Tag Archives: Fantasy

This Pirate Will Never Get Old!

21 May , 2011,
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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Poster Art

With Hollywood franchises, especially something with a decade long shelf life like Pirates of the Caribbean, you’d expect its fourth installment to be all at sea. After all,  there’s only so much pirate-y dialogue, swashbuckling, and rum chugging you can stomach before it’s milked dry and the gags get old.

And that is why On Stranger Tides is strangely refreshing. With a new director (Rob Marshall, who did Chicago and Memoirs of A Geisha) at the helm, it baulks doing more of the same, injecting a fair dose of plot, some great character development, and *gasp* enough adventure into this tired ship’s sails to keep it seaworthy.

Picking up where Pirates 3: At World’s End left off, 4 opens in London, with the series’ iconic pirate Cap’n Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, of course) traipsing through courtrooms, swinging from chandeliers, staring down royalty (well, King George), and generally careening from disaster to disaster before he gets shanghaied into joining the crew of Blackbeard’s ship, and suborned into leading the notorious pirate to the fabled Fountain of Youth.

Of course, it’s not much of an adventure if there’s nobody else after the macguffin right? That’s why we’ve got the Spanish armada, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, powdered wig and all) after it too, resulting in more than a few hairy moments and roguish antics.

Depp’s performance this time is no less animated than in his previous forays. Cap’n Jack is still a scoundrel through and through, though there’s also a certain maturity, and a fair bit of tension with the introduction of love interest Angelica (played by Penelope Cruz). There’s a bit of sauciness going on between the two of them, and while things don’t ever get racy (thanks to this being a Disney production), naughty things are implied, making it the cheekiest Pirates yet.

Ian McShane, who played the black hearted Blackbeard, made for an intense villain, while Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey wasn’t half bad as a mermaid with some actual lines.

The movie had its flaws, but these came in the way of choreography and the overall presentation. The swashbuckling scenes were decent, but not stellar (and in fact, it was the chase at the very beginning that only really appealed to me), and the melee scenes, whether between Blackbeard’s crew and the mermaids, or the three corner fight at the climax, were cluttered and chaotic. Rob Marshall demonstrated better control with scenes involving fewer actors though, and his framing of tight close ups proved impressive.

The score was, as usual, impressive. Hans Zimmer had a hand in it, of course, so hey, whaddya expect? The script, adapted from a novel with the same title, proved fairly pedestrian, but then again, Pirates isn’t all about script. It’s about spectacle, and that’s what it manages to deliver.

Overall, Pirates 4 proved a mostly entertaining film.  It tickled my geek sensibilities, and if you’ve sat through all three Pirates movies and didn’t mind them, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Also, if you’re starved for fantasy or period fare till Your Highness comes out next week, Pirates 4 makes for something to tide you over.

(Aika)rumba!

31 Mar , 2011,
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AIKA SEA - Login Screen

Everytime AsiaSoft announces that it’s acquired a new MMO title, I die a little.

This Asian MMO distributor has been responsible for an endless string of free-to-play duds, and their latest offering, AIKA SEA, is just another in that long list that’s more likely than not, going to crash and burn once those poor teens who can’t afford a monthly World of Warcraft subscription (but can somehow pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars for A-Cash credits) get their fill of killing swine and each other.

Obviously, AIKA isn’t new. Like many other MMOs that hit Singapore’s shores, it’s only managed to make it here months after the International version’s gone gold. And that’s the exact reason why AIKA looks like it’s light years behind when it comes to the overall look and visual appeal. Worse still, it’s got the exact feel of any other Korean grinder (and man, it’s grindy) and music that makes you feel like poking out your eardrums, just because.

In AIKA, you play an Elter – a hero chosen by the goddess Aika to combat the evil Zerecas. Along the way, you get to beat on other players, and fight for your home country in large scale PVP oriented campaigns, relic hunts, and castle sieges.

Say "Goodbye" to female wizards, manginas!

