Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (season four) – Review

VanHohenheim

T. and I took a long break from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood once we got to the end of season three. While we really enjoyed the first two seasons, by the time the action moved to Fort Briggs it felt like things were getting more and more complicated, and – being unfamiliar with the manga – I worried that the show would end up losing its way and never resolve the central drama. Well, I’m glad to have given the fourth season a chance, because not only did it feel like a marked improvement on season three, but it moved the overarching story forward in a satisfying way and at a good old pace. I’m now excited to see how things wrap up in the fifth and final season.

This may sound strange, but one of the things that encouraged us to return to Brotherhood was the fact Netflix changed the way they listed the show from “64 episodes” to a proper season/episode listing. Knowing where you’re at in the narrative arc is quite important in long-form storytelling, and it really helped knowing we would be starting again at the beginning of the penultimate season: we had appopriate expectations for pacing, character development, and so on. Brotherhood’s third season had expanded the scope of the story considerably, so we were delighted (and, I must admit, surprised) to find that major mysteries were resolved quickly and in a satisfying way, and that the overall story was likewise allowed to make progress.

One of the good things about taking time to build a story and develop characters is that, if you do it right, the payoff can be epic, and make the whole wait worthwhile. The problem with this is that so many shows have failed to live up to their promise that audiences get burned out and lose faith in this kind of storytelling (this is known as the Chris Carter Effect, with reference to the X-Files; Lost is another good example). In contrast, Brotherhood’s fourth season is well-paced, and its lore manages to be both interesting and coherent, which is no mean feat.

If you’re not familiar with it, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a very well-regarded and successful anime adaptation of a manga, which follows the brothers Edward and Al Elric on their mission to recover their bodies after an experiment with alchemy went badly wrong. (Edward just lost a couple of limbs, but Al lost his entire body and now has to go about in an enormous suit of armour, which contains his soul.) They soon get pulled into a much larger conspiracy, and the show starts off dark in tone and quickly gets darker; but it also has a penchant for comedy, and some really heartwarming camaraderie as well. Confusingly, it’s actually the second anime adaptation of the manga, with the first being called simply Fullmetal Alchemist, without the subtitle. Brotherhood is widely regarded as being much better. The first “adaptation” was done before the original manga was finished – a bit like Game of Thrones!

Brotherhood has a strong central cast of characters and there is great chemistry between the likes of Edward, Al, and Winry, and Mustang and Hawkeye. It’s testament to the potential of long-form storytelling that, by season four, Brotherhood has put together a whole stable of lead characters, any one of whom could carry a lesser anime (Al in particular is a real hero); but there are half a dozen stand-out leads in this one show. Even the supporting cast of Homunculi and Chimeras get their chance to shine here, too. I think it helped our enjoyment that we decided to watch this season in the English dub, rather than in Japanese with English subtitles. Although I’ve always tried to watch anime series with the Japanese voice track (because it’s more “authentic”), I can’t understand the language, and in Brotherhood I get the impression the English voice script is different (and superior) to the English subtitles. You also benefit from some characterful performances from great voice actors like Caitlin Glass and Troy Baker.

Fingers crossed that season five will prove to be as entertaining and satisfying as Brotherhood’s fourth season. If so, it will definitely go down as one of my favourite anime series.

9/10

Castlevania (season one) – Review

castlevania

Castlevania fans have had a hard time in recent years, as the venerable game series has been left to gather dust by owner Konami. Thus news of a Netflix-produced animated series stoked excitement, particularly once it became clear the show was intended for “mature” audiences and would not hold back on blood and gore. Castlevania’s subject matter has tried-and-tested appeal, and the successful blueprint for atmospheric gothic anime has been well-established by films like Vampire Hunter D. What could possibly go wrong?

First impressions are promising: Castlevania looks really, really good. The characters and settings are well-designed and animated, and if the aesthetic is somewhat hackneyed, that can be forgiven considering that it’s paying homage not just to a game series but to an entire genre. That said, much of the season’s four episodes are set in a generic medieval town, which is a bit disappointing considering that most Castlevania games are set in some version or other of Dracula’s castle. Indeed, apart from the names of the characters, and Trevor Belmont’s whip, I didn’t find there was much here to distinguish this as a Castlevania series: if they changed the names it would have been a pretty generic anime horror.

