This is one post I have to put on my flame-retardant suit! Even though I’ve heard the musicals, I’ve never seen the stage versions nor had an inclination to – and it’s only because apart from the odd well-known and catchy number here and there from well-known musicals, I dislike them in general. I find the music too much in-your-face with little of the subtleties, whether in the lyrics or the musical textures, that I can easily find in classical operas.

Still, whenever the first reviews of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables are all putting in bets for the filmed musical to sweep this coming year’s academy awards, I decided to give it a go over the long holiday weekend, out of curiosity if nothing else.

2.5 hours later after the experience, my opinion of musicals remain unchanged: Ling loved it, but I disliked it. To be fair, the film’s visuals were suitably epic. The slums of 19th century Paris are re-created beautifully; even the near-end scene taking place in the sewers looked so real it made Ling cringe and feel real bad for actors who had to wallow in it (I had to remind her it was all made-believe). That a good portion of visuals were computer-generated was obvious too, though I assumed that stylization was intentional. And Sacha Baron Cohen’s turn as the scheming and greedy Thénardier brings to mind the years I enjoyed his performance as Ali G.

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Hugh Jackman as Valjean in the 2012 film.

But then again, apart from Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and maybe Hugh Jackman (Valjean) at a couple of spots, I thought the rest of the main cast’s singing just awful to my ears. Amanda Seyfried’s (Cosette) voice was too lightweight, and Russell Crowe (Javert) sounded like he was straining at every near high note. And the director seemed to have an obsession with camera close-ups, not to mention weird camera angles. At nearly every solo number, you’ll find the camera literally in the actor’s face, with foreheads and necks frequently cropped off in the frame. When I have to purchase the inevitable Blu-ray for Ling later, I guess I could occupy myself counting the number of nostril hairs Crowe has in all those close-ups. The film felt like a relentless assault on my senses – might had been all that continuous non-stop singing – that I switched off and was struggling to stay awake. It got so bad that I switched on my iPad and fiddling with it, and in the darkness of the theater annoyed Ling who got distracted even by the tablet’s dimmed display LOL.

Funnily, just prior to the film, I’d dug out an old DVD I had of a 1998 film adaption of the same book the musical is based on and gave it another watch. The film starred an A list cast: two of the best male dramatic actors Liam Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert, alongside Uma Thurman and Claire Danes as Fantine and Cosette respectively. The film doesn’t follow the book as closely as the musical might nor is it as large-scale as the filmed-musical with its lower production budget. But I found Neeson’s transformation from convict to a benevolent and forgiving man a lot more believable than Jackman’s performance. Best of all and the highlight in the older film for me is Rush’s single-minded Valjean. Unlike the musical, we don’t get to hear the character sing out his thoughts and can only rely on the actor’s spoken dialog and his expressions, and Rush does not disappoint. Even Ling remarked that she thought Rush was a better Javert compared to Crowe.

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Liam Neeson as Valjean in the 1998 film.

In all; if you’ve enjoy the musical, I imagine you’d like the new 2012 adaptation. If the music holds nothing for you, go for the 1998 film as I did.:)

22. August 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment

Over the fortnight while the Olympics was in season, most evenings were spent in front of the living room TV. Not that I was consciously watching what was going on-screen, but I like having background audio while I’m working away on my notebook. It’s a habit that I picked up during the three odd years I spent in Perth. The television was on around 18 hours a day (that’s how I got to finish all those entire 7 season TV series in days) while I was working on my thesis.

With the Olympics over, I’ve started re-watching a bunch of films on Blu-ray. I’ve blogged about several of them here before already, but I often still acquire new reflections on these movie revisits. The bunch included:

Blood Diamond; the 2006 film about the conflict diamond trade, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. I didn’t think much of the film when I first watched it years ago, but the revisit affirmed why Hounsou was heaped with nominations for acting awards for his supporting role as a father seeking rescue of his young son who is press-ganged then brain-washed into the violent rebel factions in Sierra Leone civil war. The film doesn’t flinch from representing on-screen serious controversies, and these include mass murder of innocents and child militia executing prisoners. The film can be a little draggy at spots running at nearly 2.5 hours, and Jennifer Connelly has a supporting role which sees her all doe-eyed but otherwise doesn’t have much else to do, and the last 10 minutes feel somewhat preachy. Still, well worth a watch if you enjoy thrillers.