You get to pick one of six classes – the warrior, the crusader (a paladin), sniper, dual gunner (thank god they spelled dual right). night magician (warlock), and priest.

They’re really all of three archetypes – the fighter, the rogue, and the spellcaster, and there’s about as much variety in their skill sets as there are doorknobs.

The class you choose also determines your gender (yes, it’s a little discriminatory), so all you manginas out there, you’re out of options if you want to play a female warrior or wizard. Better luck next game!

Character customization is the pits. You’re stuck with only a handful of hairstyles, hair colors and facial types, and the costumes… let’s just leave it at “meh”. (Clearly, you’re encouraged to squander real world money on virtual items from the in-game Cash Shop if you want to look like anything other than everyone else and their mother’s son.)

Like duh, Captain Obvious!

When I said boars, I wasn't kidding.

Mechanically though, there’s little to really complain about. The controls are simple enough (or idiot proof enough), using the standard WASD buttons, and other hot keys to call up your inventory and on screen menus. When you target a monster and hit a key to activate a power, it will autocast – spamming the ability over and over until either the monster’s dead, or you are.

I didn’t mind the Autoloot feature – where everything that drops is automatically added to your inventory (it’s a step up from right clicking a body to loot it), but you tend to run out of bag space pretty fast.

The quest interface though is incredibly annoying, and you have to scroll through a whole bunch of text, sit through cringe worthy voice acting, and worse of all, read the horrible, horrible dialogue to understand what exactly Poor Peasant A wants.

The first few quests are all about boars, boars, and more bores (and trust me, it gets boar-ing). At least the monsters looked… kinda amusing and were relatively detailed. I was especially amused by the animated potato sacks I had to beat up, and the ganguro goblins in the next zone.

Like a whole slew of other MMOs out there that decided it was actually fun for players to rear their own Pokemon, Aika introduces the Pran system.

So your Pran's not just Tinkerbell. She's got some decent powers too. Wait, didn't Tinkerbell have more awesome powers?

Instead of a yellow, electric furball, you get a fairy that you can play dress-up Barbie with. Your pet fairy even grows up and interacts with you, offering hours of fun and excitement! Is that awesome or what? *sarcasm* (It’s actually a little creepy, if you ask me.)

Fine, so the Pran isn’t 100% useless. It actually gives you a token buff – like better damage output, or better defenses, but that’s really just window dressing, isn’t it?

Overall, AIKA SEA just doesn’t deliver. There’s nothing to set it apart from it’s peers (and all those free-to-play MMOs are a dime a dozen).

Sure, it’s attempted (albeit vaguely) to focus on the PVP component, but really, how many people playing MMOs play just to PVP when they’ve got so many better (and by better I mean real) options out there? The PVE facet too leaves a great deal to be desired. The trivial metaplot and story don’t help at all either.

I have no doubt a fair bit of AsiaSoft’s infinitely loyal, A-Cash chomping fanbase is going to jump aboard the AIKA SEA bandwagon anyway. but if you’re a discerning MMO player, then I’ve got three words to say to you.

Don’t-Play-It.

This Sucker Packs A Real Punch!

22 Mar , 2011,
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Sucker Punch - Poster Art

Put five beautiful lasses in leather and latex, arm them to the teeth with two tons of firepower, sic them on a horde of movie mash up monsters, and you’ve got Zack Snyder’s winning formula for a geek wet dream.

I’m talking about Sucker Punch, people, and thanks to the awesome folks at Movie Mania, I was able to get my mitts on a pair of tix to the gala screening tonight.

Sucker Punch combines the best elements of action and pulp fantasy.

It’s the tale of Babydoll, a young girl wrongfully incarcerated in a mental asylum by her abusive stepfather, whose only recourse from her cruel and unusual fate is to retreat deep into her imagination, where she finds the inspiration, and courage to plan a bold escape before she gets lobotomized.

Aided by four other girls – the spunky Rocket, earnest Amber, crafty Blondie, and Sweet Pea, who serves as the voice of reason, they attempt a bold plan to steal four items from their captors – a map, fire,  a knife, and a key, which when used together, would set them free.

