie Review Part II

It has taken me a little while to get back to my blog, but here is part 2.

The quality of the film was very good. It was obvious that this was a D-Cinema presentation, the current standard for digital projection.

Spoilers ahead…

The story opens with Ninomiya’s “Kei” character standing on a crowded sub way station that I was actually familiar with. It was one of the stations on the Rinkai or Bay-Coast train line which I have ridden many times when I lived in Tokyo. In fact, the station looked very similar to the Oimachi station that I used most often, but I wasn’t sure if that was it, since I didn’t recognize the train destinations listed on the electronic train info displays. Who knows, maybe they changed the train destinations to match the managa or something.

The film progressed through the train accident death scene, to the GANTZ apartment introduction, and then the first “Alien Eradication” mission for the Onion-head aliens.  After the first three scenes, it was obvious that the screenplay was taken from the manga/anime, as the story progression is the same.

One thing that was interesting for me to note was that the violence seemed less extreme than the anime version, and there was no nudity or sex scene either, although nudity was highly suggested when the girl Kishimoto first appears, slowly being “assembled” by laser beams from GANTZ while dripping wet and naked from the bath she was summoned from.

I supposed this is fitting, since the anime and manage versions have over the top violence, nudity, and sex and seem to be aimed for a hard-core adult otaku crowd, while the film is aimed for more general audiences.

After the Onion-head episode, the story progresses to the first interlude back in the “real world” where Kei gets to know Kishimoto (played by the currently popular young acctress Natsuna Watanabe) better, and we find out about Katou’s living with his little brother.

After the first interlude, we go to the Suzuki alien robot episode, a life-size action figure-like robot with a funny-looking 50’s style asian face, followed by another real-life interlude, and then the climatic great buddhas episode, where giant buddhist statues at a temple come to live, terrorize the GANTZ warriors, and bleed exploding foam when damaged by the high-tech GANTZ distruptors.

Overall, the three leading actors did a good job as the main characters, and the English dubbing was pretty good, but I would have preferred if they spoke Japanese so I could hear the native voices of the actors.

I was mostly satisfied with the film version of the GANTZ, as I enjoyed seeing a live action version with popular Japanese actors running around with fully realized power suites and futuristic weapons. It had pretty decent special effects, and it was also need to see the GANTZ ball too, with a real bald and muscular guy inside.

But think I still prefer the anime version.

The film version seemed to mimic the anime-style tension device of having characters panic to the point of barely fighting, or not fighting at all, even though they poses incredibly powerful weapons. It works with anime voice acting and illustration, but seeing live actors stutter and limp around seemed silly, and it also greatly slowed down the actions scenes.

Even the real life interlude scenes seemed to move slow with stilted dialogue. Perhaps the Japanese voice track would be better.

It was cool to see photo-realistic buddha enemies, but the temple setting seemed less impressive than the anime version, which was more stylized and fantastic looking.

The movie credits were followed by an epilogue, where the supposedly dead Katou is seen in a crowded rainy scene.

The Epilogue was followed by previews for the sequel movie due out in April.

Folowing this, we were returned to the live feed from Hollywood. Matsuyama and Ninomiya once again came to the stage and offered lively answers to Patrick Macias’s questions.

At one point, Macias joked about the possibility of GANTZ being nominated for an Academy Award as it was being shown in Hollywood. He bemused about the possibility of Matsuyma and Ninomiya winning Oscars.

For the Q & A session, Matsuyama and Ninomiya  spoke only in Japanese. The English translation provided by two bi-lingual guys standing behind them was adequate, but a few important points were missed. It must of have been challenging for these guys to interpret to a live audience as well as to 330 theaters across the US, especially when Matsuyama was speaking at length without pause for translation.

At one point, Matsuyama and Ninomiya mentioned that they hope this screening of GANTZ can encourage more in-roads to Japanese cineima beyond historical pieces like The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha.

One thing I think that Matsuyama said that was not translated was that the live-action part 2 movie will have new material different from the Manga or Anime versions. I hope the original screenplay for it is good, but I don’t have much expectation for it. I have experience watching manga-based anime episodes (Naruto!) that present brand-new stories completely separate from the manga story arcs. They are usually not nearly as interesting as the episodes based on manga stories.

After the interviews, the Fathom Event came to an end, and it was time to go home.

Over all, I enjoyed the Fathom experience of a live-event and film, and will probably try out another Fathom event soon… maybe I will check out a Met Opera showing….

Thanks for reading.

For more information, please see the following links.

