Kingsman: The Secret Service–Movie Review

4 Stars
Kingsman poster
Kingsman: The Secret Service (IMDB) is a light-hearted action thriller based loosely on a British comic book. So it’s understandable that it is loaded with cartoon violence. (In an early scene a character is cut in half, lengthwise, with no blood visible.) But the movie is what it is, makes no apologies, and does what it does extremely well. I get the impression that the people involved had a lot of fun making it, and I had fun watching it.

Kingsman is packed with references to the classic James Bond movies. Once again we have a world in which debonaire gentleman spies armed only with wit, agility and some clever gadgets seek to defeat colorful supervillains bent on world domination (or worse.)

In a movie like this it’s important to have a good villain, and Samuel L. Jackson makes a great one. He plays Richmond Valentine, a tech billionaire who plans to end the threat of global warming by killing off 99.999% of humanity, preserving only a small group of elite survivors. His trusted assistant “Gazelle” (Sophie Cookson) is probably the most memorable evil henchman since Oddjob.
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The Imitation Game–Movie Review

4 Stars
The Imitation Game poster
Reviewing a biopic like The Imitation Game (IMDB) raises issues that don’t apply to average movie. Normally I prefer to review a movie in isolation for its entertainment value, without worrying too much about how accurately it represents its source material. But when the movie is about real historical figures and events can’t avoid asking whether it is telling the truth or misleading its viewers.

The issue can be particularly acute with a biopic of a scientist. Generally the most important thing about a scientist is his work, but too often the filmmakers have little real interest in this, or assume that the audience doesn’t. As an example of what can go wrong, consider A Beautiful Mind (2002) (IMDB). This is an entertaining movie if you approach it as a work of fiction, but considered as a biography of mathematician John Nash it is a tissue of lies. It misrepresents the nature of his work, the nature of his illness and practically every detail of his life.

So how does The Imitation Game stack up? To begin with, this biopic of Alan Turing, a pioneering mathematician, codebreaker and computer scientist, is quite entertaining and thought-provoking. On the other hand the filmmakers don’t deny that they have hyped-up elements of the story to make it more exciting and cinematic. Have they gone beyond the bounds of what is acceptable?
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Kamisama Kiss 2–Anime Early Impressions

I didn’t bother to write a review when the first season of Kamisama Kiss (Kami-sama Hajimemashita) ran in 2012. It wasn’t that I disliked the series. It was an innocuous and rather amusing shoujo fantasy romance. But it seemed so lightweight that I didn’t feel inspired to take the time to review it.
Tomoe and Nanami
The second season seems more compelling. Maybe it’s because it is up against weaker competition. But it may also be because the new season is less episodic and more plot-driven.

(The Japanese title Kami-sama Hajimemashita actually means something like “I became a god.” I’m guessing that the North American licensees didn’t think that would be marketable.)

Both seasons are available on Hulu but I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to watch the first season in order to enjoy the second. The brief summary below should be enough to get started.
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Maria the Virgin Witch–Anime Early Impressions

Title cardWhen I first heard about Maria the Virgin Witch (Junketsu no Maria / Sorcière de gré, pucelle de force) (Hulu) I wasn’t optimistic. It sounded like yet another exploitative anime tropefest. But I’m glad I checked it out. It does use some standard tropes but it seems to be developing into a pretty decent fantasy story.
Medeval illustration
The story is set at the tail end of the Hundred Years War, a conflict that plays a central part in the founding mythology of both England and France. But by the time this story begins famous events of the war (such as Agincourt and the burning of Joan of Arc) are long past. All that is left is a long 2-decade slog during which the English will lose most of the battles, be deserted by their French allies and end the war worse off than when they started it.