Having announced a Castlevania ‘series’, I think a few eyebrows were raised when the show was released and it turned out to be four episodes long, clocking in at about 100 minutes total. That’s really more the length of a movie, and the ‘episodic’ structure felt a bit phony. In particular, episodes two and three naturally segue into each other, and the ending of episode two felt rather abrupt. More problematic is that the ‘season’ finishes in an unsatisfying way, as the ‘conclusion’ is anything but and just sets the stage for future episodes. Netflix has inevitably announced that Castlevania has been ‘renewed’ for a second season, but it all feels completely pre-planned, and fundamentally cynical. If there was ever any doubt about a second season (clue: there wasn’t), it wouldn’t have ended as it did. Netflix knew there would be a lot of hype about the show because of the name alone, so they served up a laughably short first ‘season’, enabling them to spread a wafer-thin story over twelve episodes, when one feature-length movie would have sufficed.

But what really condemns Castlevania is its awful script. Set in a fictionalized C15th Europe, Dracula’s human wife is burnt as a witch by evil Christians, so he decides to wipe out the local population in retaliation. The only person who can stop him is Trevor Belmont, a cynical young outcast aristocrat and the last surviving member of the vampire-hunting Belmont clan. Trevor is an unappealing lead, not motivated by anything other than alcohol, and constantly complaining about having to rescue ungrateful peasants. Most of the inhabitants of Wallachia are portrayed unsympathetically, either as cringing cowards or as perverts who have sex with farm animals. It’s a singularly charmless script, and one that’s devoid of any humour, wit or passion.

This is made even worse by the voice acting, which ranges from indifferent to downright awful. More than one character suffers from dreadful mumbling, to the point that we had to turn on the subtitles to follow what people were saying. It’s not limited to one character, which suggests it was a technical problem or a production decision; if the latter, god knows what they were trying to achieve. Belmont’s voice acting is infuriating, as he rushes through sentences, fails to enunciate his words properly, and tails off inaudibly. But the worst of all is the villainous Bishop of Gresit. I don’t know what they were trying to achieve with his voice, but it doesn’t work at all. You can barely make out what he’s saying half the time. Considering how much work goes into creating the visuals for something like this, it beggars belief that the audio would be so incompetently directed and edited.

It used to be the case that licensed video games were guaranteed to be terrible. Cynical publishers would acquire a well-known license and use it to market a crap game, relying on name recognition to get people to buy a shitty product. Here that dynamic is reversed. Visuals aside, Castlevania is a pathetically lazy, cynical and low-effort attempt by Netflix to use a well-regarded video game franchise to generate interest among a certain demographic. Don’t encourage them. Do yourself a favour, and give it a miss.

3/10

Blame! (film) – Review

blame

Maybe it’s just me, but I find Netflix’s rating system to be pretty useless. Lots of woeful content seems to inexplicably maintain a five-star rating, while really solid shows and movies get stuck with two or three stars. Blame! is the latest one to confuse me, the full-length anime movie debuting recently to a 2.5 star rating. I don’t know whether this is due to pissed-off hardcore fans, or low ratings from people who just hate anime, but I thought Blame! was pretty good.

Blame!: the movie is based on a 20-year-old manga, set in a (naturally) dystopian world dominated by a vast megastructure known as “The City”. The City was once controlled by technologically-advanced humans, but they eventually lost control, and humanity came to be viewed by the City as a disease which needed to be exterminated. The City therefore unleashed a variety of hi-tech entities, collectively known as The Safeguard, to wipe out the remaining humans (hints of The Terminator, then). With humans no longer in control, the City has expanded uncontrollably, and it’s hinted that the structure could have reached the size of a star. It’s an interesting concept with a great deal of potential, and Blame!’s setting is well brought to life by an impressive art style.

I’m a little surprised that they chose to make Blame! as a movie rather than a series, like fellow Netflix original Knights of Sidonia, as the scenario seems well-suited to the serial form. The movie’s plot covers the interaction between main character Killy, who is on an odyssey to find the “Net Terminal Gene” that could help regain control of the City, and a small community of humans known as the Electro-Fishers. The community is on the brink of starvation, and their immediate struggle to survive provides the kind of clear narrative hook needed for a film of this length. T. commented while we were watching it that Blame! does the same thing as Mad Max: Fury Road, using the silent loner character from a wider world to introduce a largely self-contained story. I found Killy to be a bit underdeveloped, but at least the supporting cast are varied; what’s more, characters you might expect to be completely useless actually end up contributing to the story, which kind of subverts your expectations. Blame! leaves you wanting to see more of its world, and I would certainly be interested in seeing a follow-up movie or, even better, anime series.