Actors Information


Filed under: Arts and Entertainment — Brad @ 10:47 pm

January 26, 2011

GANTZ Live Action US Release Movie Review Part 1

Last week I had a chance to see the US premier of the GANTZ live action movie via satellite broadcast courtesy of Fathom Events.

This is part one of a two-blog post series. This post covers general information about Fathom Events, as well as describing the pre-show leading up to the main event, and the live event introduction.

This was my first Fathom Events experience and I very much enjoyed it. I liked watching a live event in HD on a large screen. The movie was fun to watch, even though it was English dubbed (not my favorite), and it was neat to see the two main actors in a live broadcast as well.

For those that are not familiar about Fathom Events, they happen at movie theaters around the US and are venues for live programming via satellite. A good example of a  typical type of Fathom Event: Live New York Metropolitan Opera performances can be seen at Fathom Events, without having to actually be there.

Interestingly enough, I was considering going to an Anime related Fathom event in 2009, and then I was going to make it my first blog. The event was the movie version of Eureka Seven (English dubbed) followed by live commentary and QA by the English voice actors. Too bad I missed it.

Now, a year and four months later, I finally got to a Fathom Event, and my plans of writing a blog post about it have finally materialized.

The GANTZ event I went to had 4 segments: A pre-show,  a live introduction from the Mann Chinese theater in Hollywood, the HD presentation of the film with English dubbing and a Q&A session following the film with the two male lead actors Kenichi Matsuyama and Kazunari Ninomiya.

Before this event, I was already familiar with the GANTZ franchise after renting the first season of the GANTZ anime DVDs from Netflix several years ago.

When I found out about the Fathom Events GANTZ live action showing, I became excited at the chance to see the movie in the US.

Segment 1 was the pre-show, which I only saw about half-of since I arrived 15min before the main event.

The pre-show was well done and featured Fathom commercials, and information about the upcoming events. I thought the quality of this pre-show was better than FirstLook, the pre-show that runs before regular films at some movie theaters. Incidentally, the parent company of Fathom Events is also the parent company for FirstLook: NCM Media Network. (NCM stands for National CineMedia).

Compared to what I am used to with FirstLook, The Fathom pre-show seemed slower paced and less “spastic” in that the transition between each segment was calmer, more focused, and there were only commercials related to Fathom Events.

The pre-show ended with a transition to a full-screen title for the GANTZ “World Premier”. This full-screen title (full-quality HD image) then faded-in to a live video feed of the actual movie theater screen at the Mann Chinese theater, and a small stage in front of that. Soon after the fade-in, Patrick Macias, Editor in Chief of Otaku USA magazine, came to the stage wearing a dark blazer, and aGANTZ t-shirt. He made a spirited introduction to the film, gave the obligatory “no photos” warnings with a cool otaku-twist, and then welcomed the actors Matsuyama and Ninomiya to the stage.

I have been familiar with Matsuyama’s work since about 2007, when I saw him on the Japanese comedy/drama TV show “Sexy Voice and Robo”. I will write a blog about his work that I am familiar with later on.

The comments from the two stars started out with Ninomiya, from the popular J-Pop group Arashi, giving some brief introduction and welcoming comments all in English. Matsuyama also gave some comments in English. Both speeches were charming and admirable considering neither of them can speak English fluently.

After the introduction, the screen faded back into the full screen GANTZ title, then the TOEI Film corporation animated logo came to the screen.

End part one.

Watch for part-two of this blog series soon.

For more information, please see the following links.

Eureka Seven Fathom Event

Gantz Information

Filed under: Arts and Entertainment — Brad @ 10:20 pm

January 23, 2011

Evangelion 2.0 US Theatrical Release Experience

I am a big Neon Genesis Evangelion fan, and I was very excited to find out that  the second re-imaged film “Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance” was released in US theaters this weekend. I happened to catch the news on the Otaku USA News page. The nearest showing to me was in Southlake TX, a suburb of Ft. Worth.

I have been lucky enough to have already seen this film. I saw it during its original theatrical release in the summer of 2009 in Yokohama Japan.

Even though I have seen the Evangelion 2.0 film already, I wanted to show my support to the US theatrical market by going this weekend. Plus I thought it would be cool to see it again on the big screen. Actually, it was a double-feature with “Evangelion 1.0: You are (Not) Alone” playing before it, which I also saw the original release for in 2007 in Japan.

I am not planning to write a review here. For that, see a link at the bottom of this post. Needless to say I greatly enjoyed seeing “Evangelion 1.0” and especially “Evangelion 2.0” in Japan and got excited at a another chance to see these movies on the big screen this weekend.

