Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Anime Review: Boruto: Naruto Next Generations




Show Name: Boruto: Naruto Next Generations
Genre: Action/Fantasy
Premiered: April 5, 2017

After many years of spectacular highs and horrendous lows, the epic saga of shonen juggernaut Naruto had finally closed the last page, leaving a flurry of mixed emotions in its wake.  For many fans, it was the quintessential end of an era, like bidding farewell to a lifelong companion after a childhood full of joy and pleasure.  For others, though, it probably felt like the long-awaited end to a song that had gone on for entirely too long, poisoning any fondness under a mountain of low-quality fillers and some serious literary faux pas.  Still, whatever side of the fence you fall on, there's no denying that Naruto has left a mark most manga can only dream of replicating.  So when it was announced last spring that this sacrosanct series will be getting a spinoff/continuation focusing on Boruto, Naruto's precocious and talented son, the reactions were, as you'd expect, mixed.  While the Boruto movie, along with many of the Next Gen kids, are relatively well-received, and some fans argue that a continuation falls nicely in line with the series's overarching theme of bequeathing responsibilities to the next generation, others felt it was an unnecessary cash cow leech, sucking on a franchise whose veins dried out long before it finally bit the dust. The fact that Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto has a relatively minor hand in this next swing in the property also gives little to expect for this new saga.  But that's all abstract speculation; with the cat now out of the bag, how does Boruto: Naruto Next Generations stand up under scrutiny?

Synopsis
(For a summary of the original Naruto series, click here.)

Many years have passed since the Fourth Great Ninja War, and the ninja world is finally at peace.  Thanks to the efforts of Naruto and his companions, old severances have been mended, new bonds forged, and our hero, having achieved his dream of becoming Hokage, presides over a Konohagakure bursting with life and possibility.  Even so, there’s a whisper on the winds, a sign that not all is well and that the world may once again taste the bitterness and heartache of war and violence.  Fortunately, a new generation has arisen, striking out from their early days in the ninja academy in hopes of making a name for themselves like their now-legendary parents.  Chief among them is Boruto, the rambunctious progeny of Naruto and Hinata Hyuga, who is driven by an intense desire to both escape his fabled father’s shadow, and win his undivided approval.  With his friends by his side and a host of new challenges ahead, Boruto is determined to carve his own unique story into the marble slab of shinobi history.

The Good
Boruto reels you in with an effective use of the tried-and-true cold open - showing us a near future dystopia of destruction and decay, with Boruto clashing swords with an unknown adversary atop the ruins of his hometown.  Though an oft-used strategy in fiction, it’s necessary, even crucial, for this series, since it gives us a reason to stick around (i.e. to see how we got here) while also bestowing a sense of narrative direction lacking in its predecessor.  While Naruto’s thread of continuity was tied to the protagonist’s personal ambitions (which were often muddled by drama and by adversaries whose own private hells became a black hole in the plot) Boruto presents us with a simpler, more direct, and honestly more compelling motive: How did this happen?  What are the circumstances that led Boruto to becoming the tattooed, sword-wielding badass as he appears in the opening?  Besides this intriguing narrative scaffolding, the animation is smooth and fluid, matching the best its parent series had to offer, and if nothing else will ensure a gorgeous spectacle of high-flying ninja action.

The Bad
Unfortunately, despite the nice start, the pacing of this new anime is likely to be a slow and maddeningly repetitive one.  Boruto starts its tale way back in the beginning of his academy days - before both the movie, and the intriguing Naruto Gaiden manga.  This could mean one of two things: that the anime will skip those elements and spare viewers the pain of retreading old territory with new boots; or they’ll just plunge ahead in the style of Dragon Ball Super, subjecting us to the same old plot while dragging out the series.  This can be a real problem, especially if stretching the distance between the current, somewhat boring point A to the tantalizing point B in the cold open proves to be more than what most fans are willing to tolerate.  Another issue is our main lead and his goals - or rather, his current lack thereof.  While Naruto didn’t have the same end post to hold our attention, he was blessed with a solid personal motivation that made for a fruitful and self-perpetuating journey.  Boruto has yet to show anything akin to this, besides some self-centered desire to surpass his father while steering clear of the path he had trodden at all costs.  Beyond that, he's just not that interesting of a character in his own right.  The creators wisely give Boruto just enough distinction so that he avoids becoming a Xerox of his dad, but stripped of Naruto's justified desires and without a matching sympathetic root for his bratty actions, there isn't a whole lot to endear this kid to the audience.  With his privileged background, loving family, and other advantages his parents would have killed to have growing up, he comes off as spoiled and obnoxious, even with the obligatory "hidden heart of gold" stock character trait that makes him less interesting than if he was an outright jerk.  Obviously, this is bound to change as the story goes on - but the question remains whether he’ll exhaust our tolerance for him by that point.

