Blade of the Immortal (2017)

I’ve read, but never finished the manga this is based on years ago. Sorta faithful movie adaptation from the things I remember, although the manga series had much more space to really develop the deeper themes that the movie can only allude to or handle in a highly compressed manner. Sometimes, this approach makes some of the stuff that felt more substantial in the manga feel a bit ridiculous here.

It’s about a samurai who got infected with blood worms, creatures that keep him alive seemingly forever and heal wounds that would otherwise kill. He teams up with a young girl that wants revenge against a group of sword fighters that killed her parents. There’s more going on and in the manga (and somewhat in the movie) revenge is presented as a double edged sword whose motivation is less about justice the longer you’re doing it.

Unlike many other example with similar narrative setups (revenge on a group of deadly fighters), it explores the motivations of the enemies to some degree (more in the manga than in the movie) and makes them easier to understand. Later a government-sponsored third party that’s even more ruthless is introduced and makes you question who the real enemy is anymore.

That said, for the most part its still a good action movie with lots of swordfights and crazy, almost superhuman fighters on both sides. While the movie goes for more complex character than you would expected in this kind of movie, action still remains the major focus.

Both of the two main chars are well acted, with the young girl being especially convincing at portraying an immature and confused kid that goes for revenge but learns that things are never as simple and just seeing people as black and white doesn’t really work in the real world or at least the imagined revenge doesn’t feel as satisfying once you actually reach your goal.

Justice League (2017)

This is DC still trying to ape the success Marvel had with their cinematic universe. It’s not a terrible movie, but a recent second reviewing reminded me of the major difference between DC and Marvel movies. The DC movies can be fun spectacles the first time through, but on repeated viewing feel hollow and show much more cracks than the Marvel counterparts.

After Batman vs Superman, this is the first major crossover where they go with a larger team. You have the already established trio Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and to this the movie adds Aquaman, Cyborg and Flash (although at least a flashback shows Green Lanterns, so that might be a future possibility).

They fight against one of Darkseid’s interchangeable henchman, a creature of CGI and mediocre acting who dominates the field until Superman comes out of retirement and basically demolishes him. Plot-wise it’s about finding three mother boxes to rebuild Earth or something. Evil bad guys needs to be stomped by superhero team, that’s the gist.

Affleck is great as Batman, and all the other heroes are great as well, with one exception. I didn’t like Cavill much in Man of Steel, really enjoyed his Superman in Batman vs Superman and then this. He’s outright terrible here. Not sure what happened, but he comes off as wooden and a bit out of it. Makes sense given him being dead before, but still, not the best impression (even worse than Man of Steel).

What works is the team interaction and seeing all these heroes come together and quibble, what doesn’t is the boring villain and his barely comprehensible motivation, and Superman. Not a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, but not a great one either. As always, if you want to a see a good screen version of the Justice League, go for the animated universe. It’s brilliant and does everything this movie tries to do better and on a level that the DCU will never match.

Black Panther (2018)

Pretty good superhero movie, though despite all the fighting and classic hero vs villain conflict, it feels like the least superhero superhero movie I’ve seen recently. By making its main plot thrust informed by race issues, but unlike many other movies actually having mainly POC appear, it feels more current than most Marvel movies, even if it remains strongly in the realm of fantasy.

The first time I saw Wakanda for real, my first thought was, how do the economics of that state would even work with almost no contact to the outside world. We didn’t see any manufacturing facilities and all the stuff, right down to basics like bolts or gears, had to be manufactured locally. That’s obvious cherry-picking, I admit.

I never had that problem with say Thor’s Asgard, because that place is so obviously fantasy that I did expect it work at all in the first place. That I did expect this from Wakanda shows that its both fantasy and yet felt more real than other made-up places, because its one I wanted to buy in. An African high-tech nation that has been hidden from the world for ages and hasn’t felt the touch of colonization, damn that’s cool.