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Leonardo and Hounsou dashing through the war-torn city of Freetown.

The Watchmen: re-watched the butt-hurting more than 3 hours Director’s Cut of the film in a single siting. I’ve blogged about the theatrical edition of the film here, and the extended edition fleshes out numerous bits from the comic book with Rorschach benefiting the most off the additional time. I think director Zack Snyder did a great job condensing the very complicated graphic novel into a manageable size, but it still remains somewhat thick for viewers unfamiliar with the novel, given its large cast of super-hero characters spread across several generations. Most of the cast do alright, but Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach remains the real stand-out. He gets the best line in the film too.=)

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Rorschach about to barbeque an unlucky foe.

Up in the Air: Also blogged here before too. I enjoyed this comedy-drama from two years ago, and found myself paying even more attention to its subtleties in the Blu-ray revisit. There are spots of the film that reminds me of Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional, especially with regards to Ryan Bingham (George Clooney)’s love for predictable routines and having to reconcile it with love interest Alex (Vera Farmiga) and his young upstart colleague companion Natalie (Anna Kendrick). One of the major themes of the film – that of corporate-level downsizing and the reactions and sentiments from those getting fired – remain thought-provoking for me, eliciting memories of the companies I worked for pre-Millennium who went through the Asian Financial Crisis and saw retrenchment. Has a heart-wrenching ending that even surprised Ling (“So sad”… and she sniffed).

How many times we’ve also sat this like waiting for our ride.

More film re-visitation snippets to follow in the coming weeks.=)

I first started reading fantasy fiction nearly 30 years ago when my elder brother picked up the first book of the Dragonlance Chronicles. There’s been a lot of such epic fantasy book series – some spanning as many as dozens of volumes – and I must have read or at least sampled-read at least one title from most of the major series published then over the 15 years I was a fan of this genre.

Now that I’m older and rounder on the tummy, there still remain just two series out of the entire lot which I enjoyed more than the rest. It’s Dragonlance Legends, a trilogy of books that followed Chronicles, and Raymond E. Fiest’s Riftwar Saga. Interestingly, while both trilogies are very different in writing style, tone and themes, they were also both published in the 80’s. The fantasy worlds that these two series are set in have spawned off numerous other books; sometimes written by the same author, and other times either in collaboration or by entirely different writing teams.

Until recently, these novels were typically too hard to film. There were the obvious concerns of trying to show on screen complex fantasy worlds (think Orcs, Dragons etc.), and also how do you cram typically 600 page monsters into a 2 hour film. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings changed all that of course, demonstrating that with the right production team and studio support, you can turn what are normally unfilmable books into films, albeit running for almost 12 hours – each of the three special edition movies averaged 4 hours in length!

So, there’s been a somewhat resurgence of films based off popular fantasy fiction. LOTR sticks in most people’s minds as the most critically and financially successfully series, though there’s been also a couple of real turkeys (e.g. the decidedly ‘D’ grade Eragon film from 2006). A more recent production is HBO’s TV series adaption of George Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, a set of seven novels that started in 1991. The TV series is titled Game of Thrones and each of its first two seasons have been based on the first two books of the series.

I picked up the first Season a fortnight ago, and after spending about 20 hours in all watching each of its ten episodes twice, have got mixed feelings. The series has been critically acclaimed for its adherence to the literary source, quality cast which excepting three or four recognizable names are mostly unknowns, costumes, and general production quality. The first season of the series does indeed follow the book quite closely, and each scene in the series having a strong traceable source from the book, though in many cases, long dialog and conversations that you can afford in print are heavily summarized or truncated for TV consumption. Credits go to the casting too. Though several actors are younger than the characters they play – e.g. the older children from the first book’s protagonist, Eddard Stark, are played by older actors, they nonetheless perform their roles well, with a special nod going to 15 year old Maisie Williams, who plays the tomboyish daughter Arya.

