Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Anime Review: Totally Spies!

Totally Spies!
  • Studio: Marathon
  • Network: TF1 (FRA), Teletoon (CAN), Cartoon Network (USA)
  • Air Dates: 3 November 2001 - 2014*
  • Episodes: 156*
  • Creators: Vincent Chalvon-Demersay, David Michel
*As of this writing, the 6th season has not yet aired in the United States and may or may not have aired in Canada.  Concrete information on this show, including its recent airdates, is sparse.

Ladies and gentlemen, I've teased this review a number of times when I started this blog, but I've never been able to work up the material to finish it.  But with the Strawberry Dragon Project's 5-year anniversary looming this month, I figure it would be a suitably symbolic time to get it out of the way.  So let's do this: it's time to review Totally Spies!.

Back in the early 2000s, Western culture went through some sort of spy-fiction boom in movies, TV, and video games.  I'm not completely sure why; maybe it had something to do with the James Bond franchise returning from hiatus in 1995, and it took a little more time to set in.  These stories sought to copy the "exciting" surface elements of latter-day Bond, but threw the important stuff like characterisation to the wayside.  This movement gave us options for both grown-up (xXx with Vin Diesel) and younger (Agent Cody Banks with Frankie Muniz) audiences, and few if any were rembered fondly in the long run.  Heck, even the Bond Franchise itself ended up feeling like one of those wannabes at some point.  If you wanted anything with any depth of characters or plot, you'd have to turn to sleeper hits like the Bourne trilogy (i.e. The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon). Thankfully, it was those very sleeper hits which shaped the direction of Bond itself when it came back from yet another hiatus, in 2006's Casino Royale with Daniel Craig. But for the most part, we had to console ourselves with junk like Totally Spies!.

The titular spies are three high-school girls from Beverly Hills.  Their numbers are Sam (EN: Jennifer Hale, FR: Claire Guyot), Clover (EN: Andrea Baker, FR: Fily Keita), and Alex (EN: Katie Leigh / Katie Griffin, FR: Céline Mauge).  Sam is the smart straight-man and unofficial leader of the team, Clover is the most boy- and fashion-crazy out of the three, and Alex is the sporty tomboy who occasionally bridges the gaps during Sam and Clover's arguments.  The girls' personalities do overlap from time to time, as is common among friends (I assume), but for the most part they never evolve past their archetypes, if not stereotypes.  And annoying archetypes, if not stereotypes, at that.  Maybe it's just my educated masculine upbringing talking, but the way these girls blow their civilian-life issues so out of proportion makes it harder for me to sympathise with them.  Clover especially is the worst in this regard -- I'm pretty sure she even complains about breaking a fingernail at some point.  That's what we're dealing with here, peoples.

The many Clover-vs-Mandy arguments
are showdowns of annoying versus annoying.
As is common for this type of "Get up, go to school, save the world" show (see also: the Mystical Ninja anime I reviewed way back when I started this blog), the episodes are framed by B-plots centred around dilemmas in the girls' public lives.  Most of them feature Mandy (EN: Jennifer Hale, FR: Céline Mauge), a girl much like Clover, except snobby and antagonistic.  Also she looks like Rebecca Black, but without the kind personality that made her crimes against music forgivable.  (Man, I really must have mellowed out on "Friday" since then...).  If nothing else, she serves to make Clover and company look good by comparison.  There are also the numerous anonymous hunks whom our girls attempt various degrees of shacking-up with, but a scant few show up in more than one episode.  The most recurring boyfriend prospect is the long/tan/handsome David, but he never gets the chance to have any real character development, and is essentially discarded after the first few seasons.  He's basically this show's answer to Sylvia Trench.  (Remember her?  James Bond's on-again-off-again girlfriend from the first two movies?)

But the "Save the world" part of this "Get up, go to school, save the world" setup is the meat and potatoes of this show.  The girls' civilian troubles must, inevitably take a backseat to actual international crises, delivered by their handler Jerry (EN: Jess Harnell / Adrian Truss, FR: Jean-Claude Dunda) and his organisation.  Said organisation is saddled with the name of World Organization Of Human Protection, commonly pronounced as WOOHP.  *sigh*  ...Yeah, apparently this show's writers have a propensity for painful acronyms.  If you're hoping for anything of the calibre of "Every Villain Is Lemons (EVIL)" from that one SpongeBob episode, don't.  It's even more painfully unfunny then how, EVERY -- SINGLE -- EPISODE, they get summonned into WOOHP headquarters by way of getting sucked into a trap door or some such hidden hole.  If you didn't have the right context on hand, you could imagine that WOOHP is in fact a police state that somehow took over the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  (By the way, do you think Jerry might be a fan of Excel Saga?  This show would be more interesting if our girls took orders from Il Palazzo, I tell you what.)

Furthering the episode-to-episode routine, Jerry follows up just about every mission briefing with a pre-selected array of gadgets; purpose-built devices incorporated into objects which would would look normal on a normal person of their type.  And yes, this also gives them opportunities for more painful acronyms, most egregiously with the dive-helmet called the "UPWATI".  I warned you there'd be more.  First of all, what's the matter, never heard of on-site procurement?  Like they made such a big deal out of in Metal Gear Solid?  I swear, these gals wouldn't last a minute on Shadow Moses Island.  Seriously, I do have some constructive criticism to this setup.  My biggest problem is that it's all so contrived.  Jerry always picks out the gadgets for them, without any input from the spies themselves, and they all serve a coincidentally specific use in furthering their investigation or escaping from a deathtrap.  And yeah, I know James Bond did the same thing too, but he never gave the impression of being helpless without them.  Said impression cannot be made of the titular Totally Spies.  If I had control over this show, I'd let the girls pick their own gadgets, making them think about the situations that would present themselves ahead.  Or is that too dangerously close to character development for this show?  Also, can we address the vivid green, red, and yellow catsuits the spies or their superiors thought would be a suitable uniform?  I guess I know why they get captured so often, then.

