“Home” Review

Dreamworks is an animation studio that usually aims to match the level of Pixar’s visual beauty, but rarely do they reach that level of storytelling. Home comes as a bit of a surprise in that it’s a bland dud in both categories. You need only compare the movie to Dreamworks’ projects of last year: the fantastical splendor of How to Train Your Dragon 2 and the quick wit of Penguins of Madagascar. By comparison, Home feels so stock and simple that it is as though it were produced by a studio struggling to be a Dreamworks production.

The design is just a bore. The gummy-shaped aliens known as the Boov are squat and simple beings that all look alike. I sensed a channelling of the formula for Minions, but those banana-colored, pill-shaped guys at least had a few differentiating designs to tell them apart. These aliens all seem as though they were clones, differing only in voice and maybe a mustache. But for as doe-eyed and cute as Dreamworks aims to make the Boov, they grated on my nerves with their annoying stupidity and inability to find a proper home planet. They’re led by an idiot of a king voiced by Steve Martin that has no idea how to lead, but plenty of time to babble in Steve Martin lingo. Somehow they manage to conquer Earth by vacuuming all the humans and quarantine them to Australia. How this tactic differed from their earlier conquering methods – where the Boov couldn’t handle carnivorous beasts or giant robots – is never answered. Perhaps Earth decided to destroy all their weapons. It’s the only acceptable reason how this invasion went so flawlessly.

The Boov are such ridiculously uneducated creatures – invading a planet where they don’t even comprehend how a toilet works – that the runt of the litter has to be incredibly foolish. So unlikable is this character that he has been designated as Oh (Jim Parsons), named after the sigh induced by his presence. All the Boov make loads of mistakes, but Oh is singled out considering his mistakes mostly damage his entire race. You can almost smell the heartfelt message about being an outcast careening towards the second act.

When Oh causes one too many culture-destroying errors, he goes on the lam to find a new home in Antarctica. Along the way he picks up the only human girl outside capture – a plucky preteen named Tip (Rihanna). She’s not a very interesting character outside of seeking her mom and acting as the straight character to the goofy Oh. They go ahead on their little road trip to their locations of choice, becoming best of friends along the way while they learn valuable lessons about family, friendship and all that jazz.

I don’t like walking into a movie where I can predict its outcome and my opinion, but there was a little voice in the back of my head that just screamed this movie was a product of an assembly line. All promotional materials seemed to suggest that this movie was rushed from Dreamworks’ template where they forgot to remove the placeholder content. They designed cute aliens, but didn’t make them unique. They added in a kid-relatable character, but forgot to give her personality. They staged a large-scale chase across an iconic city, but forgot to make it thrilling. They made the story family friendly, but threw out a truckload of logic in its world to make it so. They even jump the gun by relying on the tired device of dancing to pop music far too early that the inevitable finale of a dance party fizzles out any entertainment.

Home may seem as a cute little animation for the kids, but it’s overly fluffed up with soft content that even the kids will grow weary of its artificial sweeteners. There’s no imminent threat to make it thrilling, no big challenges for the characters to conquer and no daring nature to the story or its comedy. It’s a passive movie that will not offend with any violence or scary scenes, but won’t be uniquely entertaining either. And this is precisely why I can’t recommend the picture in that there is hardly any excitement or risk. Animated films should inspire the imagination of children with characters they can identify with and visuals that stimulate wonder. They shouldn’t just distract with a few crude jokes about urine, add in a familiar song with dancing and send them on their way.

And as long as I’m coming down hard on the movie, I might as well admit it: I hated the Boov. I didn’t like their design, their character or the culture. By the end of the picture I was hoping a large alien armada would swoop in to zap these little guys into globs of gelatin. Are these the kinds of thoughts a grown man should be having during an animated children’s movie which just wanted to be sweet and silly? Chalk that up to one more reason not to see this picture.