Visually, Blame! is really good, with solid animation and an appealing and coherent style. The art and animation reminded me a lot of Knights of Sidonia, and apparently they were made by the same people. I thought the sound effects were pretty good too, especially the satisfying clunkiness of the Electro-Fishers’ weapons and armour. The film’s main problem is probably its pacing: although it starts out very well – the opening sequences are breathtaking – its 106-minute run time is probably 15 minutes too long, and some sections could have been shortened or edited out. I found the repeated extreme close-ups of Killy to be somewhat naff, but fans of the source manga might be more tolerant of this.

Overall, then, Blame! is worth a watch for anime fans. It reminded me a lot of seeing Gantz: 0 a few months back – both times I went in knowing nothing about the source material, but was pleasantly surprised by the films and really enjoyed them. Here’s hoping we get to see more of Blame!’s unsettling world in the future.

7/10

Stranger Things (season one) – Review

stranger things titles

The 80s have made a big comeback in the last few years. Seems barely a month goes by without a new movie, TV show, or album being released that’s supposed to capture the essence of the 80s in some way. Netflix original series Stranger Things has become one of the most talked-about examples of this trend, and has become quite popular in its own right. Netflix honchos recently stated that what’s most important to them is not how many peOple watch their shows necessarily, but how much they’re talked about. Make of that what you will. But there’s no doubt that Stranger Things got people talking.

Over the course of eight episodes, Stranger Things charts the course of a few characters on the trail of Will Byers, a young boy who disappeared on the way home from his friend Mike’s house after a heavy Dungeons and Dragons session. Naturally, Mike and friends try to find Will, defying their parents in doing so. During the season, they run into a mysterious girl, known only as “Eleven”, who exhibits unusual behaviour and who seems to have supernatural powers. Meanwhile, there are two other parallel missions to find Will. One involves his mum, Joyce, who insists Will is still alive, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, and who claims that Will is communicating to her via light bulbs. She enlists the help of the local sheriff, while her son Jonathan (Will’s older brother) also embarks on his own adventure to find Will, aided by Mike’s older sister, Nancy.

Stranger Things does have a few jump scares in it, but most of the time it relies on teen melodrama and a lot of overwrought angst from Winona Ryder, who plays Joyce. The series is obviously pitched as some sort of homage or paean to the 80s, but comes across as deeply derivative. Stranger Things borrows liberally from things like ET and the X-Files, as well as about half a dozen Stephen King novels (notably The Shining, It, and Firestarter). None of that is necessarily bad, but Stranger Things is stubborn in its unoriginality. It’s also profoundly unrealistic: while the genre requires us to accept the presence of supernatural beings, it’s harder to accept a maximum security military installation allowing some hick sheriff to snoop around with practical impunity.

The mystery that surrounds the military’s pseudo-scientific experiments is one of the more interesting parts of the series, as is the nod towards the actual history of US military research into obscure phenomena during the Cold War. Unfortunately, the personal melodrama really lets the show down. Much of the show centres on the kids (rather, brats) and their efforts to find Will. I found these scenes largely irritating, partly because the so-called friends never converse or talk, but instead constantly bicker and argue. Maybe that’s what kids do, but it doesn’t make for entertaining late-night drama. Still, the brat kids are still probably better actors than the one who plays Nancy Wheeler, who relies on the same vapid expression of dull surprise in 90% of her scenes. Someone really needs to tell her to stop using that expression all the time–not just because it looks moronic, but because it will give her crazy forehead wrinkles by the time she’s 30. Nancy has a creepy boyfriend who looks like the Milibands’ evil brother; but the cast is generally forgettable, despite some familiar faces from movies and TV.

Forgettable, that is, except for Winona Ryder. As a kid I used to have something of a crush on Ryder, but that was before I had any idea what a bad actress she is. Her overacting in Stranger Things is appalling: we get it that the character is supposed to be massively worried about her son; but there is hardly any variation whatsoever in her performance; she has no depth and is ultimately impossible to relate to. She adopts this voice the whole time which is probably supposed to convey desperation but really just sounds whiny and is pretty insufferable. Inevitably, this has been pitched as a ‘comeback’ role for Ryder, but I really don’t see it.