They may come through in the end, but our girls are generally
terrible spies, in case those bright catsuits didn't tip you off already.
From then on, episodes generally follow a pattern of investigation, infiltration, discovering the villain-of-the-day, getting caught by the villain-of-the-day, escaping the deathtrap-of-the-day by way of gadgets, and finally catching the villain-of-the-day.  I'm not saying they should tie every episode to one another in an ongoing arc.  And I'm not saying that monster-of-the-day (or in this case, villain-of-the-day) shows can't be good, either.  Neon Genesis Evangelion was at its best when it did the monster-of-the-day thing, as you may recall me saying.  But Totally Spies! just doesn't have the right stuff to pull it off.  Whereas some of these shows have some kind of evil organisation tying the monsters-of-the-day together and providing the promise of some kind of climax to look forward to, Totally Spies! doesn't have this, for the most part.  I say "for the most part" because the later seasons introduce a team of recurring villains known as... LAMOS.  Ladies and gentlemen, you have my permission to facepalm.  Anyway, the villains at least get some sort of backstory, usually in the form of them having been shot down for a job/role/date/whatever, and them exacting excessive revenge via some form of doomsday device, and not practical ones either.  Over the course of the series, the villains use (real?) stage magic, extraterrestrial aliens, and a satellite-mounted freeze ray with intent to freeze the entire Earth over, so yeah, this show plays hard and loose with the idea of reality.  You'd think I shouldn't complain about realism, as I have a webcomic which incorporates magic into an otherwise realistic historical setting.  But some things are beyond my limits of disbelief suspension, like how a gourmet food critic is entitled to complain when served a 200-ounce steak.

For the record, I'm still keeping the "Anime Review" tag in the title of this article despite this show not having been conceived in Japan, but rather the French and/or Canadian studio Marathon.  Coincidentally, French also uses the word "animé" to refer to animated productions as does Japanese (minus the accent on the 'e').  It's furtherly funny I should mention this, because Totally Spies does rely heavily on the Japanese anime aesthetic for its design and art style.  It's "Animesque", if you will.  It's a shame they did it so sloppily though, as not only does the animation lack the fluidity of motion and dynamic scene composition I've come to associate with Japanese anime at its best, but animation and continuity errors are fairly common if you look.  I'm not normally the type to look out for this sort of thing, but the one scene where Clover and Mandy are arguing with their voices accidentally switched (no seriously, this is a thing that happens) is yet another of those goofs which are beyond even my tolerance.  Besides, Marathon forgot the most important lesson they should've taken from Japanese anime, and that is... not to sexualise teenagers.  I mean, to have actual character development.

Between the villains, heroes, and side characters, I'm only steps away from giving this show the "Eight Deadly Words": "I don't care what happens to these people".  So why do I keep watching it?  Because Totally Spies! is a prime example of a guilty pleasure.  If nothing else, the spy girls themselves are pretty, and say what you want about them being materialistic fashionistas, at least the animators gave them more than a handful of outfits!  Plus, there are occasional shake-ups to the formula, and it is those moments which make for the series' more memorable episodes.  But most of the time, it sticks to its formula, to its detriment.  There's nothing that shows the girls are evolving in their spycraft over the course of the show.  Such may be the curse of the monster-of-the-week format, but that's no excuse for not trying.  You could also brush off its shortcomings as the curse of childrens' entertainment, but that's not a good excuse either.  I'd consider Kaleido Star to be kid-friendly, and it has some of the best characterisation I've ever seen in a TV show.  And whilst on the business of comparing Totally Spies! to other cartoons, let me close by reminding you that when this show came out, it competed with the Disney Channel's girl-power spy-fi show, Kim Possible, which was considerably more genre-savvy, gender-inclusive, and didn't use [verb]ing acronyms for everything.  I think that says all you need to know about Totally Spies!: apparently, some of the most telling critiques come not from the work itself, but from the negative space created by other works.

+ The few episodes which shake up the formula shine even brighter for it.
- Little in the way of character development.
- Annoying main and side characters.
- The stories adhere strictly to a formula.
- The animation is barely up to par when it isn't goofing up.

The Call: 50% (D)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Editorial: When Marnie Was There & Silent Hills

This weekend, I took a trip down to Center City Philadelphia to see When Marnie Was There, the latest anime film by Studio Ghibli.  Limited-release films like these tend to be a bit... geographically undesireable how far away I live, but the way I figured, it might be my last chance to ses a Studio Ghibli movie on the big screen, so I took the plunge.  See, as anyone with an interest in Studio Ghibli knows, this is their last movie to be released as the studio shuts down on an "indeterminate hiatus", following the retirement of its star director, Hayao Miyazaki.  Even Marnie's review in the Philadelphia Inquirer discussed it in the context of those circumstances.  So with the knowledge that this may be Ghibli's last impression, my sentiments toward the company might cloud me from giving an objective opinion on Marnie.  Plus, I don't normally indulge in full reviews for films I only saw in theatres once, so I'll do what I did with The Wind Rises the first time around and embellish this here editorial with a mini-review.

The plot follows a pattern shared with a number of Studio Ghibli movies, with occasional variations: A girl moves out to the countryside and then (frequently supernatural) stuff happens.  Off the top of my head, I recognise this framework from My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service (although the girl moves to the city), Spirited Away, The Secret World of Arietty (although the girl is instead a boy), and the film on hand.  But that's not a bad thing per se, as often these movies develop an identity of their own as they move along.  In this case, the girl is a blue-eyed preteen named Anna.  While out one day wandering about her new neighbourhood, her eye catches on a mansion on the other side of a marsh, and on a blonde-haired girl in the upstairs window, the titular Marnie.  One night she sneaks out to meet Marnie in person, and the two strike up a friendship in no time flat.

The film does a great job of establishing how completely broken Anna is on her own, and how Marnie fills in the missing pieces of her psyche.  To make one of my many Evangelion allegories, Anna is like Shinji, and Marnie is like Kaworu Nagisa, the only person in her life willing to provide her with unconditional affection.  And what other connection is there between Marnie and the Shinji/Kaworu episode?  "Both parties are the same gender?"  That's right!  I don't know about you, but when I saw the trailer for this movie, I wondered if the Anna/Marnie relationship would be of a lesbian nature.  And I'd have been alright with that; proud, even, because of how sensibly mature the movie treats their interactions.  But in truth, the nature of their relationship is strictly platonic.  Which is also nice; I mean, can't two people of the same gender have a deep friendship without other people bringing it into homosexual territory?  ...Not that's a bad thing...  Don't worry, I meant less offence than you probably took that as (unless it was zero to start with).

But more than anything, Marnie feels real, supernatural elements notwithstanding.  It touches on a number of real-world troubles in varying capacity, such as adopted children, bullying in the family, and even xenophobia.  Remember when I said Anna had blue eyes?  Yeah, that's a plot point.  Some plot elements are a bit out of place and fail to go anywhere, like when Marnie and one of her peers lash out at each other at the Tanabata festival.  But that's about it.  I even cried while watching this movie!  ...Okay, not really; I don't cry that easily, more like I got misty-eyed.  Yeah, I got misty-eyed.  How many films can I make that boast about?  On more levels than one, When Marnie Was There is one such film.  And for that honour, I shall bestow upon it a tentative grade of 95% (A) and a Dragon Award.