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Eddard and Arya Stark glowering.

The older actors are mostly all good, especially the always recognizable Sean Bean (Boromir from LOTR), who plays the perpetually brooding Eddard Stark, an honorable nobleman stuck between his temperamental king and his master’s scheming wife, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion, a dwarf who easily compensates with his wit, intelligence but soft heart for all who are equally as disadvantaged, and Aidan Gillen who plays Baelish, the kingdom’s accountant and who seems to be playing both sides. The cast all look reasonably distinct, so it’s easy to tell characters apart, especially important since the cast is huge.

On the flip side. While the series is shot in some amazingly gorgeous backdrops in Ireland and Malta, there’s no escaping the sense occasionally that the series doesn’t quite enjoy Peter Jackson’s LOTR budget. There’s the odd violent and scene where medieval weapons are broken out and people get killed, but the first season has gone past without any large battle scene that we’ve come to associate medieval or fantasy productions with. You do get to see the aftermath of a battle fought between two rival houses, but that’s it. While the wide-shots of the key cities – Winterfell, the Wall, King’s Landing and the Eyrie – are gorgeously and seamlessly rendered using computer wizardry, the ground footage of its inhabitants milling about with what should be their daily routines gives away that this is a very much a made-for-TV production. And for persons who enjoy stories that move along briskly, Game of Thrones’ almost ponderous story progression at times won’t sit well for them.

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Picked up the first two books to read too a fortnight ago. About 1,700 pages in between them, and at around page 370 right now.

Still, one is short on alternatives since there just isn’t many quality epic fantasy TV series out there. It’s still a good series to watch and one that I recommend.

21. March 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment · Tags:

Continued from the last post.

Storywise, you’ve sort of seen it before. Yep; it’s mix of Lost and Star Trek Voyager. Visually, thematically, and stylistically though, it draws its cues from recent dramas like Battlestar Galactica. The show is very dark and edgy. No more cute and fuzzy benign aliens, nor even alien of the week. Every episode is almost depressing as the Destiny’s crew struggles each week against the challenges of traveling onboard a vessel that is technologically far ahead of what they can readily comprehend. And the challenges run the gamut of finding power, oxygen, water, food, then facing off radiation, unfriendly aliens, collisions with stars, marooned crew that are left to die, alien viruses that are accidentally brought onboard, military-civilian tussles for power etc.

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The main cast from Stargate Universe

Some of these interstellar travel challenges aren’t new; we’ve seen them before in the first season of Battlestar Galactica, but SGU ramps it up a couple of notches. The series kills characters with alarming frequency, and there are only so many crew members that are onboard Destiny to begin with. Many of the challenges are also – apparently – scientifically grounded (the show’s producers note that NASA scientists watch the show), and while I don’t claim to understand all that science and astronomical mumbo jumbo for a second, it does at least sound as though the series knows what it’s talking about when a character says something about the dangers of how a white dwarf is stripping material from a neutron star in a binary pulsar and creating an accretion disc that is producing gamma radiation. I kid you not. That’s exactly one of the danger scenarios that the Destiny’s crew faces in one episode.

The cast is pretty good too, though aside from one of the two leads are all unknowns to me. I immediately recognized Robert Carlyle, who stars as Dr. Nicholas Rush, Destiny’s super brilliant but also extremely arrogant and also mentally unsound scientist. With him are Louis Ferreira as Colonel Everett Young, his military opposite who’s constantly bumping heads with Rush, Brian J. Smith as the loyal but conscientious Lt. Matthew Scott, Jamil Walker Smith as Master SGT Ronald Greer, the crew’s hot-tempered bulldog, and David Blue as Eli Wallace, a civilian who starts off as slacker but also a genius, and grows to be a real asset to the crew.

The civilian-military antagonism isn’t too different from the Adama-Roslin tug of war in the early seasons of Battlestar Galactica, and as good as Ferreira is as an actor, he’s not in Edward James Olmosclass. Carlyle’s Rush is a different story though. You love-hate his character. You hate his ruthlessness and single-mindedness in pursuing his scientific goals, but it’s hard to fault his cold-minded logic. Exactly the characterizations that make for great series viewing.