Stranger Things is so cliched. At one point, a boffin science teacher is explaining inter-dimensional theories to the kids; and this happened:

 

We were just sitting there like, ‘please don’t do the pencil through the paper thing from Event Horizon’. And, of course, they did it. When Interstellar did the same thing a couple of years ago, we groaned. Its just become such a lazy cliche and I can’t believe writers can’t come up with another way to do this. But it’s indicative of the lazy and cliche-ridden style the writers use here. Another thing I took issue with was when the kids are explaining school bulling to Eleven, and Mike explains it by saying they’re “mouth-breathers”. Bullied children are often consoled with statements like, don’t worry, you’re better/smarter than them, etc. Now, I know getting bullied really, really sucks, and we need a way to explain it to kids so they can deal with it, but this is ultimately unhelpful and a trope we really need to move away from. As a general rule, coming to rely for your self-esteem on the intellectual inferiority of other people is not good for you.

Probably the best thing about Stranger Things is its intro music. Otherwise, its efforts to invoke the 80s generally feel like a typically postmodern exercise in imitation, reproducing the familiar iconography and cultural representations of the 80s, but not featuring anything you can learn from and certainly not saying anything interesting about the decade. The grating identification of the writers as ‘The Duffer Brothers’ also came across as a cheesy, lame and overt attempt at brand-creation. For all the retro-worship on display here, the conceptualization and execution of Stranger Things has produced a soulless and superficial experience, surprisingly embodying much of what is wrong about contemporary culture.

5/10

Arrested Development

arrested-development-season-5-air-date-movie-news

I was a late convert to Arrested Development. I wasn’t even aware of it during its original run in the 2000s, and it was only because my friends were talking about in 2013 that I checked it out. 2013, of course, was the year when Netflix brought out AD’s fourth season, reviving the critically-acclaimed show which had been cancelled in 2006 due to poor ratings. At the time, the season’s success was mooted as an example of the amazing promise streaming services had to revolutionize TV production. I watched it all and became an instant fan not just of the original run, but also of the very impressive (and increasingly dark) fourth season.

Season four picked up the lives of the Bluth family after a gap of several years. For those who haven’t watched it, the Bluths are a construction dynasty sort-of modeled on companies like Enron, embodying everything that is wrong about corporate America. The series follows the different members of the family as their company falls apart and their personal lives unravel. At the same time, they each find out more about themselves, which is rarely good–most of them are pretty terrible people–but the show is sympathetic while still being a biting satire. Season four was excellent, picking up after a slow start to really expand upon each of the characters, adopting a deliciously dark tone in doing so. It also boasted an extraordinary narrative style that told a convoluted story from a number of different angles. Remarkable writing and editing meant that by halfway through the season you started to see how everything fit together and I was astonished by its skill and audacity. But it was characteristic of a show known to tease and build up jokes dozens of episodes ahead.

Arrested Development is one of the select number of comedies which I’m able to watch over and over again, up there with Father Ted and I’m Alan Partridge. The best thing about it is that in contrast to those shows it actually has a lot of episodes over its four seasons, meaning it easily sustains repeated viewings. Its critical success and cult following has launched the careers of many people involved. In particular, Will Arnett has since made a series of other Netflix shows where he essentially played the same character, while Jessica Walter and Judy Greer became popular in the once-good animated comedy, Archer. Michael Cera is probably the actor who has attained most fame, but the whole cast is terrific and picking out individual actors doesn’t feel fair.

It kind of feels like AD has become a bit of a victim of its own success with Netflix. Although writer Mitch Hurwitz has said he has season five ready to go, and Netflix have repeatedly said they want it to happen, apparently the cast’s schedule conflicts are getting in the way. To me, this sounds a bit fishy. While they’re all well-known actors, none of them are A-list movie stars and none of them have been in anything much bigger than AD. It makes me think money might in fact be the problem, for example if some aren’t getting the same deal as others. If that’s the case then Netflix should just get rid of the shitty Will Arnett vehicles it keeps producing and make better use of its resources.