So now that the review is over, let's get back to the topic at hand: When Marnie Was There is potentially the final feature film to be made by Studio Ghibli. This is a worrisome situation because Ghibli has been a heretofore never-ending force of good in the animation world. (Bear in mind, I make that statement not yet having seen Tales of Earthsea.)  Seriously, a great chunk of their works have been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award since that category was created.  Of course, only one of them actually won, but that's a different crisis altogether.  But with Studio Ghibli gone, who's going to pick up the mantle of making critically acclaimed anime films?  Or does the next big thing in animation even have to be Japanese?  There's this one director I've started following recently, named Tomm Moore, and I've read his output as being likened to an Irish counterpart of Studio Ghibli's.  Although relatively new to the scene, both of his works The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014) are distincly awesome.  They were also nominated for the aforementioned Oscar; of course they didn't win either, because the jurors involve are just fff... Philistines.  (I have to admit that joke works better when you hear rather than read it.  Still, last-second word swaps FTW!)

But looking back on this whole affair brings to mind a certain... other event I've obsessed over lately, involving the cancellation of a certain long-hoped-for video game.  "Gee Kevin", you may be thinking, "how many articles are you gonna write about Mega Man Legends 3?"

No, you idiot, the other one!

I'm talking about Silent Hills, the would-be reboot of the survival-horror franchise Silent Hill, collaborated upon with Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, film director Guillermo del Toro, and actor Norman Reedus.  Actually, there are a number of similarities between the circumstances of the two games.  Both were being led by a high-profile director (Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune for MML3) before they left their respective companies.  Both stood to revitalise series which hadn't been relevant in years.  Both had a preview or demo version which is not available anymore, if at all (Legends 3 Prototype and P.T.).  And both happened to have been followed up by Kickstarter projects seeking to bring a new games based on their companies' good old days.  (Okay, so Castlevania creator Koji Igarashi wasn't actually involved in Silent Hills, but shut up, I've got a good theme going.)  Is this the future of the games industry?  Or is this all just a coincidence?  Heck if I know.

Now, I didn't have the same emotional investment for Silent Hills as I did for MML3; at the moment I've only played a bit of the first Silent Hill game (PSone, 1999), and I've heard good things about Silent Hill 2 (PS2, 2001).  (Seriously, on the rare occasions when Yahtzee recommends a game, he's never steered me wrong.)  I am aware, however, of how the Silent Hill franchise, as well as the survival-horror genre in macrocosm, have lost sight of the subtleties that made it so effective way back when.  And given the series' track record, maybe Silent Hills would have reversed its course back in a positive direction, or maybe it wouldn't have.  But man, it would've been great if it did.  It might even have brought new fans on board, including yours truly.  As it stands, I may not have been on board with the whole Silent Hills thing, but y'all have my sympathies.

So what was the point of this diversionary anecdote, other than to provide my two cents on the issue?  Well, the moral to draw from both those stories is that we should support independent works of media.  You won't see the big American animation studios doing a hand-drawn character drama, and you won't see the big Japanese video game studios reviving the styles of games which made them famous back in the day.  I mean, even though Mighty No.9 may not be the ideal replacement for Legends 3, I'd still give my money to its independent makers than to Capcom.  And now that the World Wide Web and social media are things, we the people have the power to give these low-profile works the attention they deserve.  I mean it when I say...

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Game Review: GoldenEye (N64)

  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Rare
  • Release: Nintendo 64, 25 August 1997
  • Genre: 3D Action
  • Players: 1-4
  • Save: Battery-backed, 4 files
Previously on the SDP, I put the Call of Duty series through Game Rehab.  Said article also happened to include a section for first-person shooter games in general, seeing as how so many games of the genre have absorbed features from CoD, and Halo before it.  I don't know about you, but I've always held earlier titles as shining examples of what I want the genre to be like again.  And chief among those sacred cows, for me, was 1997's GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64.  (Actually, I'm not sure if the extra "007" was supposed to be part of the title, or the extra capitalisation on the one letter "E", but I'll not dwell on that.)  But, reality check -- Goldeneye, the game, is seventeen years old as of this article, and came out for what is now three-generation-old hardware.  So do I only love Goldeneye now because it does things that new games don't do anymore?  Or is it still worth its salt after all these years?

For the uninitiated, Goldeneye is an adaptation of the James Bond film from two years beforehand.  Don't you just love how we used to have to wait two years between a movie and its video game?  It would have solved a lot of problems during the Atari age, let me tell ya.  The game follows the movie's storyline, involving a set of spacebound EMP weapons stolen by a post-Soviet Russian crime gang.  Pretty much all of the film's key scenes are re-created, from the pre-credits dam jump, to the St. Petersburg tank chase, to the climatic fight atop an antenna cradle.  But the game builds upon the original story, either by extending existing scenes or adding new ones entirely.  You know the level in the missile silo where the Goldeneye sattelites launched from?  It doesn't appear in the movie at all.  But it does help bring certain pieces of the story together, and more than anything, gives us some more game to play in.

There are some characters
whom you're not allowed to kill.
For those of you who weren't into gaming during the mid-to-late 1990s, shooter-action games generally had one goal: get to the end of each level, and mow down anything that gets in your way, maybe stopping here or there to push a switch or pick up a key.  But when such a character as James Bond is involved, you're gonna have to change the standard operating procedure a bit.  Each and every level has certain objectives for you to complete.  And even when you do have to break something, or someone, there's always a reason given.  Goldeneye also places an emphasis on stealth which, while not exactly a new development in this genre, is tastefully done.  Getting spotted or using a non-silenced weapon may attract enemies in your vicinity, but this doesn't automatically trigger an alarm.  Generally, they have to head over to an alarm button on the wall, or you have to get caught by a security camera, for that to happen.  All this contributes to the game's world and proved that serious narrative was possible even in genres of gaming commonly considered to be mindless.

Unfortunately, the objectives you must accomplish on these missions are not always intuitive.  Take the very first level, for example.  On the Secret Agent (medium) and 00 Agent (hard) difficulties, one of the objectives is to attach a covert modem somewhere.  Even if you read the pre-mission briefings, it is totally unclear where you're supposed to attach the thing.  And you only get one of them, so if you throw it someplace you're not supposed to, you can't get it back, and you'll have failed your mission.  (To that end, I'm glad the levels in GoldenEye are a little short, averaging about 5 minutes apiece, which is the stick I will beat Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and 007 Legends with to no end.)  I'll welcome a break from the standard linear string of objective markers any day, but taking things too far the other way is right out as well.  Throw me a frickin' bone here, is what I'm saying.  And another thing, how come we can only equip non-weapon items from the pause menu?  And why can I still get hit, or killed even, during the extra second it takes to run the pause menu transition animation?
Some objectives are hard to find.
GoldenEye was not the first first-person shooter to run on a gaming console, and not even the first one on the Nintendo 64 itself.  To my knowledge, all previous attempts at the genre done on this particular console (for example, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter) used the C-buttons to walk and strafe and the Control stick to aim, which was if nothing else an admirable attempt to duplicate the mouse-and-keyboard setup of PC-based shooters without an actual mouse or keyboard being available.  And while Goldeneye makes this available as an optional controller setup, the default scheme flips this.  The Control Stick walks and turns, and the C Buttons are used for strafing and looking up or down.  "Won't this make aiming clumsy difficult", you might ask?  To that I respond: No, for two reasons.  The game employs a rather generous auto-aim system which can be counted upon for torso hits.  And for situations requiring more precision, Goldeneye also pioneers an aiming mode, where you hold R and move the Control Stick to look about, and the C Buttons to duck or lean.  In lieu of having a twin-stick-based controller, the powers that be made an equally versatile control setup.  There are even options to use two controllers for simulating the aforementioned dual-stick controllers.  It's not all good though; the use of "button chords" for certain actions (namely, holding A and pressing Z to cycle backwards through your weapons) may be cumbersome without practise, but for that one can blame the N64 controller more than the game itself.