“Monster High: Scaris, City of Frights” Review

Once more I venture into the limitless void of the TV movie franchise Monster High. Intended as little more than a commercial for the brand of monster themed dolls, I desperately search for something to latch onto from the perspective of an adult male. I’m not picky – a clever use of dialogue, some decent character development, good looking animation or even just one small gag that makes me chuckle. I don’t walk into this endless array of Monster High movies expecting the worst every time. I genuinely pop in each disc hoping that this will be the one – this will be the movie where I finally see that hidden power of Monster High outside its marketing angle. Sadly, this is not that movie.

But let’s be fair. This is not the worst Monster High movie I’ve seen. The story at least has a decent angle. One lucky student specializing in fashion, Clawdeen Wolf (trademarked), receives the chance of a lifetime to travel to Scaris, France and compete for an apprenticeship with a top designer, Madame Ghostier (trademarked). That’s not a half-bad idea considering it’s within the wheelhouse of the franchise and the characters. The whole Devil Wears Prada plot allows for some unique characters added into the mix as well including a skeleton girl with a painted skull. No devil designer present though which could have made for some better jokes. It’s a genuine surprise from a series where all the characters look virtually identical and rely entirely on references and bad puns for comedy.

And, oh, how I wish there was something more to enjoy. The flat characters of simple phrases and traits seriously hamper the story that aims to include as many monsters as possible. Very little of Scaris takes advantage of the French location and theme outside of the cartoonish stereotypes. Then again, there isn’t much to showcase from the TV-budgeted animation of the stretchy CGI animation. The movie could at least take advantage of the monster angle which it almost always fails to capitalize on.

There’s one gag that manages to be effective as the girls remark on the skeletons in the catacombs. Turns out they’re just taking naps and shush anybody who wakes them. It’s a decent joke, but how does that explain an underground prison cell where it implies the last person wasted away to a skeleton? Does that imply that they still live on as a skeleton? Or can they become more accepted if they wear clothes and paint their skull? Are the catacomb skeletons actually hobos? Why do I keep asking these questions about a cartoon for little girls?

The most annoying aspect of the whole movie is that the plot refuses to stick to its running time. The real story wraps up about 40 minutes in. The remaining 20 are reserved for the ride back home in which the monster girls and boys hop around the globe to retrieve their luggage. The movie doesn’t even bother transitioning well into this segment by stating “hey, don’t you want to see how we got back?” Not really. You got on a plane, right? Oh, you had to make some detours to get back some mystical book that doesn’t really have any major consequences? Why did I need to see this? I’m perfectly content if the movie were only 40 minutes. This segment doesn’t really add anything extra to the story. It should be its own short or bonus episode included on the disc – not an excuse to bloat up a movie to an hour.

Scaris, City of Frights may be the only half-decent movie I’ve seen out of Monster High, but it’s still held back if not by its one-dimensional characters then for its short story (which required an extra episode just to make it an hour). Once again, I must preference this review in that I’m not in the target audience. I’m not 12, a girl or collect the dolls. I’m just an adult man writing a negative review about a cartoon movie made specifically and unquestionably to sell toys to little girls.

“.hack//G.U. The Trilogy” Review

The world of .hack has grown far too meta and silly for its own good by the time it reached G.U. One glance at this movie and you’d swear you were watching a video game which is what .hack//G.U. happens to be. It’s a movie based on a video game about people playing a video game using video game animation. So even though you’re watching another cliche pastiche of anime action, it has the angle of being a video game that is hardly taken advantage of. But .hack can’t spend all its time trying to make its world a convincing online gaming environment. To do so means that the convoluted story would crumble under its own templated ambitions.

The online world of .hack//G.U. once again asks the viewer to put aside all semblance and rules of reality (literally). Pretend that the only way to solve an issue with video game users being thrown into comas with a video game is to actually go in the game and recruit players to solve this mystery. And by solve I mean wander around in the game and pretend to stir up drama. You can’t just shut down the game and debug this very serious issue. If the developers of the game did that, then we’d have no story.