The Ugly
Truth be told, this entire new stunt sits in a hazy fog of “what ifs.”  Boruto might become a strong and likeable character, if he can surmount his flaws before we all lose interest.  The story might turn out to be a gripping and compelling account of passing the torch to the next generation, if the kids rounding out the cast herd move past their generic phase and start developing personalities worth watching.  It grants the series a lot of potential, sure - but it could also come crashing down in one big, steaming pile.  Boruto is pretty much a collection of possibilities, with no guarantees one way or the other that Kishimoto’s legacy will be a roaring crescendo or a shrill, deadening dirge.

Tune In or Tune Out
For now, Tune Out.  As interesting as the cold open is, and despite the number of nostalgia veins it’ll undoubtedly open for many of its fans, Boruto has little to offer otherwise, except a slow start and a flash of mildly interesting vignettes hung on a series of pessimistic question marks.  I won’t go full cynic and claim that it's just another cash cow grab, but the last arc of Naruto was a dry pump to begin with, and even its most die hard fans are hard-pressed to justify this new turn in the franchise.  The patented Naruto meta-theme of bequeathing to the next generation might make it worth keeping an eye out for here and there, but you can bypass this entirely and not feel like you're missing some critical part of the Naruto legendarium.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

April Releases

April Releases



A new month, and that means new premieres and releases to dive into.  There's...really not much to write home about on the movie front, unless talking blueberries and Vin Diesel's latest tough guy car fu are your thing.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Good thing there's a parade of fresh shows, cool games, and awesome music and books to round out the box office's comparative sluggishness:




Movies

Television

Games

Books


See you at the movies!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jack is back with an all new look and attitude



source:heroichollywood



Show: Samurai Jack, Season 5
Genre: Animation, action, drama
Network: Cartoon Network
Premiered: March 11, 2017

Way back in the early 2000s, Cartoon Network released an inconspicuous little animated gem by the name of Samurai Jack.  Spawned from the mind of animation icon Genndy Tartakovsky, this Kurosawa-esque tale of a wandering samurai lost in a dark future and seeking a way back home while doing battle with his eternal nemesis Aku, possessed a unique aesthetic and storytelling style that intrigued audiences even beyond its targeted fanbase.   But to its dedicated fans, it was so much more: a cartoon magnum opus that, alas, had succumbed to that dreaded television disease known as early cancellation; after four seasons of artistry and spellbinding narratives woven with skill and dexterity, the series came to an astoundingly unsatisfying conclusion featuring our hero Jack essentially being a babysitter.  No end to his quest, no resolution to his story, no nothing.  Fans were apparently left with yet another franchise that went belly up, and while Jack’s legacy continued in other media, even his creator was chomping to bring his tale back to the screen for a fitting finale.  

But thankfully, this woeful story has a happier ending than most, for after nearly a decade and a half of languishing on Tartakovsky’s bucket list, the series will once again see the light of day, premiering on Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] property with an updated look, a new attitude, and a commitment to bringing Jack's journey to a close.  So with expectations riding high, how does this new chapter in the Book of Jack pan out?