Another sore spot one could also blame on the N64 hardware is the graphics.  As I said before, I'm not one to depend on graphical proficiency in order to extract fun from a game.  I do draw the line, however, when drops in the frame rate get in the way, which I'm sad to say happens quite a bit in Goldeneye.  But let's be honest, were any video games out at the same time that much better-looking?  And finally, I'd like to address the multiplayer mode.  I'd like to, but I never had the friends to play it with on a regular basis, and there aren't any AI bots for us solo players to get our jollies with, so my authority's not the greatest on the matter.  Judging from similar experiences in games like Perfect Dark and The World is Not Enough, however, I appreciate the degree of customisation available in setting up multiplayer matches, especially when you throw unlockable cheats into the mix.

So now comes the million-pound question: is Goldeneye still good?  It's certainly playable, if that's what you mean, and potentially fun as well.  Anybody who's been burnt out by the rigid linearity imposed upon us by all those Call of Duty clones should appreciate the relative freedom most missions give you in how you approach your objectives.  (Although maybe too much freedom, as I explained a few paragraphs ago.)  But that's just it: so many of the defences I could whip out for Goldeneye stem from the fact that it's not like today's crop of shooters.  And yet not all shooters are like that; there are still shooters out there which emulate Goldeneye's business model as well like the aforementioned Perfect Dark and Timesplitters, and are technically better for having built on its formula with improved technology and experience.  Not that we'd ever have been blessed with them in the first place without Goldeneye, however.  So yeah, it's still good, but it's not like I wouldn't change anything about it, either.  Let me put it to you this way: if I had all the knowledge and resources to make whatever video game I wanted, and no licensing or trademark restrictions to worry about, I would make an updated HD remake -- not a reboot, a remake -- of Goldeneye.  Actually, that would be my second choice behind making Mega Man Legends 3, but you should have picked up on that by now.

P.S. I am aware of Goldeneye: Source, a free, fan-made Half-Life 2 mod which emulates and expands upon the original's multiplayer mode.  I like it very much, in fact.  But I choose not to count it unless or until they work the single-player campaign in there.

+ The story follows the movie, but takes liberties in all the right places.
+ The level lengths are just short enough to encourage repeated play-throughs.
+ Responsible and then-innovative use of stealth gameplay.
+ Control options make the best use of the N64's controller.
- Some objectives are so poorly-described that you could miss them entirely.
- The frame rate is highly prone to slowdown during intense action.

Control: 4 out of 5
Design: 4 out of 5
Graphics: 2 out of 5
Audio: 4 out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Film Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed the 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.  And it was good.  Great, even.  Now, in said review, I mentioned it as one of two movies that took video games culture seriously.  Here is the other one I had in mind.

Wreck-It Ralph
  • Publisher: Disney
  • Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios
  • Release: 2 November 2012
  • Director: Rich Moore
  • Producer: Clark Spencer:
  • Writers: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee
Our protagonist, the titular1 Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), is oddly enough the antagonist in his home, the video game Fix-It Felix Jr., starring of course Fix-It Felix, Jnr (Jack McBrayer).  But this movie is not about Felix; rather, the focus is on Ralph, who's going through a sort of mid-life crisis as our story starts.  Specifically, he's grown tired of being the villain in his game.  Repeatedly watching Felix win pies from the townspeople while you get thrown in the mud can do that to you.  So when the other characters throw a party for their game's 30th anniversary, Ralph isn't invited but shows up anyway.  Suffice to say, his appearance is not taken well by the NPC townspeople, so he goes off to drown his sorrows (specifically, at the bar from Root Beer Tapper).

From there, Ralph's quest to earn their acceptance takes him through games like the rail-shooter Hero's Duty and the candy-themed kart-racer Sugar Rush, where most of the film takes place.  In terms of additional characters, Hero's Duty gives us miss Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a no-nonsense sergeant prone to unusual, euphemistic expressions, and Sugar Rush gives us Vanellope von Schweetz (Susan Sarandon), who wants to participate in her game's races but is kept from doing so because of her nasty habit of "glitching".  Calhoun was a lot of fun to watch, due largely to the juxtaposition of her serious attitude against the colourful, quirky backdrop of Sugar Rush.  Also, she is played by Jane Lynch, who is just awesome.  Vanellope, not so much.  Her rude interactions with Ralph are annoying both for him and the viewer, and while she does garner sympathy as the plot moves along, it can't undo all the damage made by her first impression.

I've got to be honest, I was a little slow to experience this film at first.  My major misgiving was that I was afraid they'd misrepresent gaming culture, and nerds are a terrible people to misrepresent.  But the powers involved with Wreck-It Ralph know their stuff.  They licenced many real video-game characters to make cameos, and background sight-gags are plentiful as well, such as graffiti messages stating things like "Aeris lives2" and "Sheng Long was here3".  Furthermore, there's a scene where the villain goes into the internal code of Sugar Rush (by inputting the Konami Code, natch), and makes a slight alteration.  The way the code is depicted, with its visual depictions of entities and attributes, is indeed true to the nature of object-oriented programming, and yet visualised in a manner accessible to the layman.

Apart from that, Wreck-It Ralph plays with the concept of heroic and villainous roles in storytelling.  For starters the main character of the movie is the antagonist of his own world, only to get wrapped up in an even greater plot, thus becoming the protagonist.  They even use this role-reversal for comedy as well.  For example, there's a scene where Felix is locked in prison and tries to break out by smashing the window bars with his magic hammer, only to fix them further instead, like what he does in his own game.  Even the product placement (and there's lots of it, mind you) gets in on the puns, such as the swamo of "Nesquik-sand", or the "Devil Dogs" owned by the police department in Sugar Rush.  Normally I cast a wary eye on product placement, but in this case it's used so cleverly that I'll give it a pass.  Between all the genre-busting, sight gags, and references, I dare say Wreck-It Ralph even comes close to Airplane!'s level of comedy.  It doesn't match up, of course, but what does these days?