The story is a-typical anime affair. Emotionally scarred hero befriends perky/shy girl. Girl is attacked by evil, emotionless man. Evil man and emotional hero fight for an extended period of time. I could make some ironic joke about how these fight sequences look like watching a video game instead of a movie, but I’ll keep it simple by just saying how blah the animation appeared. By 2007 standards, it’s not terrible CGI. In fact, it’s actually slightly higher on the scale of cel-shaded 3D animation. But it’s only used for moments of stilted dialogue and minimal-keyframe battles. It’s amazing how computer graphics can offer up something entirely different from hand-drawn animation, but this movie seems to be focused on replicating all of anime’s limitations – as if it were its own style to animating less.

There’s one big glaring problem with this whole setup and it’s that we never see the real world outside of this video game. It would really help sell the danger if we could actually see some of these players in reality being affected by the game and put into comas. Instead, the movie just expects you to take its word for it. For all we know, the characters we watch are not actually avatars of real people. They could all just be programs that are not aware of who they really are. We never see any of these characters not in the game so it’s entirely plausible.

As with all the .hack franchise productions, this title shares the same fundamental flaw of failing to take advantage of its own concept. You rarely feel as though you are witnessing a game world and more of a fantasy realm where sometimes an electronic display will pop up. In between all the dull-as-dishwater fights are some brief glimpses of creativity for the digital world. As a female avatar descends into a coma, she is confronted by ascending bubbles that burst with the snickers and gossip of those that judge the player in real life. There’s something here – something that could be capitalized upon to bring some character and world building to this anime. But the bubble bursts and it’s gone.

.hack//G.U. continues to expand the lore of its world and does nothing to bring outsiders into the fold. If you haven’t watched the previous anime series or played any of the .hack games, there isn’t anything to latch onto in this movie (or trilogy or whatever). On the basis for being so run of the mill with its design and story, I can’t find much of anything in this release to warrant even a rental.

“Strange Magic” Review

Bless George Lucas’ heart for wanting to create an alternative animated film for his daughters. He puts forth an admirable effort to create an animated picture both unique and old-fashioned with its female-favoring story and plenty of musical numbers amid a classically told story of love and kingdoms. Strange Magic is a movie I want to love so badly in how daring and different it aims to be from the usual template of animated features. And yet I cannot bring myself to that point simply for all the familiar George Lucas faults, which remain present even when he’s not directing.

The story starts off simple enough, but soon twists itself into a series of love triangles. There is a good part of the forest with plants and fairies and a bad part of the forest inhabited with swamps and bugs. The good-natured Fairy Kingdom is about to have a wedding as the ecstatic princess Marianne is to be wed to the cocky Roland. But when she discovers that Roland has secretly given his heart to another, Marianne quickly sheds her princess persona to become a hardened warrior vowing never to fall in love again. Fairies must have wicked mood swings to go from romanced royalty to battle-hungry soldier in a few minutes. Perhaps the abundance of too much splendor in an overly cheerful forest kingdom brings out a quick wish to strife.

While Marianne builds up her angst, her best friend Dawn becomes kidnapped by the evil Bog King of the dark swamp lands. This comes just as the shy elf Sunny has acquired a love potion he hopes will win him the heart of Dawn. But when Dawn inhales the potion, the person she spots to fall in love with is the Bog King. Thus begins an adventure tale of sword fights, giant forest creatures, romance and musical numbers.

While all the songs are sung by different characters in context to their current emotions, these are all cover songs of classic rock and pop tunes. Nearly all the songs are actually sung by the lead voice actors Evan Rachael Wood and Alan Cumming. While their singing voices are more than decent, it made me wonder how much better they’d fair with more original songs as opposed to the overly familiar melodies of Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. George Lucas stated that he initially wanted to have Beatles songs, but they were too expensive. While it might have made the music a little more interesting, I doubt it would’ve improved the presentation nor would the other idea to simply make the movie an opera.