Perception vs. Reality much?

From the get go, you know that Sucker Punch is gonna be a movie with style.

The curtains go up to a very apt rendition of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams and a montage that makes bleak and gothic blanch a shade or three.  As we transit into the asylum, we get a healthy dose of foreshadowing – Snyder puts all the elements of the quest on the table in the first 20 or so minutes, and then begins to play God with diagetic reality.

The world peels away in layers – the asylum bleeds into a bordello, and then into a crazy, mashed up and war torn landscape. It’s a transition that’s almost seamless, always underscored by thematic music, and as danger in the real world mounts, Snyder ups the ante in the virtual world, with increasingly complex missions and monsters to face.

In fact, the music and sound engineering is amazing. Top-notch, even. All too often, Hollywood movies focus on the graphical element, and forget to touch on the aural, but Sucker Punch manages, above all else, to not only play it up, but to play it flawlessly.

I got my tix! XD

The world of mash ups is one spanking homage to pop culture after another – there’s giant samurai zombies wielding oversized swords, undead nazis in trenchcoats and gas masks, orcs and armored knights, an aerial dogfight between a dragon and a B-52, and mirror faced goons that look like they popped outta Terminator.

The choreography, camera angles, and CG effects are done tastefully. I didn’t mind the flagrant use of bullet time, slow motion, POV shots, and all the usual tricks in the book. Snyder didn’t shy from using such conventional elements, and they worked. Rather well.

Furthermore, there’s a distinctly surreal quality to Sucker Punch (lending even more weight to the whole imaginary element).

Sucker Punch is almost akin to Alice’s adventures  in a steampunk Wonderland, except Wonderland’s way, way darker and grittier now.

The action is violent and visceral, yet there’s not a single drop of blood on screen, and while the visuals aren’t entirely Dali-esque in the whole melting clocks sort of way, it’s chock full of dream imagery, and the effects just work. Check out the nuked out shell of the Sagrada Familia, and the vorpal bunny, and you’ll know what I mean.

I’ve been singing nothing but praises for Sucker Punch, but one flaw did stand out to my writer’s sensibilities.

It’s a film marred by weak characterization, and the clever premise of imaginary worlds stacked like an onion actually detracted from the storytelling component. The too seamless blending of the real and the virtual blurred the lines too closely, making it hard to get a glimpse of the  girls beyond what is obvious and apparent on screen.

Movie Mania's peeps (and Joey) hamming it up for the day. XD

I would have liked to explore the backstory of the supporting cast a little more, instead of just listening to one liners about how they ran away from home (or worse, nothing at all).

The twist ending, too, seemed a bit rushed. Rather than ending on an Inception moment, it felt like a bit of a cop out, and that didn’t sit well with me.

Still, this film’s deserving of at least a 4 out of 5.

It’s a geek’s guiltiest pleasure, and if you’re a pop culture fan, you will definitely not be prepared for just how many tropes and genre conventions Snyder’s managed to cram into this movie.

And as for the girls on the set, hey, they can punch my lights out anytime. XD

Sucker Punch opens in theatres this Thursday, 24 March, 2011.

My, what big cliches you have!

14 Mar , 2011,
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Red Riding Hood - Poster Art

With slim pickings at the local box office this past week, there was only one film that evinced any semblance of fantasy, and that was Red Riding Hood.

Helmed by Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the alternately acclaimed and reviled Twilight Saga, Red Riding Hood casts Amanda Seyfried (who isn’t actually half bad) in the role of Valerie, a spunky lass in the mountain village of Daggerhorn.

She’s in love with a lumberjack, Peter (played by Edward Cullen hopeful Shiloh Fernandez), but her parents have already betrothed her to Henry, the son of the town smith.

As if the cliched love triangle isn’t enough, we get a whiff of the supernatural – there’s a big, bad wolf on the loose, and it’s no longer capable of being placated by the animal sacrifices.