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CG's all good. Wished there was more of it though.

What’s unquestionably impressive is the Computer Generated graphics work. Unlike Battlestar Galactica’s numerous and very large-scale space battles, the CG work for SGU is mostly in Destiny, the worlds they explore – some of them look truly alien – and also a couple of space battles. It’s somewhat sparing, but when you do see it, it’s all pretty good.

All in; not too bad. I’ll put this series at below Battlestar Galactica. but since that series has completed its run and until the prequel series, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, is released, SGU will do.=)

21. March 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment · Tags:

I had a housemate back in Perth who was a big fan of the sci-fi series called Stargate SG-1. For those of us who’re not in the know; the TV series was a spin-off from a 1994 so-so sci-fi film made by the then darling purveyors of pop-corn sci-fi films – the Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin duo who’d go on to make the alien-busting Independence Day film next. The film and series essentially covers the discovery of an ancient ring-shaped device in present-day Earth that serves as one-end of an interstellar wormhole that in turn makes possible travel to distant planets and galaxies.

The first series that followed the film – Stargate SG-1 – turned out to be quite the success, and ran for a whopping 10 years, becoming the longest-running American sci-fi TV series ever before getting recently surpassed by Smallville. The series was well-regarded for its adventurism, cast chemistry, and story arcs that evolved and ran for years. In fact, the producers themselves seemed surprised by how loyal a fan-base the series created – the series was to have been wrapped at several junctures, but kept going on because of its fans.

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The main cast from Stargate SG-1.

On the down side, the show – especially in the earlier years – was also rather campy at spots, with the occasional ‘alien of the week’ episodes showing up. Stargate SG-1 itself had its own spin-off. The equally successful Stargate Atlantis, which ran for five years, and most recently and the topic of this post: Stargate Universe.

Stargate Universe (SGU) is a pretty recent TV series that ran for just two seasons before getting discontinued because of development timing constraints. It follows the adventures of a multinational exploration team which is stuck on a massive starship after an offworld base they were based in is destroyed (the planet explodes in a spectacular scene). The starship, Destiny, unfortunately, is also billions of light years away from home, and the series tells the story of their difficult journey home.

Continued in the next post.=)

03. January 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Baby Blues, Entertainment · Tags:

Swampy the alligator has a problem. He lives in the city sewers and needs water for a bath. Unfortunately, that water isn’t reaching his bath shower head because the pipes have all got messed up. Can you help him?

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And so it goes for Hannah’s newest thing. It’s actually a lovely app created by Disney called “Where’s My Water? “, and can be had for cheap at USD0.99. The game requires our girl to figure out little puzzles on how to guide water flow from source to Swampy’s bath shower. The game comes packed with hundreds of puzzles, and some of the later ones are fiendishly difficult even for adults.

It’s also become quite a bonding moment for daughter and daddy whenever we indulge in a puzzle or two each night for 15 minutes, and our girl will thereafter run excitedly to mommy explaining the different things she has been trying to solve each water puzzle.=)

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This isn’t, of course, the only physics based puzzler around for tablet or mobile devices. There’s the ubiquitous Angry Birds. But for some reason, Hannah never got quite into that even though she recognizes the animal creatures anywhere – she’ll point at the animal plush toys at a toy store and say “Angry Birds!!!”. On the other hand, she’s loves Where’s My Water!

As to fears on whether she’ll get hooked; it doesn’t look like it. She still very much loves the train set Ling bought her for Christmas, and still wants us to read with her her prayer book, or to do stickers with her.=)

We didn’t start Hannah on watching kiddie television programme until very recently when I bought her a couple of veggie tales DVDs that were on sale. Hmm, this wasn’t intentional but perhaps we didn’t want her to become addicted to TV shows or cartoons at her age of development.