Up until now I seem to have given off the impression that I like this film too much.  So let's make this review more fun and run down some plot holes!!
  • If the star of Fix-It Felix, Jr. is Fix-It Felix Junior, shouldn't there be a Fix-It Felix Senior hanging about?
  • What is Zangief doing at the Bad-Anon meeting?  Isn't his role in the Street Fighter series less-than-villainous?
  • For that matter, what about Bowser and Dr. Robotnik?  Their respective franchises aren't associated with the arcade scene.  I mean, sure, there was an arcade port of Super Mario Bros., and I've seen it more than once, so it's not exactly rare.  But Sonic the Hedgehog?  Less so.  Maybe they've got a Genesis hooked up in the back room, but by this point I'm just being nitpicky, so let's move on.
  • If "going turbo" (read: leaving your game) is treated as such a bad thing, then why is Game Central Station (read: the surge protector all the game cabinets are hooked up to) so busy with so many characters going so many places when the arcade is closed for the night?
  • For that matter, shouldn't the arcade owner switch the power off at night?  And what would happen then?  Surely the characters -- even the spatially misplaced ones -- wouldn't die forever, they'd be regenerated in their own games when they boot up again.
  • Ignoring the above point, if Turbo died when he invaded Road Blasters (a real game, by the way) and both it and his game were shut off, then how did he come back as King Candy from Sugar Rush?
  • Ignoring the above point, if Vanellope finishing the qualifying race resets the world of Sugar Rush, even after King Candy gets defeated, wouldn't that regenerate him as well?
  • And why does she still have her glitch ability even after the game was reset and her connections to the code were restored?
  • And how could the citizens of Sugar Rush remember that they lost their memories?
  • Are the Cybugs supposed to eat and delete all the data they come across, within their own game or otherwise?  What kind of sick programmer would do such a thing!?
That's quite the laundry list of questionables, eh?  But before you get the wrong idea, remember I took the same attitude in my review of The Wind Rises.  The only reason I nitpicked it as much as I did was because it captured my interest enough to warrant that kind of further inspection.  They say you only hurt the ones you love, and that being the case I must really love both films.  I may have had fun in seeking out all those plot holes, but I had just as much fun actually watching the film.  It's funny, well-researched, poignant, but most of all, it's innovative, taking the concepts of hero and villain for a new spin.  And shattering conventions is something Disney's been doing a lot lately, as in this, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and to a lesser extent, Frozen.  They're still a hundred years too early to compete with the Japanese anime scene at its best, but one could do far worse than hang out with The Mouse these days.

Acting: 4 out of 5
Writing: 4 out of 5
Design: 5 out of 5
Technical: 5 out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)

Except in Japan, where the film is known as Sugar Rush.
Refers to Aeris/Aerith from Final Fantasy VII, famous for her death scene which one apparently does not need to spoil anymore.
Refers to a victory line from Street Fighter II ("You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance"), which triggered a rumour about a character with that name hidden in the game.  There is no such character; "Sheng Long" is merely the Chinese translation of Ryu's "Shoryuken" or "Dragon Punch" attack.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Music Review: 2014 Honourable Mentions, Part 2

Previously on the SDP, I shared my thoughts on songs that didn't quite make my top-ten and bottom-ten lists of 2014.  That list continues now.

by Pharell Williams
from G.I.R.L.
Year-end position: #1

Once again, America's number-one song of the year is one I'd consider a good song.  Actually, "Happy" is not just a song, it's a state of mind, because everything in this song comes together to create the titular mood.  However, there's a reason why this song didn't make my top-ten list.  The entire final minute of this 4-minute track is repeated parts from the rest of the song.  And it's bad enough that that the song tries to get too much mileage out of its hook even after repeating it once.  That's what Weird Al Yankovic's parody version, "Tacky" has over the original.  Not only did he end the song at the 3-minute mark, but he also changed the lyrics for each repetition of the chorus.  If "Happy" had ended at the same point, it would have been much stronger for it.  Heck, it could even have contended for #1 on this list, were that the case!  But as it is, "Happy" is still a fun song, just a little too long and repetitive for its own good.

"Hey Brother"
by Avicii
from True
Year-end position: #60

One of the songs I considered for 2013's top-ten list was Avicii's Aloe Blacc's "Wake Me Up".  Another year gone, and another of Avicii's singles has gone through the charts (in addition to "Wake Me Up" again).  Pretty much, everything I had to say about that song, good and bad, I could apply to "Hey Brother".  With two exceptions: I like this song better for its darker melody; it sounds like the sight of storm clouds gathering on the horizon, if that makes any sense.  But two: why pray tell doesn't the actual singer, a mister Dan Tyminski, get a featuring credit?

"La La La"
by Naughty Boy & Sam Smith
from Hotel Cabana
Year-end position: #82

See: "Latch".

by Disclosure & Sam Smith
from Settle
Year-end position: #28

Believe it or not, I wanted to put this on both my top-ten and bottom-ten lists, because this song is so, once again, "Janusian".  What's good about it?  Well, the beat, first of all.  The musical production provided by Disclosure sounds like music of the future, which I surprisingly don't get from a lot of EDM these days.  So where does it go wrong?  The chorus, that's where.  First of all, Sam Smith abruptly shifts his voice up an octave, into screechy territory.  But more than anything, the lyrics go from him simply expressing a crush in the verses, to being a possessive stalker in these parts.  If any other song from the Settle album had been a hit, it would've secured a spot on my top-ten list with no questions asked, but "Latch" was a tougher sell.

"My [noun] / My Hitta"
by YG, Jeezy, and Rich Homie Quan
from My Krazy Life
Year-end position: #58

I probably should have put this song on my bottom-ten, and indeed I almost did. But what is there to say about a song with a DJ Mustard beat, and whose hook (in the explicit version) is almost just a repeated profanity?  Sorry, I've got nothing.