The biggest hurdle for any animated film to conquer – especially one that has been tossed around to various companies – is the animation itself. In terms of design and texture, this computer animated world doesn’t look half-bad. There was certainly some detail put into this as one of the cast members remarked how many changes her character’s hair went through. And while it’s pleasing to see computer animation with designs more anatomical than stylized, it certainly could have used more appeal. Maybe it was due to the production lasting 15 years in various stages, but the characters resembled those old animation tutorials I used to use in college. The fairies, trolls and elves all resemble designs that seem ripped straight from a student animation. It’s an A+ student project, mind you, but this is a theatrical animated picture we’re talking about written by an accomplished filmmaker.

There is some humor and spunk to Strange Magic, but it’s just as shoehorned in as the musical numbers amid a twisty plot of romances. All of the appeal – progressively appealing as it seems – just narrowly misses the mark. The animation is decent, but most kids are not going to respond to an animated film of decent quality. The songs are a charming addition, but outplay their welcome as the relation grows more base with the on-screen emotions. And, most importantly, it all just doesn’t blend as well it should. A fairy romance/action/musical animated picture may work someday, but not with this movie. With its fluctuating tones and simple story elements, Strange Magic is more strange than magical.

“Lalaloopsy: Festival of Sugary Sweets” Review

Years ago I ripped apart the merchandising vehicle that was Monster High, hoping it would die out within a few years for a new fad. Not only did it spur forth with many more films, but now it has expanded into live-action music videos. I later saw grown women donning the garb of the monster dolls for a costume contest. For as much as I loathed the pun-heavy writing and bland character development of those films, I now find myself pining for the eye-rolling of Monster High. After watching another one of these Lalaloopsy videos, I’d be grateful if my eyes could do something besides droop in boredom.

There really is nothing to this story and I’m struggling to find something to latch onto with Festival of Sugary Sweets. The doll world of the Lalaloopsy girls is currently obsessed with their festival of assembling mountains of pastries and cakes. I guess cavities are never an issue when everyone in your society is made of yarn, cloth and buttons. But, oh no, they’ve run out of sugar! What will they do for the festival? They learn to experiment with natural sweeteners and use more fruits and vegetables for assembling treats. And that’s about all there is in a script that’s padded out to fill 45 minutes. There is no major crisis that affects the festival and no character hangups that force anybody to learn anything.

But the way the film just quickly glazes over the aspects of the Lalaloopsy society did leave me with a few questions about their mechanics. The girls of this doll world seem to have organic means of consumption the way they are constantly gobbling down pastries and cakes. I originally thought that sweets were their sole means of nutrition given how it’s all I ever see them eat. Then the film introduces natural sweets and healthier options which may suggest that Lalaloopsy’s agriculture has similar formation to humans. But it appears that two of the littlest girls can make mud pies and actually eat them. This tears down most of my theory in that it’s possible the Lalaloopsy girls don’t actually have any taste buds or proper organs to process food. Is the act of eating just for pretend, echoing previous lifeforms that had taste and digestion?

This brings about the evolutionary questioning of Lalaloopsy’s conception. Just who made these girls and how are they created? I’m assuming they have some grand creator as there are no mothers or fathers present for these girls who seem to live on their own. Maybe they are all orphans of a horrible genetic experiment in combining brains with yarn, exiling the subjects to a secluded island where they run out their remaining days in harmless splendor. They all certainly appear to be built for specific purposes in mind the way their one-track habits rob them of any true personality. The cheerleader girl only cheers people in every aspect of life. Not cheering people on must result in termination of her functions since this character does nothing else in this movie. There are younger girls in the group so perhaps they have also mastered the art of procreation in their yarn-assembled race.

And I just now realized I’ve wrote an examination of Lalaloopsy longer and deeper than anyone will ever care to write. I’ve also probably written the word Lalaloopsy more times than any normal human being should have to write.