Long story short, Hannah has begun to enjoy YouTube videos on children’s songs. Two of her favourites are:

I went online to order a customised video on learning the alphabet for Hannah too. Yang told me that I got conned for the price I paid. Anyway, we enjoyed the video thoroughly and Hannah wanted to watch it a few times on a daily basis. And she could recall the story for each letter with amazing clarity. The secret? Her photo is in every story of each letter. Other aspects which attracted me to acquiring this video are the use of a different classical music (mostly) for each letter, interesting story line for each letter, simple and cute illustrations and pleasant, child-friendly narrator voice. Below is a short clip of the customised video.

Soul Surfer (2011) – on rental. The story of this not-too-mainstream film goes like this. Bethany Hamilton is a 13 year old girl living in Kauai. She has two brothers, loving parents, and is in a Christian family who loves surfing. However, on a morning surf with friends in October 2003 however, she loses her entire arm when she’s attacked by a tiger shark. Undeterred, she remains guided by her faith and with witnessing of others suffering, she goes on a journey of emotional and physical recovery to pursue her dream of competitive surfing and charity work.

Sounds corny and something straight out of a film adapted out of a Nicholas Sparks book? Nope. The story’s real. The incident did happen, and the character is very real. The story is both tragic but also inspirational, with the real 21 year old Bethany Hamilton today competitively surfing and winning trophies despite her disability. I learned of the real story while casually browsing for sports news, and upon finding out that a film was being made about her story, queued up the DVD rental as soon as it was released.

The key role of Bethany is played by AnnaSophia Robb, an actress I’ve named on our blog here before as one of the best young actresses to watch; her parents Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, and the rest of the cast mostly non-recognizables, excepting Craig T. Nelson as the town’s doctor, and American country singer, Carrie Underwood in the odd role of a church worker. The film was made on location in Hawaii, and apart from what looks like a neighboring set dressed up to replace a Thai location depicting the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, looks pretty authentic. The surfing is easy to follow, and as I understand it, done with minimal CG enhancements.

The story is pretty well-documented in news that viewers who have an inclination to find out more only need to do a quick Google search. Nonetheless, it’s not an easy film to watch. Every scene where you see Robb on-screen without her arm (done through CG) and struggling to re-learn everything that she once took for granted, is heart-rendering. Much of this is due to Robb amazing performance. She’s easily likable as a young growing up girl who loves her hobby, and when tragedy strikes, presents real emotions as she struggles to reconcile her loss with her faith. Bit of snippet: the real Bethany Hamilton when asked who she’d like to play her in this film, she named Robb.

AnnaSophia Robb and Bethany Hamilton.

One thing though is that Hollywood routinely has the habit of turning into cheese inspirational stories like this, and Soul Surfer comes dangerously close to the same failings. The package that includes camera angles, dialog and music, feels pretty manipulative to elicit tears from you. Similarly too, the film poses very tough questions like how can God allow for such tragedies to happen, but doesn’t do resolve it well for the most part. There’s a weak attempt to provide some sort of answer from Underwood’s church worker character but sorry, she doesn’t act very well; and it’s only in the film’s closing scene is there an answer of sorts coming out from Bethany herself.

If this film doesn’t make shark fin lovers want to go out and eat a pot of shark’s fin soup, nothing else will (to be fair though, the real Bethany Hamilton has nothing against sharks, and in fact thinks they are great creatures – see DVD supplements). Outside that, the film is on a bit of a fine edge. The film passes or fails based on AnnaSophia Robb’s performance, and thankfully she does not disappoint. Deducted a star for the cheese injected, but on the overall, worth an easy watch.

29. July 2011 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, At Home, Entertainment

love-drugs-01Love and Other Drugs (2010) – on rental. By coincidence, this was the second of two rented films I’ve watched in this month about relationships centered on casual sex.

Like the earlier film – No Strings AttachedLove and Other Drugs stars two well-known and attractive-looking leads engaged in physical relationships without long-term commitments. The two are Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Jamie, a smooth-talking ladies man employed as a salesperson for a mega pharmaceutical company; and Anne Hathaway, who plays Maggie, a waitress suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease. The two start off in a relationship based off sex-on-demand, and not surprisingly so, as the film progresses, potentially turns into something more.