"She Looks So Perfect"
by 5 Seconds of Summer
from 5 Seconds of Summer
Year-end position: #93

I wanted to put this on my list simply for the following line from the chorus: "She looks so perfect standing there / In my American Apparel underwear". The most glaring issue with that couplet is the use of a brand name like American Apparel. Now, I don’t know if that was paid product placement or not, but either way, stunts like that just take you out of the moment, you know? Also, from what I can gather, "she" is currently wearing mens’ underwear. Does this, by any chance include an undershirt? If not... I guess I understand why she looks so perfect to you… Still awkward. But in the face of other teen idols, I can’t stay mad at 5SOS for long. For one, they’ve got more of a rock edge to their music, compared to not only other teen idols but other pop acts in general. Case in point: one of their more recent songs is a cover of "What I Like About You", which actually improves upon its source version in a number of ways. So I suppose I’d be happy to let them into my life, just as long as they keep "She Looks So Perfect" as far away from me as possible.

by Jason Derulo
from Tattoos [EP] / Talk Dirty
Year-end position: #61

I put two Jason Derulo songs pretty "high" on my bottom-ten list, and suffice it to say they were both freaking terrible. But absent from that tied spot was his latest single, "Trumpets". Quite frankly, I find it weird more than anything else. This ode to synesthesia is loaded with all kinds of awkward moments, from the cheesy synth trumpets, to the references to Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Coldplay. And of course, Derulo’s voice is unbearable as always. But in the face of "Talk Dirty", which was offensive in its snobbery, and "Wiggle", which operated on a more so-bad-it’s-good level, "Trumpets"'s version of bad just wasn’t as potent.

"Turn Down For What"
by DJ Snake and Lil' Jon
non-album single
Year-end position: #

I said a few words about this song in my blurb for "Animals", which made my bottom-ten list.  To summarise: Yes, "Turn Down For What" can sound abrasive upon first listen.  But by being exposed to worse EDM, like the aformentioned "Animals" or "Summer", one can appreciate what this song gets right.  Each "verse" brings with it a new musical movement, and each of those is brken up every few measures with a minor variation, such as a change in pitch or an added drum track.  Perhaps most importantly, the beat never feels tooty or repetitive.  But let's not kid ourselves, Lil' Jon is what holds this song together.  It takes a strong presence to truly sell the rebellious ideals of getting "turnt up".  Rock and roll might be dying, but its ideals live on with the King of Crunk.

"Wild Wild Love"
by Pitbull & GRL
from Globalization
Year-end position: #N/A

I may have buried the hatchet with Pitbull over the past year or so, but I am still not willing to stick my proverbial neck out in his defence, either. Songs like "Wild Wild Love" are reasons why "The Artist Formerly Known As Mr. 305" isn’t ready for prime time in my book. "Wild Wild Love" is one of those songs wherein the chorus and the verses have nothing in common with each other, almost as if they were planned for two different songs entirely. The former, performed by the girl-group GRL, seem to tell the tale of a relationship fraught with both risk and reward; one that is both a blessing and a curse, in their words. So what, specifically, does this entail? Well, [verb] me if I know, because in lieu of elaborating on this intriguing development, Pitbull chose to focus on his fame and fortune -- you know, like in every other one of his songs. Even the musical stylings of their two parts are detached from each other -- acoustic pop-rock for GRL’s parts and electro hip-hop for Pit’s -- which in itself serves as a metaphor for how broken this song turned out.

"White Walls"
by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Schoolboy Q and Hollis
from The Heist
Year-end position: #92

I'll keep this brief, because I plan to do a full review of The Heist.  2013 VIP Macklemore wrote a song about a custom car, apparently.  Any boob with a mic could pull that off, right?  Not the way he does it.  In "White Walls", he doesn't just rap about owning the car, he spits off lines (and impressively fast lines, too) about all the work he put into getting the money for it.  You just don't hear about that kind of dedication from most rappers these days.  Including the guest on this very song, a mister Schoolboy Q.  It's not a bad verse; there are some halfway clever lyrics to be had within.  But once again, his part's more about the destination than the journey.  I think life should be the other way around, although I have read more than my share of motivational posters in my day.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Music Review: 2014 Honourable Mentions, Part 1

For the past few years now, I've supplemented my top-ten and bottom-ten hit song lists with separate articles for the runner-up songs.  And while I am carrying on that tradition for 2014, I thought I'd do things a little differently this time.  I was going to do an article for the honourable mentions that missed the top ten, and the (dis)honourable mentions of the bottom ten, but as I put these lists together, I realised that some of these songs blurred the lines of being good and bad.  If you'll remember from one of my past reviews, I've started calling these kinds of things "Janusian", meaning they posess both good and bad qualities.  So, for this year I'm lumping both sets of honourable mentions together in alphabetical order.  Let's begin.

"Ain't It Fun"
by Paramore
from Paramore
Year-end position: #47

America, you don't know what you're missing when you keep shunning true rock music.  Maybe that was a bad way to start this paragraph, because Paramore and their single "Ain't It Fun" actually did pretty well this year.  But Paramore are one of the few mainstream acts who can pull off a song like this.  It's a sarcastic statement to anyone leaving the lap of luxury and expecting more than they actually get.  And while Hayley Williams can make sarcasm sound appealing, I was a little put off by the lyrical dissonance, however.  The music, which reminds me of a major-key version of Banarama's "Cruel Summer", comes across as a bit too happy for what the song is really about.  For that reason, I just know some advert or trailer's gonna take the title phrase ("Ain't it fun / living in the real world") at face value.

by Nicki Minaj
from The Pinkprint
Year-end position: #36

Songs like this are why I chose not to break up my honourable mentions list by whether they were cut from my top-ten or my bottom-ten lists, because its good and bad qualities balance each other out.  I actually reviewed "Anaconda" late last year, and I have to say I've warmed up to it since then.  The lyrics it samples from "Baby Got Back" are wasted in their brevity and repetition, but the musical aspects of that song are enhanced.  Nicki's performance is over-the-top stupid in certain parts and rapid-fire fun in others.  And while there's something to be said about a woman using her sex appeal to do stuff, Nicki in this song does so just in the name of getting some luxury posessions out of it.  But when you consider that most hip-hop over the past couple of years has gone down the dreary route of espousing their lifes' luxuries with zero enthusiasm whatsoever for them, I say we should give songs like "Anaconda" a bit more credit.

"Bang Bang"
by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj
from Sweet Talker
Year-end position: #27

Some songs you respect because they do something smart or original, and some songs you like just because they're fun.  "Bang Bang" is the latter, but it does have some good concepts as well.  I enjoyed hearing Jessie J and Ariana Grande's playful competition of trying to hook up with the man du jour, sort of like a gender-swapped (and better) version of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's "The Girl Is Mine".  The Nicki Minaj verse isn't about anything really, but it's fast, furious, and fun, and somehow is arguably the best thing she's done all year.  And with lazy minimalism apparently being the norm for 2014, it's refreshing to hear a beat with so much going on.  Background harmony vocals are used effectively to build a faux-Motown style of production.  That's all I ask, really, for producers to put a little more work into their pop songs.