Valerie’s sister Lucy is the wolf’s latest victim, and as the village fields an angry mob (armed with axes, pitchforks and torches no less) to hunt the wolf, we discover that there is more to Red Riding Hoods tale than meets the eye.

Ultimately, Father Solomon, a famed witch hunter is called in, and Red Riding Hood turns from Heidi in the Alps into The Crucible, before climaxing with a classic Star Wars moment.

Hardwicke’s directorial efforts didn’t impress me. There was little to differentiate Red Riding Hoods treatment and execution from Twilight, and rather than being anything like a dark fantasy, Red Riding Hood turned out to be little more than another teenage romance with supernatural elements.

There was some attempt at unifying the mise en scène, and while Daggerhorn looked the part of a dreary, landlocked alpine village stuck in the middle of a perpetual winter, the whole snow thing started getting old after the first 30 minutes.

I’m quite certain the sole reason for it was just so Valerie’s red cloak could paint a pretty picture against a pristine backdrop, but considering Hardwicke’s credentials, I’d have expected something better. And while we’re on about that, let’s not forget how the boys’ costumes are color coordinated – Henry’s dressed in brown, while Jacob, I mean Peter, is dressed in black. Obvious, much?

The film’s saving grace was probably Gary Oldman, who played a pretty convincing cleric – he radiated smarm and self-righteous indignation, and his stellar performance put the relatively young cast to shame. Despite only a dozen or so scenes worth of screen time, it was good ol’ Gary who almost saved the show (though Seyfried’s intensity came in a close second).

Sadly, though, it wasn’t quite enough.

My verdict?

Watch only if you’re a Twilight fan, a desperate teenager with delusions of being spirited away by a furry, or a mix of the two. It’s a bore otherwise.

Bend over, Balthazar, 'cos Woo Chi kicks ass!

8 Mar , 2011,
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Jeon Woo Chi - Title Slide

If there’s one thing I love about Korean movies, it’s the flair and style.

There’s something  special about Korean directors and their creative vision – it’s one that blends the best of blockbuster film making with the nuanced cultural subtexts manifestly lacking in Hollywood flicks, and this artistry is something that Jeon Woo Chi, a film by acclaimed South Korean auteur Choi Dong-hun has in spades.

Starring pretty boy Kang Dong-Won in the title role, Jeon Woo Chi is a fantasy story that spans the medieval Joseon Dynasty and the modern South, charting the adventures of a taoist wizard with a penchant mischief making who becomes embroiled in an ancient struggle for a legendary pipe capable of conjuring goblins.

Who said Korea didn't have Vorpal Bunnies?

Framed for a crime he did not commit, Woo Chi is trapped in a wall scroll only to be released 500 years later in modern day Seoul when the goblins return to run amok.

The hero out of time saving the world gig isn’t something new. It was rehashed most recently in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (starring Nicholas Cage as Balthazar Blake, and featuring wizards fighting over a macguffin), but it has nothing on Jeon Woo Chi.

Jeon Woo Chi’s requisite car chase scene – a staple in any Hollywood movie – ups the ante with the antagonists (goblins in human guise) straddling car roofs, stabbing with swords and firing arrows with wild abandon.

Go go paper talismans!

When elementals clash, awesomeness happens.

The spells (and special effects) are awesome.

With a flutter of paper talismans, Jeon Woo Chi and his nemesis (played by veteran actor Kim Yun-Seok) channel the elements, weave clever illusions, conjure doubles, and flit from building to building with more panache than Nicholas Cage’s cheap lightning bolts and magic missiles.

The choreography, and camera movement during key fight sequences, as well as the character designs for the goblins – a rat creature and a killer bunny – are impressive as well.

There’s also humor – the trio of bumbling Taoist gods that are Woo Chi’s captors and minders are played for laughs in almost every scene, and the romance sub-plot, between Woo Chi and In Kyung (played by Lim Soo-Jung of I’m a Cyborg fame) isn’t at all bad or campy.