Funnily; it’s not this central theme of casual relationships that I found most engaging. In fact, if nothing else, I thought that the premise of Maggie having an incurable illness and thus wanting non-committal relationships had promise. However, the film doesn’t do anything much with that material, and only in the last act when Maggie attends a sharing between others having the same condition is there progression and a glimmer of what might had been. Rather, it’s the subplot of the machinations of large pharmaceutical companies that was given better treatment. It’s fun to see how cutthroat these companies can be against each other if the film’s representation of sales people is anything to go with.

But the film was killed for me with a bunch of other problems. Apart from the story that springs no surprises, neither of the two leads are likable in their roles. Jamie is a serial womanizer, and by the film’s end, has slept with five women, two of whom in a ménage à trois. Hathaway looks unattractive, what with her curls and heavy eye-liner and shock-red lips. The dialog has lots of profanity – not surprising for a show of this nature – but good parts of it coming out from the Hathaway sounds forced.

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And the amount of skin… oh my. There is nudity in this film, and lots and lots of it. I’m not certain if Hathaway was willing to disrobe this much because she thought this was a way of demonstrating her progression to more adult fare, but a lot of the flesh paraded in this film was gratuitous.

So, watchable though still somewhat disappointing. The other film stars Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. I’ll blog about that soon too . =)

28. July 2011 · Comments Off · Categories: All Posts, Entertainment

green-lantern-01Green Lantern (2011) – AMK Hub. Of the whole bunch of super heroes from DC Comics’ repertoire, I’ve always felt that the Green Lanterns would had been the hardest to translate into a live motion picture adaptation. Unlike the Batman or even Superman characters, the Green Lanterns’ backdrop is of the galaxy, and their powers manifested as conjurations limited only by each individual corp members’ imagination and willpower. Computer generated wizardry thus needed to get up to the point where it can render those conjurations and aerial and space battles realistically, let alone finding some way to translate a very epic-scaled story that involves space, aliens, and magical constructs to the screen.

This film adaptation stars Ryan Reynolds as hell-raising test pilot Hal Jordan – the first of the Green Lanterns introduced in the comic book series – is bestowed the power ring by Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones), a Green Lantern officer who is near death after a fight with a powerful but evil essence-like being called Parallax. The film starts up briskly with characters set up for Jordan and potential love-interest Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), then he gets the ring, and is zoomed to the planet Oa to begin his training under the almost hostile mentor he’s assigned, Sinestro (Mark Strong).

The film at least gets several things right. Mark Strong turns in a strong performance as Sinestro. His portrayal of Jordan’s one-time mentor establishes the kind of personality he really is, and lays the ground work for a potential sequel in which, hopefully, we’ll get to see him turn into the Corps’ most bitter and deadliest and enemy. I was glad to see one of the comics’ most loved and iconic characters – Kilowog – show up too as one of Jordan’s physical instructors. The representation of Parallax is passable, though in the books, he’s really even more scary than this. The conjurations are pretty well done too – I’m certainly glad that they were appropriately mechanical in nature, as opposed to the oft mocked green gigantic fists and flyswatters in the early years of the comics.

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One look at Sinestro and you know he's really not a good guy.

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There are guns in the film. All is right in the world.

But the film has an even larger number of duds. The film has a color palette and a sort of CG sheen that you’re reminded in every scene that it’s all computer generated. There’s very little chemistry between Ferris and Jordan. And the first film’s key human villain – Hector Hammond – is so unpleasantly grotesque to look that watching him on screen gave me a sort of unnerving creepy feeling that I didn’t enjoy, even for this sort of film.

And while the corps at large is introduced and shown onscreen at several junctures, little is ever done with them in the film. The comic books have received critical acclaim for its recent Darkest Night sagas which saw all-out very epic galactic wars between the corps and their foes. It was a lost opportunity to see a good part of the first film rooted back on Earth. Not quite as expansive as it could had been.

In all; mixed feelings then. Given the relatively average-only box office performance, I wonder if this film will see a sequel. It looks maybe unlikely now.