I really hope season five does get made, and the sooner the better. Arrested Development is the show that, in 2013, satirized American politics by getting the Bluths to try and build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants (they didn’t care about the wall per se, they just wanted the fat contract). A few years later and the leading Republican candidate is actually calling for this. Season four also ended on a murder cliffhanger, and apparently season five might have a murder mystery angle aping successful Netflix docu-drama Making a Murderer. I would gladly sacrifice any and every Marvel property in existence, never mind House of Cards and BoJack Horseman, if it meant getting this show renewed.

Two for Tuesday

I’m unlikely to have time to post anything tomorrow, so here’s Tuesday’s post early. Don’t say I never do anything for you.

Our usual weekend routine chez Deathmetalflorist involves late night movies, regardless of whether or not we go out. If we go out, we just watch something when we get back; unless it’s one of those rare occasions where I, er, misjudge my capacity to consume alcohol.

The late-night trawl for horror movies on Netflix is a bit of a ritual, but lately it has become somewhat unrewarding. I don’t know what’s going on with Netflix, but there’s a bit of a dearth of content on there at the moment. Perhaps it’s a combination of a lack of capital, and other companies having exclusive deals, but my Netflix sub is getting harder and harder to justify to myself.

Anyway, we couldn’t find anything to watch on Friday so raided the DVD collection and came up with The Descent 2. Its been years since we watched it and probably that fact alone should have set alarm bells ringing. Hey, live and learn. We’re both big fans of the first movie so thought we’d give it a whirl.

Well, it sucks. I can’t remember disliking it this much before, but it’s really a bad film. Released in 2009, the film feels like it had no budget at all, but apparently it cost over six million bucks. The Room cost six million bucks too so it doesn’t mean much. The film starts off badly as main character Sarah, who we learn escaped the cave system via an abandoned mine shaft, is forced to return underground to accompany the world’s most incompetent rescue team. The film doesn’t explain why she has to go back, against her will, and nobody seems to have a real problem with forcing this deeply traumatized and possibly homicidal woman to go help the rescuers.

The rest of the team consists of a belligerent, fat old sheriff, his young female sidekick, and some cavers. It’s a singularly unattractive and uncharismatic crew and I found myself caring not one bit about any of them. The sheriff is particularly obnoxious and most of what goes wrong during the film is his fault. The only bright spot is the return of Juno (Natalie Mendoza), but her appearance is all-too-brief. The film ends in suitably bleak fashion but really the whole exercise just feels utterly pointless and essentially seems to have killed off the franchise. The existence of the film also kind of spoils the ending to the first film which is also a shame.

We had a bit of a surprise on Saturday night when we noticed that Anchorman 2 had been added to Netflix. Now, don’t get me wrong, we weren’t exactly excited. We’re big fans of Anchorman, but remember seeing the woeful trailer for its sequel and didn’t bother to look it up when it came out in 2013. But hey, it’s on Netflix, so we thought we’d give it a try.

I was shocked at how bad this film is, though not surprised. I read the book, Let me off at the top, which came out around the time the film was released, and I thought that was pretty good; but I’d heard nothing positive about the film from anyone I know. Turns out it is painfully unfunny and badly written. We had to stop watching after about half an hour, and for pretty much that whole time I was just sitting there trying to work out how this had been made. It feels like someone was challenged to write the entire script in an afternoon.

I don’t know, maybe they had to re-write everything at the last minute or something. It has none of the charm or humour of the original film, and instead is laced with mean and humorless ‘jokes’ that didn’t make us laugh but instead made me think the people responsible for this are just bitter old bastards. I don’t mind racial humour per se but this film is offensive and unfunny in the most uninteresting and banal way possible. It didn’t make me angry or anything, I just didn’t want to watch it.

I looked it up a bit afterwards and was briefly perplexed to see that Anchorman 2 actually has a fairly good critical standing. Then I remembered how venal and cynical most of the media is. Anchorman was one of the high points of that generation of “Frat Pack” films of the late 90s-early 00s, but I think this sequel really testifies to how artistically and culturally bankrupt that generation ultimately was. Zoolander, along with Anchorman, is probably the best of that bunch; if its sequel is as bad as this I think we will be able to conclude their legacy is moribund. They’re leaving us with a comedic landscape where Anchorman 2 is alleged to be a funny film, and where Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill are supposed to be entertaining. What a strange world we live in.

Both these films deserve no better than a 2/10 so that’s what they get.