Synopsis
(You can read up on the premise of the original series here)

Fifty years have passed since the end of season four, and Jack, rendered ageless due to his time traveling, has shown the worst of it.  With his face framed in a scruffy beard and sporting long, unkempt locks, he looks every bit the rootless rounin as he transverses the Aku-infected landscape.  Plagued by both terrifying visions of failure and a subtle but growing cynicism, Jack holds ever more tenuously to his single hope of returning to his own time, which thanks to Aku, seems further and further out of reach with each passing day.  Meanwhile, his ancient nemesis has been busy with plans of his own, tying together a cult of devotees and laying out his latest plan to be rid of the samurai for good: a group of seven female assassins, raised from birth with only one purpose - kill Samurai Jack.  Now, our hero, bereft of both his sword and his purpose, must face this latest challenge, and in the process maybe recover some of the fire and righteousness that sparked his legend to begin with.


The Good
Right from the initial cold open, you get the sense that this is a very different kind of story from what we're used to.  While Samurai Jack never shied away from darker plots in the past, they had always worked by way of contrast to Jack's own pure and indomitable spirit.  But here, Jack is a changed man: jaded, world weary, and haunted, as likely to help the helpless as he is to turn his back on an endangered village since he simply can't be bothered at the moment.  This all works very well with the more mature setting, whose depictions of a heroic icon bent low by the baggage of his life draw favorable comparisons to both John Wick and Logan, and gives this last arc a degree of gravitas quite removed from the often quirky earlier seasons.  But simply mentioning that there's an actual story arc to speak of points out another fundamental change to the franchise - one that, in my opinion, can only be for the better.  As much as I enjoyed the original series, it wasn't exactly a narrative juggernaut.  This isn't a slight against Tartakovsky’s talent for kabuki style storycrafting, but Samurai Jack's episodic format and the varying quality that entails meant that, for some episodes at least, there was little to keep fans interested save for the lovely animation.  But now, the show’s set up a tense, multi episode arc that, if this first taste is any indication, will surely compel us to see through its conclusion.  But thankfully, Samurai Jack hasn't completely turned its back on the same qualities that propelled its success in the first place.  Tartakovsky’s “show, don't tell“ philosophy is still there, gliding over the lushly illustrated backdrops to tell his story in silence and muted glances.  And the presence of Scaramouch, a robotic Sammy Davis, Jr. expy of a bounty hunter who throws out witty musical dialogue as he tries his luck against Jack, reminds us that the show hasn't lost its sense of humor despite the mature image, giving fans of all tastes a reason to tune in.


The Bad
Not much to complain about, really, though I can't say I'm particularly fond of how much is thrown at us in the first episode.  Though the depiction of Jack’s malaise is thorough and heart-rending, too many flashbacks were tossed about, revealing key plot points I would have much preferred to see gradually unfolding over the course of several episodes.  Key points include the reveal that Jack lost his sword, or maybe to have stretched out the training of the Daughters of Aku over another episode.  This may be due to time constraints, as we’re still not sure how long this season will run, but I do hope that revelations of what drove Jack to the threshold of hopelessness will be expanded at a more leisurely pace over the upcoming episodes.

The Ugly
So far I’ve been pretty mum on the premiere’s B story - the birth and development of the Seven Daughters of Aku, the gaggle of laser-guided tyke bombs who promise to put our hero through a world of hurt.  I’m still weighing in on how their appearance will affect the series in the long run.  On the one hand, they're practically the heralds of this new long-running story arc approach, being no mere villain of the week, but a consistent and dangerous threat to a warrior who’s been almost invincible to most of his enemies.  Being raised in a cult that worships Aku as a god and castigates Jack as his evil usurper, they likely harbor viewpoints that may add a splash of gray to a traditionally black-and-white series, which when combined with Jack’s more cynical outlook, might make for some interesting interactions beyond the sharp clanging of sword on sword action.  But on the other hand, this could all be squandered if the arc resolves itself too quickly, or if Jack somehow “handles” the situation in his usual quick and efficient manner - leading the whole thing to just one big bust.  Other than that, the animation, while still the gorgeous wash of lineless artwork that’s come to define the series, has added CG to the palette - a necessary addition in my book, though we’ll have to see how it’s used and maintained as time goes by.