The biggest problem the movie has is how Killmonger is written. It’s never quite clear whether he wants to wage war on the rest of the world, just sow chaos in Wakanda or does all just to get revenge on those that have wronged him. It’s very human to have multiple agenda where you’re yourself not quite sure what you want, but here it feels more like the writers wanted to have their cake and it eat too. A villain with a point (Wakanda should do more) but whose entire plan is so obviously flawed from the start that even the most clueless viewers will recognize it.

Killmonger is just too murder-happy and generally over-the-top bad that you never really feel that anybody in Wakanda (or the audience) will really root for him or follow his arguments, its just traditions and fear that keeps them in line (with the exception of rhino guy). A Killmonger with more subtle and realistic goals would have felt like a far bigger threat, especially since Killmonger is basically the progressive to Black Panther’s conservative stance (though part of his hero’s journey was to move toward the progressive stance at the end) and could have easily morphed into a left martyr role (which would have left a bigger and more dangerous legacy than just dying pointlessly).

When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace (2014)

Hard to imagine that this was produced by the same studio that did Kill la Kill, Kiznaiver or the currently running Darling in the FranXX. Its art direction is anemic, generic and lacks any unique touch, and utterly pales in comparison to the usual high quality output of Studio Trigger. It’s about a literature club of four girls and one boy (who don’t do much literature) who suddenly get extremely overpowered superpowers.

The series can’t decide whether its a full-blown harem anime (the main love interest is so pathetic that it’s hard to imagine what any of the girls see in him, not that their characterization is much better) or whether its also about proxy battles where children fight against each other with superpowers to amuse fairies (yeah, small, flying human gnats). In the end, neither of the elements is well-developed and while the harem aspects dominates, is hardly well done.

Gyo: Tokyo Fish Attack (2012)

Anime adaptation of Junji Ito’s excellent horror manga Gyo that is not quite as accomplished in terms of art direction (it’s okay, but cannot compare to Ito’s style and it looks more generic, while the animation quality is so-so), but due to the unique core concept is still worthwhile to watch. While the adaptation follows the structure of the 2-volume manga in broad strokes, it does something clever by inverting the relationship observed in the manga.

There Kaori became infected and Tadashi was trying to save her and ended up following her around, while the world was slowly going mad. In the anime version, Kaori is searching for Tadashi, who later becomes infected and transforms into something hideous. The anime adds some other characters as well (none who get out alive) and has a few unique scenes (the plane landing or the subway crash) while still following the plot template from the manga.

While not looking as creepy and weird as the manga, instead offering bright colors and less refined character designs, it still cool to see zombie sharks walking on land and become machines of destruction as they reign the streets of Tokyo, while swarms of smaller fish and even other sea creatures (a squid) roam around and threaten the population.

It’s gory, it’s bloody, extremely violent and often just disgusting. For all its flaws, you don’t see something like this very often and I can only recommend it for any fan of horror (read the manga first, though, its better).

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (2017)

I have a low tolerance for the modern flood of cute anime, but MKDM caught me off-guard with real emotional depth below its fluffy and easy-going surface. A female dragon from a secondary fantasy world ends up in our reality, gets saved by female programmer and starts to work for her as a maid (in more or less human form).

As usual with these kind of setups, more and more dragons or similar creatures turn up, though this is less action and more slice-of-life show with a very subdued romance woven into the mix. Another addition from early on is a small dragon girl (small by dragon standards), who takes on the role of substitute child for the two.

Its undeniably a cute show, with beautiful artwork that reminds me of watercolor paintings and character design that just scream cute and cuddly and lots of funny situations and misunderstandings born out of the general setup.

And yet its also a slow burning romance that packs some real emotional punch as the characters and their relationship feels so engaging and well-done (if not overly realistic, but then, dragons). Its easy to get engrossed in the show and feel tense about whether Kobayashi will admit to herself that she’s fallen for Tohru, just as Tohru has been into her from the beginning.

Judge Dredd (2012-2015)

This is the 2012 Judge Dredd series from IDW written by Duane Swierczynski and with art by mainly Nelson Daniel that run for 30 issues and was collected in 7 TPBs. I got the whole run from one of the recent Humble Bundle bundles, and while it was overall an okay read, I have to say it hasn’t left any deeper impact.

