The Final Master (2015)

Wing Chun practitioner who wants to open a school for his martial arts in Tianjin, but due to how the martial arts scene in the city is set up, has to go through a completely convoluted plan to do it, which in the end horribly backfires.

The two main leads, the Master and a Tainjin-women who initially plays his wife (and later their relationship gets more complicated), as well as some of the side-characters like the Tianjin master who helps him behind the scenes, are all extremely well acted and more serious/grounded than you’d expect from this kind of movie.

The fight scenes are great as well, with lots of variety and the fights always support the plot, not get into the way of it. There’s also an awesome fight sequence at the climax where the master goes against all of the city masters with different kinds of weapons (he only has short daggers whereupon they have long swords and all kind of other long weaponry). Despite the excellent fights, it still feels like a movie where the acting is just as or even more important than the fights.

I also liked how at the end the plot fired a few unexpected twists, not just once, but twice. The movie definitely doesn’t end in a place you expect it to go, but its a satisfying, if not a complete happy ending.

Captain Underpants (2017)

As much as I like animation, I do shy away from stuff that looks like its aimed at little kids, so I probably would have never tried to watch this in the first place. Then I was bored on a flight, all the other choices were either terrible or I’d already seen them, so I tried this one.

Colour me surprised, but it was actually fun. Two friends try to survive school by playing pranks on their super strict and completely unfunny school principal, and in a moment of utter despair hypnotize him to play one of their made-up comic superheroes. From then on they have fun with him whenever they can, until a real threat turns up and they actually need a superhero to save the day.

While everything is aimed at young kids, its quite watchable even for a grown-ups (well, those who do like animation). The art-style felt unique, for a CGI animated Hollywood movie, and helps put you into the right mindset to enjoy the movie. Everything looks like a world of toys come to life (or how little kids imagine the world looks like).

The humor is kids-friendly, but not embarrassing and overall its just plain fun. Don’t expect something deep though, this is fluff all the way down (enjoyable as it is).

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

All the recent remakes and sequels of classical movies have me kind of turned off of seeing any of them, so when the Blade Runner sequel was on, I didn’t saw it in the cinema because how could it live up to the original, when none of the other remakes/sequels have come even close. Then I saw it on a flight and man should I’ve seen this on the big screen.

It doesn’t cover new conceptual ground, but its style is just perfect. It takes a lot of ideas from the original, some of the stuff that was more hinted than anything, and spins an excellent sequel. Like the original it’s all moody and dark, with rain and snow and other weather effects hammering the less than subtle message in that this isn’t a happy future. And with even less people around than in the original and more signs of decay everywhere, its seems to hint that despite trying to stay on top, humanity is going extinct.

Instead of a human hunting replicants, this time its a replicant hunting other replicants, and the question the original asked, who of those is the more human one, is just as obvious as in the original. Being human is less about intrinsic qualities and more about heredity and control and control by creation, and when those lines get even more muddled things get unstable. There’s a twist that doesn’t come entirely unexpected, but still is nicely executed. Even how they integrated Harrison Ford into the movie felt natural, though I admit he had almost too much presence the moment he turns up.

Was it a movie that needed to be done? Nope, certainly not. But on the other hand, it was the best kind of sequel they could make, one that doesn’t need to hide itself behind the original and fits quite well with what came before.

Lu Over the Wall (2017)

Coming-of-age story (or at least transforming a moody teenager to a somewhat more grown-and-open teenager) that uses the friendship with a mythical creature (mermaid Lu) as a booster to kickstart his personal growth. While I didn’t enjoy director Masaaki Yuasa’s recent Devilman Crybaby, Lu Over the Wall is almost perfect in comparison.

There are some minor nitpicks. I didn’t liked that Lu and all the other merfolk had an almost childlike naivety, something which makes it easy to drive the story (merfolk discover how the human world works), but which just seems such a cheap trope. I’ve always preferred the more complex and ambiguous mythological creatures shown in Ghibli movies. Also, the ending the way it was done wasn’t really necessary.

But other than this, it’s a neat, life-affirming movie that works hard to earn its message (be good unto others), but at the same time has so much fun staging events and showing Lu dancing (its what draws her out in the first place, the music) that you can’t really be mad about any of its flaws. It has likeable side-characters, a unique but cool art direction and the thing with the animals was just pure brilliance. Overall, very enjoyable.

Re:Creators (2017)

Re:CREATORS had an almost perfect first episode that set up the pretty clever main idea (fictional creations turn up in the real world and get to meet their makers) and the main conflict (one creation wants to destroy the world for some reason). Sadly with the introduction of Meteora at the end of the 1st episode it turned into one of the worst cases of talking heads syndrome I’ve seen since probably the 2nd season of GitS SAC.