Tune In or Tune Out
Tune In, folks - it’s a no-brainer.  We’re talking about the resurrection of the biggest cult animated series from the early 2000s here - of course you should tune in.  Old fans will finally get a sense of closure for this modern-day chanbara saga, and even if you’re new to the dystopian world of Samurai Jack, this first episode, minus a few foibles, packs enough humor, action, and hard-boiled grit to beat back even the most vociferous cries of “It’s just a cartoon.”  It's time to get back to Jack.

Friday, March 3, 2017

March Releases

March Releases





 March is here, and with it, a tidal wave of new movies and new media crying out for our attention - including a favorite Aussie actor's swan song for a career-building role, a little monkey madness with the King of Apes, and a group of teens out to save the world with mechanized suits and karate chops.

Meanwhile, in video game land it seems like every platform is flooded with tons of new titles and DLCs, giving the dedicated gamer some choice picks for entertainment this month.



Movies

Television

Games

Books



See you at the movies!

Monday, January 9, 2017

January Releases

January Releases



Here's to a new year, along with new movies, games, and other media goodies to lift us from post holiday slumps.  So what to expect?  Oh, a couple of hidden cards, a returning ace, and unfortunately, what's likely to be a total flush in the box office.

Not much is shaking on the television front, though lots of returning favorites should keep the winter nights warm and entertaining.

We have the seventh installment of the long-running Resident Evil series slinking in at the end of the month, hopefully giving survival horror fans a good jolt before February.


Movies

Television

Games

Books




See you at the movies!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

December Releases

December Releases

I know, I know- I'm late.  But that doesn't change the fact that there's still a lot going on.  So what do we have?  A couple of animals, a "little" side story, Zootopia meets American Idol, and lots more.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Doctor Strange" casts a spell of wit, charm, and more than a little brains




Movie: Doctor Strange
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swanton, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Verdict
The latest addition to Marvel’s cinematic juggernaut is a fun and spine tingling homage to the company's resident Sorcerer Supreme, casting a dazzling spell through solid acting and a surprising degree of humor and intelligence that, despite its flaws, is sure to enchant superhero fans both old and new.

In depth
I’ll be honest: this was the one hero movie this year besides Deadpool that I was really looking forward to.  Marvel’s Doctor Strange has always been a personal favorite of mine, a singular studious intellectual in a comic environment so often steeped in muscle-bound machismo and fisticuffs showdowns.  And when I first saw the trailer and the star-studded cast, I can’t say I wasn’t stoked.  Too often I slouch into theaters with my expectations decidedly low, but this time, I threw caution to the wind, confident that my good faith would be rewarded.  And it was, for while Doctor Strange has more than a few foibles to contend with and has been at the center of a bit of controversy thanks to its very specific changes to the mythos, it stands out even in the MCU for its pitch-perfect humor and the surprising depth with which it treats its subject - leaving you to ponder mystical allegories on faith long after the credits close.

Our story begins in what’s now become a staple of Hollywood films - the in medias res, where an unlucky librarian gets unceremoniously offed by rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his band of magical zealots, before they encounter the eminent Ancient One, played by the stately Tilda Swanton.  What follows is a not-so-subtle display of the film’s dizzying special effects masquerading as a sorcerer showdown, before eventually cutting to the star of the show: Cumberbatch as the brilliant Stephen Strange, a neurosurgical phenom as arrogant as he is talented, living the self-absorbed and self-adulating lifestyle of a scientific rock star.  His house of cards come tumbling down when a bit of on road recklessness leads to a tragic accident, maiming his hands and his career.  Thrown into an existential free fall from which even ex-girlfriend and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) couldn’t shake him, he exhausts both his assets and the patience of everyone around him, chasing one dead end solution after another, before an unlikely source sends him halfway around the world to Kamar-Taj, a tossed salad of 1960s mythologized “Asian” culture tucked away in the Himalayas.  He stumbles into Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), a mysterious stranger who leads him to the inner sanctum of the Ancient One.  But little does he realize that his personal quest for healing has roped him into an endless cycle of interdimensional conflicts, wherein lies the fate of the entire world.