"Boom Clap"
by Charli XCX
from Sucker
Year-end position: #34

I relished every time I heard "Boom Clap", for the same general reason I liked that other onomatopeia-based song, "Bang Bang" from the last paragraph.  And to think it should come from Charli XCX, of all people.  I'm one of the few people who hated her on Icona Pop's "I Love It" from last year, on account of her sounding so shrill and in-your-face.  But weirdly, I thought she was one of the best parts of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy", for much the same reason.  And when "Boom Clap" came around, she finally managed to tone herself down just enough to not turn me off, but still keep enough presence to make a memorable performance.  Among the silly love songs of 2014, "Rather Be" had that little bit extra musically to give it the edge, but "Boom Clap" is nonetheless catchy and, like the heartbeat it imitates, feels like being in love.

by Sia
from 1000 Forms of Fear
Year-end position: #25

Maybe it’s just my hair-trigger cynicism talking, but I gather, the universe hates me right now. I thought we had finally ridden ourselves of Rihanna, the mistress of mediocrity in music, only for the Rihanna knockoffs to crawl out of the woodwork in 2014. Specifically I am referring to former indie darling Sia, of all people, for her work on the single "Chandelier". (Indeed, Sia did write the song for Rihanna or Beyonce before deciding to record it hserself.) She -- pretty much literally -- mumbles her way through most of the song, except for the choruses. At least those parts are belted out well, but the morose music -- which I can best describe as a sort of hip-hop version of "Adagio for Strings" -- is at an unfortunate loggerhead against the lyrics about tearin’ the place up and having a good time as if you wouldn’t have tomorrow to do so. I appreciate these wannabe party anthems having an emotion of some kind, but that emotion should not be sadness or desolation.  Heck, "Fancy" was more of a feel-good party song than this -- and its beat was a second-rate DJ Mustard knockoff!

At least, that's what I thought before I discovered what the song was about.  Apparently it's about being high.  An admirable choice of topic, honestly; that would explain the somber tone of the music, creating dissonance with the party-party-party lyrics in order to encompass the entire spectrum of moods associated with substance use.  But it's not good enough to get on my top-ten list for the following reasons.  One, as I mentioned before, Sia's voice on this track is so slurred as to render these concepts unintelligible until I read the lyrics separately.  And two, we already have a song about this sort of thing.  But whereas "Chandelier" focuses more on the moment of the high, "Habits (Stay High)" takes a wider view on the subject, and for that reason I personally gravitate towards the latter song.

"Dark Horse"
by Katy Perry & Juicy J
from PRISM
Year-end position: #2

"Dark Horse" is like one of those "beware the femme fatale"-type songs of old, except from the point of view of the lady herself. An admirable concept, I must admit, but even that long-range pass gets fumbled at the hands of clumsy lyrics. For example, of the many metaphors one could use to describe a woman capable of both great loving and great wrath, "dark horse" should not be one of them. I get that you’re trying to conjure an image of power with those words, but last I checked, "dark horse" is supposed to mean an ignored entity capable of a come-from-behind victory. Also, there’s a guest rap verse by a mister Juicy J, whose only defining feature is that he is a former member of Three 6 Mafia. I’ll give him this: his part at least tries to tie into the central theme of the song, which is more than I expect from most rappers of his ilk. But Juicy J is so generic as a rapper that you could replace his part with, for example, the first verse from Jay-Z's "Holy Grail" and no one would notice.

"Do What U Want"
by Lady Gaga & R. Kelly
from Artpop
Year-end position: #84

These days is seems every artist, independent and mainstream alike, with a drop of electro blood in their body is turning to '80s aesthetics for their grooves, and Lady Gaga's "Do What U Want" has one of the grooviest of them all, if I may say so myself.  And it even has a well-deserved point: one of defiance.  The title phrase is a middle finger to the paparazzi who, try as they might, will never control who she is on the inside.  So, why didn't this get on the list?  Because R. Kelly's verse has nothing to do with the rest of the song.  Worse, he flipped the title to sing about doing what he wants to her body.  And we all know what happened when he did what he wanted to some other girl's body!  (If you need a hint, listen to the first verse of Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" again.)  I still love this song, and if I could find it in myself to put a Pitbull song on my top ten, maybe I should've made room for this as well.  Still, it's a bit too "Janusian" to give it full honours.

"Don’t Tell 'Em"
by Jeremih & YG
from Late Nights
Year-end position: #42

"Don’t Tell 'Em" was on my bottom-ten list for a while because it was the biggest hit out of all of this year’s DJ Mustard productions, but I in the end I had more important things to deal with. But oh boy, did this song get on my nerves by popularity alone. Sung by perennial R&B also-ran Jeremih, this song is supposed to be about keeping one’s romantic activities with a girl on the down-low, but as usual, you wouldn’t get that impression if you were to listen to the verses alone. And there’s a tepid rap verse by a mister YG which does nothing of note, except for the opening line "I got a missed call from your [noun]". If nothing else, I have drawn some amusement from the thought that said two-timing girlfriend is calling about something other than sexy time. But such extraneous ideas do not save the song by any means. It might be too drastic (and racist) to call DJ Mustard’s stylings the musical counterpart to ebola, but it certainly is spreading, and it’s caused me great (mental) pain.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Film Review: End of Evangelion

End of Evangelion
  • Publisher: Toei (JP), Manga Entertainment (NA)
  • Studios: Kadokawa Shoten, TV Tokyo, Sega Corporation, Production I.G, Movic, Starchild, Gainax
  • Genre: Science-fiction
  • Release: 19 July 1997 (JP)
  • Directors: Katsuya Tsurumaki (Episode 25'), Hideaki Anno (Episode 26')
  • Producer: Matsuhisa Ishikawa
  • Writer: Hideaki Anno
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Neon Genesis Evangelion.  And at the risk of spoiling that review, I thought it was quite good -- up until the final two episodes, that is, which left all its twisted plot threads hanging in favour of a whole mess of amateur philosophising.  Apparently things got so bad in that regard, that the powers concerned had to make not one, but two feature films to follow it up with.  The first, Death and Rebirth, is essentially a recap of the series.  But the second one, 1997's End of Evangelion... hoo boy, let's just say it's the one everybody talks about.

"Oh my gosh... Asuka has... boobs!  WHY DID NO ONE WARN ME!?"
We open on Shinji Ikari (EN: Spike Spencer, JP: Megumi Obata) standing at the hospital bedside of Asuka Langley Soryu (EN: Tiffany Grant, JP: Yuko Miyamura).  She's been comatose since the end of the original series, having... had a little run-in with the plot.  He shakes her in a vain effort to wake her, when he accidentally slips off her gown and...  Well, this franchise's reputation being what it is, you probably know what happens next.  And if you don't know, well, I shan't say it because I take my self-inforced PG rating very seriously, but suffice it to say, Shinji is dead right when he says, "I'm so [verb]ed up."