Festival of Sugary Sweets is another addition to the Lalaloopsy universe with more artificial sweetener than Splenda. There’s no engaging story or character development to hold your attention even on the most base level of children’s entertainment. The dolls are probably a great product and are a better use of time for kids to develop their creativity. Leave them alone with some of these toys for 45 minutes and I guarantee they’ll weave a better tale than this bland excuse for tie-in marketing.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Review

The sequel to How to Train Your Dragon succeeds where many continuing animated features falter. Having established this fantasy world, the next step is to naturally expand on the characters and exploring new wonders. Some films are not strong enough to keep these elements going and usually display how there was only enough material for one film. Thankfully, How to Train Your Dragon 2 proves that it has plenty of character, lore and fun to keep the film series going. At least for one sequel anyway.

The Viking island of Berk has grown very accustomed to the presence of dragons. They’re not just pets or fulfilling Flintstones-style jobs, but companions they befriend for flight and games. While the village enjoys the dragons for all these benefits, Hiccup and his dragon Toothless explore the many islands to map out undiscovered regions. It’s not just something fun to do with his dragon pal as he tests out his new flight suit, but helps him clear his mind of his father pressuring him to take over the clan.

While exploring the regions, they run into a band of dragon capturers who work for the warlord Drago. Hiccup and Toothless stumble upon this group and their bitter feud with a mysterious figure known as the Dragon Rider. Curious about the special powers of this Dragon Rider, Hiccup seeks out the individual which turns out to be a long lost family member. While Hiccup attempts to reunite his family and spend some time discovering more secrets of dragons, Drago has set his sights on both the Dragon Rider’s home for dragons in the mountains and Hiccup’s hometown of Berk. With a massive army at Drago’s disposal that continues to grow, Hiccup is going to need all the help he can get to save his people and his newfound family.

Returning director Dean DeBlois succeeds at bringing back the wonder and amazement for this world of dragons. In the first film, a select group of dragons were classified and explained. The sequel brings so many new and colorful kinds of dragons into the mix and let’s the audience get lost in the splendor of it all. From the little baby dragons with their erratic behaviour to the glacier-sized elder alpha, there are so many interesting creatures on screen that leaves you scrambling for the pause button to catch everything.

What helps keep the film moving is that it never slows down for anything. There is no elaborate narration given for the rules of the dragon sports game they play in Berk; it plops you right into the scene and trusts your eyes to convey how it works. There’s no detailed examination of how Hiccups fire-sword works; just a quick explanation of combining gas with a trigger. And one of my favorite moments is the reveal of Hiccup’s missing family member that’s unloaded gently and with grace as opposed to dumping it all into the script at once. This film is a perfect example of how an animated film can show instead of tell when there is so much to show.

Everything about the production is A-grade. From the various vast landscapes to smallest amounts of details on the character’s faces are top notch. I love the little defining features of the human characters from the aged whiskers of Stoick to Hiccup’s tiny scar on his chin. But, of course, the diverse mix of so many dragons that fill the screen are just as strong a sight to behold. From the triumphant score to the intricate sound design, I could down the list all day of just how many elements are knocked out of the park with this production.

The biggest flaw that many of these animated sequels fall into is becoming so obsessed with developing and playing with the already established elements that they forget to write an impressive story. DeBlois proves that he still has a story to tell and isn’t just rehashing. The family aspect to the story packs some real emotion that really does give the film its own tone providing a much more personal story than the first film. You really get a sense of family with the passing of the torch and taking care of your own. It’s a simple theme that plays so nicely you don’t mind how uneven the first act appears.

Whereas most sequels to stellar animated films seem just barely enjoyable, How to Train Your Dragon 2 manages to rise above the already spectacular predecessor. It’s a well-written machine with genuine emotion, fantastic flying sequences and still manages to be whole lot of fun. As far as Dreamworks sequels go, this is by far one of their best and certainly one I’d treasure for more than a few viewings.

“Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart” Review

Computer animated films tend to follow a specific track to keep everything looking clean, pretty and bouncy. ‘Jack and the Cuckoo Clock’ attempts to break all the rules and delivers a more artistic animated film as if it were a trippy fantasy from the 1970’s. It plays with the medium, switches it up constantly and constructs a unique world of European gothic. The movie also happens to be a musical set with a darkly romantic tone and an undeniably odd charm. It’s as if someone took the brain of Tim Burton and injected it with a large dose of pep.

Our protagonist is a boy born on the coldest day that his heart was made of ice. Before it could melt, the midwife replaces his freezing organ with a cuckoo clock. After the depressed mother leaves, Jack is raised by the midwife so that he’ll adhere to the rules of maintaining his heart: Keep it clean, keep it wound and don’t fall in love. If the latter occurs, his clock could break down and kill him. But a little death by organ failure can’t stop a romantic youth. On his first visit into the city, he breaks into a song with the lovely Miss Acacia. During their duet, Jack pulls back just in time to save his faulty heart, but loses sight of his love at first sight. Pining for his love-at-first-sight, Jack attends public school with Acacia nowhere in sight. His presence is instead given note to the local bully Joe, determined to mock and assault our poor protagonist. Karma catches up with him, however, when Jack’s cuckoo goes off and pluck out Joe’s eye.

The threat of imprisonment forces Jack on the lamb where he joins a freak show circus of colorful characters. Led in by an eccentric camera man, Jack finds work as a haunted roller coaster host. It is there that he finally meets the lovely Acacia who turns out to have a freaky talent for growing thorns from her skin. Unfortunately, several years have past and the girl no longer recognize Jack as the cute boy she shared a song with on the streets. She recalls the moment, but doesn’t it relate it to Jack. He’s going to have to win her back and fast seeing as how she’s already taken a liking to the villainous Joe.

This is a tremendous film with animation unlike any other feature film out there. Everything from the character designs to the architecture feel very off with a gothic tone adding to the otherworldly quality. I especially dug the design of the trains as octagon accordions that stretch and contract when in motion. The characters all look like big-headed dolls from some old collection unearthed specifically for this film. They don’t have the largest range of emotion, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The film also happens to be very well shot, playing with every single advantage of computer animation from the coiling shadows to the strange perspectives through dreams and cameras.

I should mention that this movie also happens to be a musical. The songs are not exactly memorable, sounding more like an opera, but they serve their purpose well adding more style and charm to a film that is already bursting at the seams with it. This is one of the most alluring animated films I’ve seen with an appealing dark fantasy that hooks you almost instantly. Though it may echo elements of Tim Burton’s worlds, it’s presented in this film with far more originality and creativity. The film ends on a somber note with the most artistic representation of accepting one’s fate with the climbing of snowflakes in a frozen world. ‘Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart’ is a true artistic feature film that dares to experiment in an expensive medium.

“Team Hot Wheels: The Origins of Awesome” Review

I’ve seen so many of these commercial-based animated films over the years which do little more to sell toys that you start to grow tired of their shameless formula. ‘Team Hot Wheels’, however, managed to surprise me from its first vivid and wildly colored shot. A mysterious car whizzes through the dessert with a popping purple dust. It looks like something straight of an A+ animation student’s demo reel and that style maintains throughout the picture. As far as these types of movies go, this one has a unique animation style with a clever wit unlike anything I’d expect for a direct-to-video release.

The story is simple enough. Four kids are so bored with their town that they congregate with a local automotive mechanic the helps them fix up go-karts. When they’re behind the steering wheel, these kids own the town with their various expertise that include gadgets and daring feats. My favorite of the group is the portly member who fancies himself a car guru believing he can connect with a vehicle through meditation and oneness. Their town is put in peril, however, when a strange driver known as Rev rips up the road of the town with his seemingly magical car. Apparently it has some form of imagination generation that causes all kinds of strange effects as when pigeons turn giant and a robotic Abe Lincoln turns evil. Being a Hot Wheels film, you’ve also got to have that tie in with the iconic orange tracks. The kids are the town’s only hope as the eccentric and sly mechanic they befriend bestows some super-powered cars they can utilize to catch the speedy menace. Don’t bother questioning whether kids should be driving such cars without licenses as that would slow down the momentum.