By this point, dedicated fans and casual moviegoers alike have come to expect a lot from the MCU - namely, smart writing, high-octane action, and strong pacing with likable characters.  And Doctor Strange is no exception, gifted with a solid cast and loads of humor.  Cumberbatch is, as expected, a great choice for Strange, grasping the nuances of the character’s arrogance and sense of entitlement, but never pushing him past the point of likability.  Actors tend to slap down the flaws of a narcissist in too clumsy a manner, but Cumberbatch went for the slow burn instead, starting off as a committed if justifiably proud surgeon, before the accident lifts the veil to reveal just how wounded he is on the inside - and he pulls it off without a hitch.

But honestly, we shouldn't dwell too much on the characters - they aren't the main source of the movie’s strength, which lies largely in the smart themes and sharp humor permeating the whole thing.  For one, Doctor Strange refreshingly doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Whether it’s our main boy's muddled attempts to interact with the Sanctum’s impassive Beyonce-loving librarian (Benedict Wong) or his wrestling with an overly affectionate cape that’s chosen him to be its master, most of the scenes - even the serious ones - are graced with a delightful wit that never feels forced or out of place.  Compared to the DC Extended Universe’s mournful and self-important snooze fests, or even the mythos baggage Marvel properties have started to accumulate with some of its long runners, Strange is a nice breath of fresh air.

But the truly amazing thing is how Derrickson managed to combine this humor with a surprisingly intelligent nod towards faith and moral complexity.  It's no Stoic discourse, to be sure, and the jury's still on how much of it was actually intended; however, the largely PC-influenced changes the directing team made from the source opened the door to some pretty relevant topics in this day and age.  Stephen Strange may be an insufferable tool in many ways, but he’s mentally flexible and quite comfortable grappling with moral complexity, especially if it helps the greater good.  Most other characters are defined by how they respond to this basic religio-ethical tension.  Mordo starts off as the stereotypical magical guide, but his fanatical commitment to the Ancient One and the ways of the sorcerer reveals a dangerously narrow view of the world.  Kaecilius blames his start of darkness (through an unbelievably verbose chunk of Villain Exposition) on a revelation tantamount to a young religious neophyte discovering church hypocrisy for the very first time.  The Ancient One herself is a bit of a cypher, shedding the straight-forward “old Asian master” persona in the source material for a more nuanced and conflicted character - one whose own dark secrets rest at the heart of the plot.

And in the end, subsuming characterization for the sake of the narrative was an excellent decision.  Aside from Strange and the hilarious straight man antics of Benedict Wong, the characters stand out more by their service to the plot than by their ability to drive it.  Again, this is in sharp contrast to the current trend in Avengers centered story lines, so wrapped around the iconic portrayals of a few key characters that it’s sometimes hard to tease out the plot underneath.  And it works; while I normally warn against sacrificing a strong character for a plot utility, that’s only because it so rarely gets done right.  But Derrickson and co. held it together, and the results speak for themselves.

Not everything is all spells and spectacle in Doctor Strange’s magic garden, of course.  Christine Palmer is entirely superfluous, and a tremendous waste of a good actress.  The character herself isn’t bad, but she accomplishes little to nothing by her presence besides being a prop for Strange’s existence, and somehow manages to embody the worst of what Ben Child, writing for The Guardian, calls Marvel’s “girlfriend problem” - without even being a love interest in the traditional sense.  Beyond that, the special effects were a big “ho-hum,” running the gamut from wildly gaudy screen-bending effects to cheap magical visuals resembling some junior artist’s first-time fumble through Blender.  Also, although the beginning up to his arrival at Kamar-Taj is perfectly paced, thereafter the film gets wonky with our sense of time, glossing over parts of his training that could have been extended to better effect, or letting large swaths of the cast disappear in many fights scenes like this was a Mortal Kombat movie.

But besides that, and a little inconsistency on how badly damaged Strange’s hands are supposed to be, I was quite pleased with this rendition of the "other" good Doctor.  On most levels, it’s the nicely balanced blend of action, story, and likable characters that define the MCU so well, and places it leagues above DC’s paltry offerings so far.  Most of its problems are not show stoppers by any stretch, and the generous amounts of humor and thought more than make up for them.

Grade: B+