Meanwhile, the secret organisation SEELE, from whom spawned the less-secret organisation NERV, is having a little discussion.  You see, they've got this grand master plan to trigger something called the Human Instrumentality project.  You'd be forgiven for not knowing what it is at this point, even if you've watched the original series, which was less than explanatory on that front.  But anyway, SEELE has decided that this whole NERV thing isn't working out, so they decided to cut their losses -- the hard way.  First they try to hack NERV's computer network in an abridged, yet otherwise shot-for-shot, remake of one of the episodes.  And when that doesn't work, they send an army in to invade the place.

All the while, we get a running commentary from the officers of NERV's command centre.  You may have noticed that their voice-actors have changed in the English dub, and not for the better.  This does not extend to the entire cast, thankfully; the main characters (Shinji, Misato, Rei, Asuka, etc.) share the same actors for both the original series and EoE, and their performances are just as strong as before, if not better.  But everyone else is just phoning it in.  There may be a reason for this: ADV Films, who licenced and dubbed the original series for North America, balked at the prospect of taking on the films in addition, so instead Manga Entertainment picked them up.  That they were able to bring back as many actors as they did is a blessing, don't get me wrong, but on all other accounts the dub kinda sucks.

During the ordeal, Misato Katsuragi (EN: Allison Keith, JP: Kotono Mitsuishi) has her moment of glory when she rescues Shinji from some SEELE troops who have him at gunpoint.  I didn't have the time to bring it up in my review of the original series, but Misato-chan is one of my favourite characters from the Evangelion franchise.  During the series, she pulls double-duty as a ranking officer at NERV, and as Shinji and Asuka's legal guardian.  In the early episodes, before the show's infamous depression has a chance to set in, she drives some comedic scenes with her hard-drinking, lazy, and lusty personality -- in a cute way, of course.  But that's just at the home.  On the clock, she's the one who concocts all the plans to take down all the Angels who show up to tear humanity a new one.  And considering how close the Angels get to doing so, Misato deserves heaps of credit.

Back to EoE, Asuka has somehow awaken and is dispatched with her Eva unit to distract the enemy forces.  Which she does.  And how is she rewarded?  By SEELE unleashing their newest weapon: a series of mass-produced Eva units.  She does great against them too, in an intense fight scene which unfortunately they have to keep cutting back and forth from.  But then, a wild Lance of Longinus appears and impales Asuka's Eva, giving the others the chance to tear it up like vultures on some carrion.  And thus, Asuka Langley Soryu is killed off.  And there was much rejoicing.  ...Not.  Shinji, meanwhile, is in his own Eva unit as he watches the carnage unfold.  To put it lightly, he is not amused.

The end.

+ Performances of the returning cast members are as strong as ever.
+ Better, and more consistent, animation quality.
+ Say what you want about the ending, at least it's artistically daring.
- The replacement actors are pretty dang bad.
- The incomprehensible ending.

Acting (English): 3 MP Evas out of 5
Acting (Japanese): 5 MP Evas out of 5
Writing: 3 MP Evas out of 5
Aesthetics: 5 MP Evas out of 5
Technical: 4 MP Evas out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

Not really.  See, this film is divided into two acts, essentially replacing the final two episodes of the series.  They have their own episode numbers and titles ("25': Love is Destructive" and "26': One More Final: I Need You"), and the credits start at the end of the first act, as if ending the movie half-way (and on quite a tragic note, at that).  Of the two acts, only the second was directed by Hideaki Anno.  And... well, it shows.  To start off, Shinji's father Gendo (EN: Tristan MacAvery, JP: Fumihiko Tachiki) is holding a little ritual to initiate Third Impact -- you know, that thing they've been trying to avoid this whole series -- and with it, Instrumentality.  Which he does by pushing his arm into the body of his naked clone daughter, Rei Ayanami (EN: Amanda Winn-Lee, JP: Megumi Hayashibara).  But when that doesn't work, she instead fuses with Lilith, an Angel captured by NERV before the series started.  In doing so, she grows to gigantic proportions (still nude), Shinji's Eva gets trapped and sorta-crucified by the MP Evas, and then... well... stuff happens.

You may have noticed that this movie, and Neon Genesis Evangelion on the whole,
uses lots of random religious imagery, like the cross and the Tree of Life above.
Whether or not this means anything is your choice, 'cause it's beyond me. OTL
If you're familiar with the original series, then chances are you know about its many scenes wherein Shinji and company contemplate the meaning of their existence, and existence in general to various degrees, all set to barely-animated images.  Well, guess what -- just when you thought you were out of the woods, they did it again.  Anno-sama has totally relapsed in that regard.  I'm not saying these scenes don't have merit.  Like many shots from the original series, they are creatively arranged, and unlike many shots from the original series, they have some actual resources put into them.  But I don't know, the moment Shinji starts whining about how the world would be been better off without him, I just tune out.  And that does a true disservice to the story they were trying to tell, or at least the story we expected from them.

In the interest of constructive criticism, here's a tip I picked up from an episode of Zero Punctuation, of all places: "Is this the most exciting part of the character's life?  If not, why aren't we witnessing it?"  I guess the viewer of EoE is left disappointed because what's going on outside of Shinji's head is far more interesting than inside.  The time spent with his internal monologue could have been better spent setting up what happens outside of Shinji's head.  Like, there's this one scene where a bunch of Rei clones show up and hug everyone left alive in NERV's base until they explode into an orange liquid (which by the way, is what Instrumentality entails).  It would've been nice to see the how Rei clones got there instead of being dropped into that scene in medias res.  But hey, that never stopped Call of Duty from pulling that on us!

But there is a point to all this.  ...Sort of.  With the human race assimilated into pools of Tang, it's up to Shinji to decide whether he likes it this way, or if humanity should be put back the way it was.  He starts out the second act inclined towards the former, but throughout these moments of contemplation, shifts his stance towards the latter.  Shinji's will be done, Instrumentality is undone and humanity is restored back to its former state, more or less.  Yeah, the oceans are red now, there's a giant half of a head laying around, and the only humans we see about are Shinji and Asuka, but you know, close enough.  And that's it.  Not even a credits sequence to go out on, because we already got that out of the way.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

You maniacs!  You blew it up!
I do hope I was instrumental (no pun intended) in helping you understand this movie.  But having written all these past words, I think it was otherwise pointless reviewing End of Evangelion.  Whatever praises and criticisms I wheeled out for it are mostly the same as what I did for the original series.  I liked it most when it was an over-the-top giant-robot show, and I liked it least when it retreated into bouts of navelgazing at the expense of the outside plot.  And it's not like those scenes don't have a right to be there, after all, I applaud the daring more often than not.  But if you're going to pull that junk on us, could you at least have a point to it all?  At the end of it all, my verdict is this: Better to have watched this film and gone, "what the [verb]", than to have not watched it all.