So all in all, Jeon Woo Chi’s crazy good.

Moreso, considering the fact that it was released in 2009, and was one of those sleeper hits that never made it onto the big screen here.

I’m just glad I stumbled onto it in the DVD section of Books Kinokuniya last week. It’d have been a real pity to miss it.

About a boy… and a lamp

15 Feb , 2011,
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Aladdin: Legacy of the Lost - Cover Art

The story of Aladdin and his magic lamp has been making the rounds since the 1700s.

It’s been told and retold in a number of ways – in children’s flip books, in games and in movies such as Disney’s 1992 cartoon adaptation, cementing this likeable rogue and his timeworn tale in our collective consciousness.

It’s no wonder, then, that Ian Edgington’s take on Aladdin, which I received as a Valentine’s Day present, is such a fascinating work.

This graphic novel recounts Aladdin’s story, not with the pastel shades and puffy pants we’ve come to expect, but a more mature style.

Edgington recognizes that Aladdin’s a fantasy piece – a sword and sorcery romp through an exotic locale, and he’s written it as such.

In this story, Aladdin is not so much a rogue as a rascal. He’s a morally ambiguous liar and cheat, down on his luck and fresh out of money, and that’s when Qassim, the wicked vizier, comes to him with an offer he can hardly refuse.

Your wish is my command? O.o

Naturally, when Qassim double crosses the boy, Aladdin escapes and taps the power of the fabled lamp, invoking the Djinni who comes to his rescue.

Mind you, this Djinni looks nothing like a bouyant, blue balloon with the head of a turnip. It’s all horns and fangs and scalding red flesh – an elemental, primal force that would sooner eat you than grant you your three wishes.

What ensues is a grand adventure across the deserts and oceans, rendered with a masterful hand and a nice, healthy dose of plot exposition. It culminates with Aladdin embracing his destiny as a descendant of a magical race, and the ending is a happy, but atypical one.

The art in Edgington’s Aladdin is darkly beautiful.

I’ve always been a fan of digitally painted images, and the artists – Patrick Reilly and Stjepan Sejic, both adepts at their craft, breath more than just new life into this ancient tale.

Summoning never looked so flashy.

They have created a whole new world that complements Edgington’s narrative, incredibly detailed characters, and scenes so cinematic and arresting they practically pop out of the pages of the graphic novel.

The Djinn, especially are gorgeous, and the summoning sequences, rife with chains, prayer strips and occult sigils, just scream awesome at you.

So how, then, can’t I fall in love?

Raising Kane

27 Jan , 2011,
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Solomon Kane - Poster Art

Solomon Kane is a name pulp fiction lovers, especially those with an appetite for old school sword and sorcery might find familiar. He’s a figment of Robert E. Howard (the same guy responsible for Conan the Barbarian)’s imagination, and a handful of his early adventures graced the pages of Weird Tales, a periodical in the ’30s that also carried the works of H.P. Lovecraft (the founding father of tentacle fiction) and Clark Ashton Smith (a nightmare spinner in every vein).

Kane also made an appearance in several Marvel and Dark Horse runs, and having garnered something of a cult following, it was inevitable that he’d hit the silver screen.

News about Kane’s Hollywood stint was already circulating since last year’s San Diego Comic Con, together with talk about movie related tie-ins and new comic releases, so I was pretty excited when the movie opened here.

Having caught the disaster that was the Green Hornet (which I will write about in a day or two), I entered the theater hoping that Kane would dare to be different, and prove that you don’t need a $120 million dollar budget to do things right.

True enough, Solomon Kane turned out to be a pleasant romp. Opening in North Africa in the early 1600s, where Kane sacks an Ottoman fortress with his mercenary crew, only to run into ensorcelled mirrors, demons, and the Devil’s Reaper, a creature that reminded me a whole lot of the Lich King.