I’ve never read much of Judge Dredd, just the odd comic here and there, and seen the impact it had on creators and other titles over the years, and what I got from that is that Mega-City One just like Dredd himself is one of the major characters. It’s a place that has depth and history and geography and should feel real. But in Swierczynski’s run MC1 and most of the people inside it feel like interchangeable set pieces, easy to destroy and rip apart, a stage for lots of cool action, but with almost not hint of being anything more than just special effects or staffage.

Basically, reading the series, none of the events felt like naturally occurring things in a real place, the fiction machine churning below the pages was all too visible and distracting me from immersing myself in the story. On the surface there was lots of stuff happening and lots of action, but it all felt just so arbitrary with stuff coming out of the blue, plots abandoned and few things making much sense.

More like a walk through Alice’s Wonderland than a hard-edged, darkly satiric future I was expecting and hoping for. Maybe something deeply British like Dredd only feels right when written by actual British.

I do have to mention the art by Nelson Daniel again, which was of consistently high quality and always great to look at, without it this might have felt more like a chore.

Ugly Americans (2010-2012)

Two season animated series that has probably one of the oddest setups I’ve seen in a long time: in a present where supernatural or plain weird beings (sorcerers, devils, robots, humanoid Koalas and far stranger creatures) are part of daily life, a human civil servant for the department of integration in New York has to deal with trying to integrate immigrants (most of them said weird beings) into society while also dealing with personal issues (zombie roommate, devil boss who shags him for fun).

Style-wise it looks a bit like old EC comics, but its not really horror, though there’s lots of gore and blood going around. Its just never horrifying, only darkly amusing in all sort of ways. The first season is really the best, with Mark Lily (said civil servant), trying to be politically correct even when his approach could cost him life and soul, while also get some insight into the other characters around him, with each episode trying to teach a lesson of less than useful morals.

The second season shifts gear into flanderization of most of the main cast to the point that there is a massive difference in tone between the two seasons, despite the fact that they looks so similar and produced close to each other. Each of the characters became less complex and more and more completely defined by single character traits, like Mark Lily going from insufferable but well-meaning goody two shoes who felt like a normal person to utterly obnoxious single-minded political correct twat with nothing else going on.

The second season was still fun to watch due to the overall bizarre setup and the weird plots and crazy ideas, but really felt like a big drop in quality overall.

Cars 3 (2017)

The third and likely final Cars movie is a return to form after the misstep that was the second part. The focus is back on Lightning McQueen, now aged and under threat from a new generation of racing cars who are faster and just better than him. What looks like a setup for a return-of-the-champion plot, a typical sequel in sport movie series, where a former champion got lazy, has to rediscover how to train hard and climb to the top again, is actually a more nuanced look at how our definition of success changes with age.

The first Cars movie remains my favorite Pixar movie, but this sequel is a serious contender for the top stop as well by packing a similar emotional punch in a way I didn’t think was possible. The first one seemed like such a finished story, that the first sequel had to completely change character and plot focus to get going (with overall terrible results), but Cars 3 proves that there are always other great stories to tell if you dig deep enough.

And its really nice to see a Hollywood movie where the main characters success is not defined by learning how to be the best, but realizing what it means to be part of a legacy, to teach others, to actual enjoy growing old and realizing its normal to make place for others. There’s always a younger, faster generation coming up behind, but that’s not terrible, it’s an opportunity.

Wind River (2017)

Murder mystery set in a Native American reservation that shows the investigation into the murder of one of the girls from the reservation and the impact that has on the people close to her. It’s pretty well acted, but that at the same time makes watching it a harrowing experience. The cast really conveys the pain the murder has caused and just how terrible a thing it is. It’s not easy to watch, like say movies where murder and mayhem is more action-focused than on the reality of what it really means.

At the same time, while its a great movie that really digs into its characters and tries to do all of them justice, even the murder victim to some degree, its hard not to notice that none of the two main actors are Native American. Doesn’t make it a bad movie, but you have to wonder whether they couldn’t at least have given one or even both roles to the people the movie is supposed to be about.