Surprisingly for an anime this show seems rooted in some solid historical research. It is full of obviously fantastic elements but the underlying historical setting seems fairly realistic.
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Death Parade–Anime Early Impressions

Death Parade (Hulu) is one of the more promising shows of the new anime season. It has a classy noir-ish look with nice designs and animation by Madhouse. It is smartly written though the tone varies. The first story, which occupied the first two episodes, was pretty grim. The next was poignant and rather heartwarming.
Group shot
This is one of those anthology shows in which each story follows a standard pattern. Two people walk into a bar…or at least they find themselves in a bar and can’t quite remember how they got there. Their memories seem hazy about a lot of things.
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Cute High Earth Defense Club–Anime Early Impressions

I didn’t expect to like Cute High Earth Defense Club Love! (Binan Koukou Chikyuu Boueibu Love!) (Crunchyroll.) The idea of a parody of a magical girl show seemed uninspired. It’s hard to do a good parody of a genre that never took itself very seriously in the first place. In any case the traditional magical girl story has been parodied and deconstructed many times. And the idea of making it about magical boys didn’t seem very inspired either. (Most shoujo magical girl teams typically have at least one male member anyway.)
Battle Lovers
But I’ll go along with just about anything if it’s funny enough, and this is very funny indeed. At least it has stayed funny for three episodes. We’ll have to see how it holds up over the entire season.
Wombat
Let’s call this guy Wombat. He’s not actually a wombat. He’s an [unpronounceable] from [unpronounceable], but he looks like a pink wombat so that will have to do. Wombat has just arrived on Earth and is very impressed with its culture, but he is distressed to see that it is threatened by the forces of Lovelessness. He decides to recruit some Earth people to form a team of “Battle Lovers” and fight to defend the planet.
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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies–Movie Review

3.5 Stars
The Hobbit 3 poster
After watching the first two films of the series I felt I had to watch The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (IMDB) even though it might well turn out to be a train wreck. And I’m going to surprise you by giving it a marginal recommendation.

I’m not saying that this really is a good adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel. But my rule is that a movie should be judged on its own merits without reference to the source material. If this were an original work I think that most people who like such things would say that this is a pretty decent though somewhat uneven action-adventure fantasy.
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Big Eyes–Movie Review

4 Stars
Big Eyes poster
Big Eyes (IMDB) is a quirky biopic of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the painter responsible for those slightly creepy pictures of children with big eyes that you have almost certainly seen. Millions of them were sold as posters in the 1960s and 1970s.

The movie was directed by Tim Burton who is a big fan of Keane’s work, and unlike most biopics it sticks pretty close to the truth.

The movie gets most of its energy from Christoph Waltz who gives a brilliant and disturbing performance as Margaret’s husband Walter Keane. Arguably Walter was responsible for Margaret’s success. A talented promoter, he turned her paintings into a multimillion dollar poster empire–all the while claiming that he had painted them himself.
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Into the Woods–Movie Review

2.5 Stars

I was raised to be charming, not sincere.
–Cinderella’s Prince

Into the Woods posterInto the Woods (IMDB) is a movie adaptation of the 1987 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Let me start by saying that the production values are very high and the cast is first-rate. Some people are saying that it it worth going to the movie just to hear Meryl Streep sing.

Personally however I didn’t find it very satisfactory. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the movie adaptation per se. While I never saw the original stage version I think the problems lie with the original material.
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2014: The Anime Year in Review

It seems that it’s more or less a requirement for experienced anime bloggers to complain that the current season and the current year are the worst ever, a far cry from the glory days of the past. I’m pretty sure that 5 years from now bloggers will be bemoaning the dreadfulness of the 2019 season, as compared to the glory days of, say, 2014. Each year brings us a mountain of crap that is quickly forgotten, plus a few shows that people will remember fondly and even rewatch in future years.

So as usual in my annual review I will mostly ignore the shows that failed (and especially those that didn’t even try) and focus on shows that provided solid entertainment and may have some chance of being remembered fondly in future years.

Outstanding Anime of 2014

Mushishi familySeason 2 of Mushi-shi (Crunchyroll) is a rare example of an anime that aims to be high art. There is no middle ground here: such a show always seems to end up either great or unwatchable. Fortunately this one continues to hit the “great” mark.

Manaka from EDNagi no Asukara (Crunchyroll) (started Fall 2013) had some slow moments but looking back I can’t think of any other show in the past year that affected me as strongly. What starts out looking like a whimsical fairy tale turns into a powerful work of high fantasy.

After workAmagi Brilliant Park is just silly, but it is inspired silliness, perfectly executed and hilarious from beginning to end.
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