Fleeing this entity, Kane seeks shelter in a monastery, taking up the mantle of a pacifist. His reprieve is short lived, however. The abbot, who has felt the proverbial disturbance in the force, expels him, sending him back to his father’s lands. Along the way, Kane is ambushed by brigands, rescued by a family of pilgrims, the Crowthorns, and when they run afoul of evil forces commanded by the wizard Malachi, resolves to rescue the daughter, Meredith, and perhaps find redemption in the process.

I actually enjoyed following Kane’s character arc. His transformation from murderous plunderer to pacifist Puritan, to wrathful avenger developed nicely. There were strong, religious underpinnings, and a fair share of symbolism , but none of it was particularly sanctimonious or standoffish. Instead, it served to empower the story by crystallizing the beliefs and superstitions of the setting.

Another element that really wowed me was the choreography. The sword fights, especially with Kane going up against Malachi’s cronies, and again with the Masked Rider, were visually impressive, rife with dynamic movements and tight camera work. It was apparent that a lot of it was skill, rather than CG.

CG, as a whole, was used sparingly. That, of course, heightened anticipation, and made the appearance of the demon in the final scene a whole lot more impactful.

Admittedly, the movie had its flaws. For one, the pacing, especially during Kane’s journey with the Crowthorns, was a little too slow for my liking. It was also quite apparent, when it was revealed that Malachi dwelt in his home, that there was going to be a “SOLOMON, I AM YOUR BROTHER!” moment later on.

It’s a pity that Solomon Kane is showing on only a handful of screens here, and that its run is only 2 weeks.

Fortunately, though, there’s going to be a DVD release (if there isn’t one already), and those who’ve missed this amazing flick can pick it up at Borders or Kinokuniya, or something. XD

Season of the Kitsch

17 Jan , 2011,
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Season of the Witch - Poster Art

There’s something about good ol’ Nick Cage, and it’s that he’s just not a fantasy kinda guy. And Season of the Witch, which opened here recently, proved me right on all counts.

Set sometime during the Crusades, Season of the Witch casts Cage and Ron Perlman (who was THE Hellboy) as disillusioned knights co-opted to transport a witch (played by Claire Foy) purportedly responsible for the Black Death to a distant monastery, where she’s supposed to be stripped off her witchy powers.

Predictably, Cage and Ron are joined by a band of hackneyed characters – the fresh face rube, the old has-been, the typical dour faced cleric, and a sneaky rogue type fellow.

In RPG (Role-playing Game) terms, Season of the Witch is essentially a glorified escort quest, and our party of adventurers appear to be haphazardly thrown together, quite possibly so they can be killed in a variety of silly ways.

Even the ending, with its big, hellfire and brimstone reveal, seemed trite and entirely too expected.

See, I’m normally all for fantasy stories, especially those with a strong supernatural bent, but Season of the Witch was a real disappointment.

First off, the acting was lackluster.

Having watched Cage shamble around in a trench coat, doing the wizard thing in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I was actually hoping that picking up a sword and donning plate armor might lend him a little more character, but sad to say, his performance was only passable, and among the two leads, it was Ron Perlman who stole the show.

The supporting cast, too, was only adequate. They delivered their lines, sure, but proved mostly forgettable save for the witch. But then again, who doesn’t like witches?

Beyond these apparent flaws, Season of the Witch also failed on other counts.

While the director had, at least, managed to convey a sense of bleakness and despair with his portrayal of the-stricken city and countryside, the abject lack of actual spellcasting, and the magical elements, which were somewhat downplayed until the very end, dampened things a fair bit.

The witch’s tricks were kinda cheap (as in visually cheap), and many other matters defied conventional arcane wisdom (it’s a well known fact that the Key of Solomon summons, rather than banishes demons, for example, and not vice versa).

Ultimately, by the time Nick’s band of greatly depleted adventurers hit the final encounter, I was almost half asleep with boredom.

In summation, watch this film only if you’re a die hard Nicholas Cage fan, or don’t care much for the film’s numerous pitfalls.

If you’re a true, blue fantasy fan though, you’d probably want to avoid it like the plague.