Simplistic concepts gets explained in-depth to the point of boring the audience to death, while almost every char stops like he’s frozen in his track to ruminate about things better left unsaid and implied. Kinda sad, since when things are in motion the show is great. Both the animation and the staging of the action sequences look awesome.

But its also almost entirely superfluous, with none of the action actually helping to bring the conflict to resolution, instead its all about wasting the viewers time and setting up the finale between the overpowered villain and a – admittedly – clever deus ex machina.

As a show Re:CREATORS frustrated and wowed me in equal parts and while I definitely had a few moments where I wanted to give up on it, I’m still happy I pushed through to the end. I consider the show one of the best flawed experiences of recent times, one that I will remember much longer than more well-rounded shows in terms of storytelling. Its just so strange how good it is in some ways, and so bad in other.

Character-wise it really hones in on the creators and their creation, what makes them tick and whether its all worthwhile to create a story when all it does is put the fictional characters through pain for mere entertainment. And then goes on to show that storytelling is both that, and so much more. It really digs into the idea at the core of show and explores it, albeit in a way that utterly trashes how the story flows in other segments.

But its unwillingness to let go of exploring these things, even at the cost of making other parts and the overall structure work less well, is Re:CREATORS saving grace. It’s not perfect, but being great doesn’t mean to be flawless, but to do one thing really well.

Overlord (2015)

Overlord is another one of those anime shows where someone gets transported into a secondary fantasy world that is based on an MMORPG, though the big twist here is that the main char ends up as an evil lich as his favorite game is closed. Stuck in character he ends up responsible for a castle full of monster NPCs, and with the castle transported from the trappings of his MMORPG world Yggdrasil to an unknown generic fantasy world.

As its only the first season and an adaptation of a still running light novel series (based on an as well unfinished web novel series), the plot is moving at a more glacial pace, though with enough things going on to make it somewhat entertaining.

One of the problems and quite typical for the genre is that the main char and his monsters are OP as fuck, which makes most of the action a little bit boring, as there’s rarely the chance of a loss. More amusing is seeing a normal human stuck in the role of an evil lich. It’s also quite clear that he’s not fully in control, as the there some meta-context-control going on that stops him from acting out of character, while at the same time modulating he’s emotional responses to massacres and bloodshed.

While somewhat compelling to watch, I’m not sure about how much I want to follow the series long-term. Seeing something from an evil perspective is different right now, but the casual and uncritical way in which the anime celebrates a clearly monstrous evil character who nonchalantly kills and murders everybody standing in his way and is presented as somewhat cool or even justified is just plain disturbing and probably will gall me more and more.

Especially when you then take a closer look at the fandom and realize that most of the fans don’t get this. And from what I read about and from the author of Overlord, neither does he, which makes it just worse.

Stories are important, not just in themselves but also their context: who tells them, who follows them and how they see interpret them. Overlord might be fluff entertainment, but its main characters actions and how the fan base unquestionably accept and even defend them make it quite clear that lots of people have problems with their moral compass.

Little Witch Academia (2017)

After enjoying the insane and hyper-active Kill la Kill and now LWA, I have to say Trigger is probably my favorite modern anime studio. LWA, based on two previous short films sporting the same characters, is basically Harry Potter anime style (Harry Potter done right btw.). Instead of mages its about witches, and girls going to a witch school.

Trigger does a balance act with the main heroine, who follows the believe-in-yourself template, including being all about believe and not much hard work, and very close to be obnoxious as hell, and yet she isn’t. She has a lot of flaws and the show isn’t trying to make the audience believe she’s perfect, like some of the shows that try to sell annoying main heroes as the best thing since sliced bread.

Instead it focuses on her adventures at school, a mix of comedy, action and some tiny steps toward becoming a better person, all the while unraveling the bigger plot woven throughout the series about a waning age of magic (and with it witches) and the attempt to revive said magic. What also makes this work is the number of well-rounded secondary characters, including a school rival who is everything our main heroine is not: famous, successful, quite good at magic and while initially cold actually not a bad person at all.

Occasionally the anime dips its head too much into the whole believe-in-yourself trope, but overall its an enjoyable series, with great characters, a neat ending and some truly eye-popping animation.

The King’s Avatar (2017)

I’m not really into MMORPGs and the whole genre of anime around them, whether its about getting transported into them or playing them in real life, didn’t sound all that enticing. Also since this looked like a cheap China-made attempt at anime with animation ranging from ok to quite poor in places, I wasn’t expecting much.