‘Team Hot Wheels’ has a lot to love from the start. All the character have some very funny dialogue on par with animated pictures such as ‘Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs’ and ‘The LEGO Movie’. Very few of the gags ever miss a beat and have the perfect timing to keep any family smiling throughout. The animation style is also very admirable as a cross between traditional 2D animation and 3D computer graphics. A true mark of quality is when you can’t quite tell the difference between the two mediums. The only time it becomes abundantly clear is during the car racing scenes in which the vehicles are far too slick compared to the rest of the animation.

While I enjoyed the spirit and the look of this movie so much, it was rather disappointing that this was such a substandard story. The mysterious car chase is a decent concept, but then the plot begins to veer off into needless filler with the boys experimenting on animal DNA. The boys want faster cars so they use the DNA of various fearsome animals to create self-aware vehicles with an unstable nature. It’s the one time during this video that I felt it was a shameless plug for toys. The whole plot with Rev, as loose as the rules for that scenario were, was far more entertaining watching the boys save their town from all kinds of weird creations Rev leaves in his wake.

I grew a little tired with ‘Team Hot Wheels’, but was impressed enough by the characters and the animation to recommend the video. Kids and adults alike will appreciate its enthusiastic nature, but I just wish it had a better story to elevate all the other elements. This production team deserves another movie and a better script which I hope they’ll receive in the future. If they do, they’ll be able to make some an animated film that transcends any other animation on home video.

“Batman: Assault on Arkham” Review

The villains of Batman tend to be much more intriguing than the title hero and now a handful of them have been given their own animated film. But rather than admiring their pathos, this film is more a Dirty Dozen deal. The villains are not spruced up to be more redeemable protagonists and are instead given the reluctant rouge angle. They’re all still evil characters, but just evil enough to be likable for the rather violent mission forced upon them.

The secret government organization known as Suicide Squad takes in villains and offers them a chance to shave off some time from their prison sentence. In exchange, they must complete a secret mission for the government. If they fail, being captured won’t be an issue as the explosives attached to their necks will explode. And, naturally, these missions are not voluntary. The group selected for this mission includes the keen-eyed assassin Deadshot, the witty Captain Boomerang and the overly eccentric Harley Quinn among others. Their mission is to break into Arkham Asylum and take out the recently captured Edward Niggma. But once the group starts questioning the reasons behind the secret murder, they try to stay one step ahead of Suicide Squad supervisor Amanda Waller. And with The Joker running loose inside the asylum and Batman hot on their trails, they’ve got their work cut out for them in addition to dealing with the security.

While the villains we follow for this story are mostly B and C listers of the DC Comics roster, they’re still very fun to follow in a darkly comedic way. It helps that the film is setup with this tone similar to that of a 1970’s mercenary ensemble feature. I was reminded of those 1980’s mercenery ensemble pictures if not for the music and editing than for the slick introductions given to our key players. The manner in which they proceed to carry out their tasks while retaining their despicable behavior is incredibly entertaining. I guess I was just more impressed that film did not dial back on the villainy. This is a group that while reluctantly working together still will not hesitate to kill one of their own if they can get ahead. There is just enough backstory given to Deadshot where we identify with him the most and hope he’ll make it out alive.

It may sound strange writing this, but Batman and Joker are the weaker links of this movie. The Dark Knight manages to pull off shreds of good detective work, but his master plan for infiltrating the Suicide Squad could be seen a mile away and wasn’t all that surprising when it was revealed. The twisted love triangle between Joker, Harley and Deadshot was not as strong acting as a setup for the third act showdown. Joker manages to get in some mildly amusing bits, but nowhere near as entertaining as the relationship between Killer Frost and King Shark or the sly wit of Captain Boomerang. This group manages to hold their own in this thriller of bad guys working for people are far more worse.