So with great anticipation, I made my way to the Harkins Southlake theater this morning.

When I first entered the theater, I choose a seat in the 5th row from the front, and then I looked up to the projection booth. I was VERY disappointed when I noticed a “portable” digital projector sitting in front of the regular projector in the projection booth. I got a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t get main-stream theater quality today, and I didn’t.

When the movie started my hunch was realized, and I could see the individual pixels. This immediately took me out of my “suspension of disbelief” as I was preoccupied by the little squares on the screen. Not only that, but the screen image didn’t fill the whole screen, and it was considerably dimmer than a regular movie theater digital projector would be. I am not sure, maybe it was just the fault of the projector they used.

So for today, Evangelion 1.0 and 2.0 were both shown from a Blu Ray player connected to a portable projector. At 1920 x 1080p, Blu Ray is great for home, but it doesn’t scale-up well to the movie theater experience, where the standard is full-screen 2048 x 1080 pixel resolution or twice that.

After the the first fight scene of Eva 1.0, I moved back to the middle of the theater, and could no longer see the individual pixels, so I could then relax and start to enjoy the films. But today’s presentation still was not as nice as seeing the regular full-screen cinema releases in Japan.

I wonder what the theaters in other parts of the country are showing for Eva 2.0?

I get the impression that Funimation is getting a license to publicly show the Blu Rays that they sell themselves, but they either can’t afford, or are not trying to get either the 35mm, or D-Cinema versions of the films they are showing in the DFW area.

In the end, I enjoyed seeing these two films again today, and it was nice seeing them on a big screen, but I hope future such releases by Funimation (or another licensee) can show these films at full-screen, D-Cinema quality.

Related links:

Filed under: Arts and Entertainment — Brad @ 11:39 pm

September 1, 2009

Artania: A Russian mystical horse circus

This past weekend, I had a chance to see the Russian circus performance Artania at South Fork Ranch outside of Dallas Texas. I didn’t know what to expect before I got there, but I was pleasantly surprised. The show is a sort of Cirque du Soleil meets traditional Russian horse riding.

The show’s imagery is based upon a legendary Russian kingdom with the same name. The costumes, lighting, and music were all very well done, and matched the mythical kingdom feel. The trampoline and circus wheel acrobatics were excellent, as were two segments of exotic dancing. There were also very entertaining clown segments, and a fancy ring tossing act.

Artania queen

The main attractions though, were those acts that involved the beautiful horses with names like Audi, Gegemon, Napoleon and Ronald.
Towards the beginning of the show, a beautiful queen-like character (shown in the picture) danced with an equally beautiful blonde horse. Other horse-centric acts involved caped men with elaborate horse-like head dresses riding on the backs of two horses each, and a polo-like fur tossing and catching routine.

But by far, the most memorable horse sequence was the grand-finale, where eight or so horses ridden by barbarian warrior types raced around the ring, then split up into groups of two with each rider performing signature tricks like leaning upside down over the side of the swiftly moving horses , doing flips while standing on them, or hoping on and off the horses very quickly.

Probably the most impressive horse trick was when a rider “crawled” around a horse’s mid section, completing a loop about the horse, all while the equine creature was rocketing around the circle.

According to the website and show program, these horse tricks originate from North Ossetia Russia. In 1947, a circus performer Alibek Kantemirov broke off on his own, and together with his sons, created a troupe of horse riders performing special equine tricks that appeared in Soviet cinema. The horse tricks performed and perfected by Alibek and his family later featured in circus acts through the world.

Fast forward to 1994 and Mairbek Kantemirov, grandson of the founder Alibek, has updated the show to become a modern circus that has performed in Europe, Canada, and now the US.

Earlier this year, the Artania troupe came to Texas, first starting in Houston, then making its way to Dallas. However, according to the Royse City Herald Banner, the promoter that was working with with the performers abandoned them after Mr. Kantemirov refused to sell the entire circus act to him. Legal and financial problems ensued, and it seems that Kantemirov Productions was taken advantage of and left high and dry with no money.

Flash forward to now, and the Artania crew has been able to get back into the ring by securing a long-playing run at South Fork Ranch.

The promotional materials for the show were designed and produced by my friend Jonathan Caustrita, creator of  Tiki Coladas from Purple Box Studios. I think he did a great job capturing the mystery and excitement for the South Fork run.

The show runs until Halloween, and I wish the troupe the best!

Filed under: Arts and Entertainment — Brad @ 4:26 pm