And yet, I did enjoy it. The story is basically about a high-ranking professional MMORPG player (Ye Xiu) who is retired by his management, gets a job at a close-by internet cafe (or whatever those things are called in China) and starts playing Glory again, from the beginning. Due to his skills he soon rises the ranks and people, both friends and foes, turn up to see what is happening in the newly opened server where he is active and does seemingly impossible things for a new player.

There are no big life lessons or complicated plot twists coming up, its a conventional story just well told with a main character, who unlike a lots of “heroes” in anime these days, isn’t a wimpy loser or even a teenager, but an almost grown adult (early 20ies). This isn’t a character study, but still focuses mainly on Ye, about him getting back into the game, having fun and realizing that sometimes starting from the bottom again allows you to make different choices.

Devilman Crybaby (2018)

One of the big hype-releases this season, the netflix anime adaptation of Go Nagai’s violent Devilman manga is certainly interesting to watch. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I’m not really into seeing characters brutally murdered at the best of times, and the anime managed to at least gives his characters enough humanity to make it a harrowing experience, even in most cases where it was just some no-name people becoming collateral damage. It’s not supposed to be fun, like some gore-fest horror, but damn does it feel brutal at times.

That said, the main plot is just bonkers (not in a good way) and amounts to a massive temper-tantrum by a certain fallen angel who learns the error of his ways far too late. The characters are ridiculous and sketchily drawn (in terms of characterization), including Devilman, Satan and most of the other major and minor ones. This isn’t a character study and the anime doesn’t have enough time to really develop them. And once the plot really starts to get going, its all about momentum and piling stupid plot points upon another until the apocalypse happens. Literally.

I’ve never seen or read anything by Nagai before, and I’m certainly not impressed by this version of Devilman. I get where he was coming from, when he developed the original story, but that still doesn’t mean its a good one, just that it makes it easier to understand what he was aiming for.

Not that I disliked it completely. The anime had inventive monster designs, the transformation scenes were great and most of the action in the final episode was inspired, despite how terrible it was in terms of content. Also, if you’re interested in animation in general, then it was definitely cool to see a very loose style that feels unique compared to the generic look most anime have these days. Overall, interesting, but more style than substance.

South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014)

Which game am I talking about? A group of young kids explore their US American backyard hometown, meet lots of strange monsters, some aliens and fight jRPG style to win the day. Nope, I’m not talking about Earthbound, rather South Park: The Stick of Truth. When Earthbound came out it developed a cult following and over the years there have been a couple of games that tried to evoke its unique mix of elements, though most of them failed to some degree or other.

SP:TSoT on the other hand is both completely different and yet, after playing it, feels the closest like how it was playing Earthbound for the first time. The typical South Park humor is juvenile, often borderline or way past gross-out territory and quite often contains biting satire. Earthbound’s humor was much less in your face, more a certain amusing sensibility to the world and monster design than mere punch line jokes.

But what both of those games have is that they transform a mundane small town into a place of fantastic discovery and epic conflict, where treasure and monsters and excitement is around every corner. In Earthbound you leave the town after some time and explore the wider world, with the transformation from mundane to fantastic inherently real, while in South Park its for the most time make-believe and the adults are blissfully unaware.

But the overall effect is similar. It’s about kids having a grand adventure.

It’s not perfect, mind you. There are tutorial lessons for fart magic (roll with it), that give you utterly confusing instructions for how to perform the magic tricks (and later on the controls are completely changed for normal fights). These tutorials are rage-inducing, pointless and probably made quite a few people give up on playing further.

I’m wondering whether they were intended as sick jokes to enrage the players, or whether they just weren’t play-tested well. My advice: just read up on the net how to perform during the tutorials and then forget them.

There is some other minor stuff here and there, but the rest of the game is pretty solid. Actually, better than solid, its genuinely fun and enjoyable as a gaming experience. The jRPG-styled fights are quite clever with lots of abilities to try out and since you can exchange your secondary character at will (each of them with their own unique set of abilities), this makes for lots of different tactics to win in combat.

South Park itself is well designed as well. It feels like a real small town (despite the fact that its size, typically for video games, is decreased to a manageable size) and after some time you don’t really need a map to navigate, as you know where every major and minor place is, where every street leads to. Each of the many locations feels unique, each of them offers something neat to discover. Over the course of the game you have to traverse the same places often, so it helps that they never get boring (there are random enemies to fight or new secrets to unlock) and occasionally there’s new minor stuff happening to keep them interesting.

The plot is okay. Not mind-blowing, but fitting. You start out in Cartman’s camp of humans fighting against the elves, have later the choice to either stick with him or side with the elves (stick with Cartman, it’s funnier), only to reunite all to fight against the real enemy in the end. It’s quite amusing, South Park-style. Also crazy all the way through and it never leaves you bored. There’s always something more to do and you wish it would go on forever like that.