While ‘Batman: Assault on Arkham’ does have a thriller angle to uncovering the secrets of the Suicide Squad program, it’s much more enjoyable for its bombastic directing. It’s ruthlessly violent, scandalously sexual and a clever script to boot. This all manages to come together in a fun, almost campy appeal to prisoners breaking into a prison. It manages to be vastly different from DC Comic’s previous direct-to-video animated films which all seem to follow a similar template. For being so wildly different, I can’t help but recommend such a movie even with our title character missing for half the film.

“The Wind Rises” Review

The animated films of Hayao Miyazaki have always been one step above the competition in animation and storytelling, humbling even the best directors at Disney. So you can imagine my excitement and sadness to discover that The Wind Rises will be his final film. Even though this isn’t the first time he’s made this announcement since all the way back in 1997, this latest animated feature seems to have all the signs of a final curtain.

Unlike Miyazaki’s other features, The Wind Rises takes place in a realistic time focusing on the real life of World War 2 fighter plane designer Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). This is not a war movie, however, as it mainly focuses on Jiro’s dreams and aspirations of designing planes. Air combat does appear in his dreams, but most of his visions are that of speaking to famous plane designer Caproni (Stanley Tucci). In his dreams, Jiro discusses his career aspirations with Caproni as the two of them float and walk along various aircraft in flight.

This continuous inspiration helps fuel Jiro’s desires for becoming a top-notch aircraft designer. Not even the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that mostly decimated his school could hold him back. All Jiro could think about was how to make a design soar faster and better, despite limited materials. He spends most of his lunch breaks in college looking at fish bones trying to find the perfect curve for his masterpiece of engineering. While every waking moment seems to be obsessed with his craft, he still manages to find time for love when he crosses paths with the beautiful Nahoko (Emily Blunt). And though they spend most of their lives separated by tragedy, their romance stands the test of time.

It should go without saying that the latest film from Studio Ghibli is nothing short of a masterpiece. The animation completely wraps you into the setting with lush green landscapes and bold aerial visions with a painterly quality. The musical score composed by Joe Hisashi matches the majesty of the visuals. I don’t honestly find this to be one Ghibli’s best productions, but even their lesser films are still a massive cut above the rest. There really is nothing like them, even for a film as down to earth as The Wind Rises.

It’s clear why Miyazaki chose such a story for his final film. He identifies with Jiro’s desire for perfection and getting the most out of one’s life. This makes The Wind Rises one of his most personal films that honestly feels more like an examination of how Miyazaki recognizes his lifetime than an analysis of Jiro Horikoshi’s legacy. He inserts several elements from his previous films that captured the wonder of imagination and the human spirit.

That’s not to say that the story of Jiro doesn’t stand well enough on its own. It’s amazing to watch both his career soar and his love for Nahoko develop. Though I must admit we spend much more time inside Jiro’s head than we do with his love interest. This makes the romance feel a little rushed and slightly inorganic given the large amount of time the two spend apart. Uneven as it is, the moments where the two connect are touching and overflowing with emotion more than any other animated couple I’ve ever seen.

At one point Jiro is invited to Germany to examine various aircraft and is thrilled with the experience though heavily censored by officials. As I said, this is not a war movie so you won’t hear much mention of the Nazis or tension with the United States. This is a more personal look at one’s life during rocky times in the background.

If the film had to be classified, it would have to be a romance. This is for both the tragic love story between Jiro and Nahoko as well as Jiro’s passionate obsession with perfection. In one of his visions, Caproni tells Jiro that he’ll only have ten years in the sun. After living through a decade of triumphs and failures, the icon of Jiro’s dreams asks if it was worth it. He agrees as he watches his designs soar off into the sunset. It’s a fitting final scene and a wonderful way to remember one of the greatest animation directors of all-time.