Category Archives: Action

Often high in violence and fast-paced. Not necessarily gory, though can be.

Dota: Dragon’s Blood – does it know how to last hit?

Similar: Castlevania

Orphen

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Action Fantasy

Length: 8 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Quality production
  • Love the variety of accents
  • The elven goddess is a creepy and effective antagonist

Negatives:

  • Feels like it’s missing lore context if you aren’t familiar with the source

(Request an anime for review here.)

Full disclosure, I know nothing about Dota 2 lore. This review comes from the perspective of someone who doesn’t play the game or read any related lore. I did play the original DotA mod a decent amount and watched a few tournaments, but to be honest, I didn’t know there was any lore to the game. A one paragraph profile per character, sure, though nothing more. As such, if you are a loremaster, your experience may vary.

For those even less familiar with the material than me, Dota 2 is the standalone sequel to the original DotA mod from Warcraft 3. The mod proved more popular than Warcraft 3 itself until game studio Valve hired key developers to make a complete game, independent of Warcraft and Blizzard. The worst business move Blizzard ever made was not capitalising on DotA and they’ve since shot themselves in the foot with their StarCraft 2 and abysmal Warcraft 3 Reforged modding policy. Valve just had to change a few character and item names to avoid direct reference to trademarks, though references are still in place – the burst fire mage Lina the Slayer, based on Lina Inverse from Slayers, is still in the game, for example. Dota 2 has gone on to reach massive heights with the largest prize pools in esports history with its world championships each year, The International.

Dota: Dragon’s Blood brings together a handful of characters from Dota 2’s large cast of “Heroes” for an adult fantasy adventure. The protagonist is Davion the Dragon Knight, who slays dragons for a living only to have the soul of an elder dragon merge with his body during a fight with a demon. He can now transform against his will into a human-dragon hybrid monster (think the Hulk). He soon joins forces with Mirana, “princess of nothing,” to stop this demon from claiming more dragon souls. Meanwhile, the elven mage Invoker plots against the elven goddess Selemene, whose sycophantic followers wreak genocide across elven lands.

The best thing I can say immediately about Dragon’s Blood – or any game to film tie-in – is its disregard for the source material’s gameplay. Unless it’s something like Wreck it Ralph where the game is the point of the story, trying to incorporate gameplay elements in a film/series is cringe inducing (see Uwe Boll films for reference). It finally feels like Hollywood is starting to grasp how to adapt games for screen. Then again, Sony’s upcoming offerings don’t look promising, so perhaps it’s only in the animation sector.

Speaking of animation, Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra) once again makes the art form a delight to behold. The action scenes are fluid and violent, even on the horror side at times. This isn’t a series for kids. The character designs are classic high fantasy and coming from a game that requires distinct silhouettes for visibility in combat, there is variety. On a world building level, again, classic fantasy except for the elves, who are far less noble than the stereotype. Love that most of them are Australian and the actors do a good job for non-natives. It matches their society better than the typical Oxford English. The world grabs me.

However, the characters are a little lacking and this is where I wonder if my unfamiliarity with the source has an effect. I have not looked into the lore since finishing the series either – want to keep my outsider’s perspective. After all, you shouldn’t need outside material to enjoy a good adaptation. Had I been well acquainted with Davion and Mirana beforehand, would they engage me? I’m not even certain if all notable characters in Dragon’s Blood are from the game. I assume so.

Mirana is supposed to be a princess of “nothing” and yet, I don’t have the impression of a princess nor do I feel the shadow of secrets from her backstory. She’s fine though not compelling. The same is true of Davion. His personality does make him entertaining – I’ll give him that.

The more interesting characters are the antagonists Selemene and the not-as-antagonistic Invoker. Selemene is the Goddess of the Moon but more akin to a goddess of lust and obsession, as she forces her followers to pledge undying love to her. She’s psychotic about this. You want a favour from her? You had better be ready to say you love her or off with your head. It sounds mundane on paper yet she is genuinely threatening. She has a much stronger presence than the main villain consuming dragon souls (I often forgot he was in the story). Against her we have Invoker, who is a sympathetic antagonist with a personal story that drives engagement. I want more of the elven subplot over the main plot.

In all, Dota: Dragon’s Blood is certainly good enough for a relative outsider to the franchise, like myself, to find reason to watch this anime. I am looking forward to the next season and that’s worth something. Riot Games has an animated series of its own on the way for their game League of Legends, which I am much more familiar with, so it will be interesting to see how that compares.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Even the Dota illiterate can enjoy this fantasy series.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Fluid Animation

Negative: None

Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Biohazard: Infinite Darkness

 

Related: Resident Evil: Degeneration

Resident Evil: Vendetta

 

Watched in: English

Genre: Action Horror

Length: 4 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good acting
  • The video game-like CG works better than most CG anime

Negatives:

  • Thin on character
  • Probably won’t mean much to non-franchise fans

(Request an anime for review here.)

This is an impromptu review urged on by a random recommendation from Netflix. At only four episodes long, Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness makes for a good pit stop while I work on something longer.

The Resident Evil franchise has a decent history of CG anime films dating back to 2008 (as well as those hilarious live-action films). It follows the same vein of Final Fantasy: Advent Children in going for a more realistic visual style compared to your typical CG anime, emulating a cutscene. They come from a time when the in-game graphics were still quite removed from cutscenes, so to see a “movie-length” cutscene was the ultimate fan service. That said, the Resident Evil films never looked as good as those top tier cutscenes out of something like a Blizzard game or those E3 trailers. Infinite Darkness, however, looks much better than previous entries. Mouth animations are still a little too smooth and atmospherics have some way to go, but it’s suitable for something without a Pixar budget.

The quality of CG anime hasn’t been good overall, to put it nicely, and with the likes of Ex-Arm amongst recent releases, the trajectory doesn’t seem to head upwards. CG anime quality is particularly odd because we have had plenty of great non-anime CG series in the past. Star Wars: The Clone Wars is one of the most famous examples, looking better in 2008 than almost all CG anime today – never mind comparisons to the final season in 2020 (choice of visual style is important in masking CG shortcomings on a budget). On a mini-series front, we have the likes of Love, Death, and Robots (highly recommended, by the way) that manages to exhibit a variety of visual styles to a masterclass level. These don’t look like anime, though. On the other hand, Advent Children doesn’t have a cartoony style and most would still associate it with anime. So why can’t CG anime be better?

Whether it is for budgetary reasons, inexperienced crews (*cough* Ex-Arm) or a lack of effort, CG anime leaves much to be desired. Beastars is one of few cases to not bleed the eyes. Of course, the West has had its share of problems. There are dozens – maybe hundreds – of children’s CG cartoon that you’ve never heard of with some serious jank. They’ve had issues even amongst the successful series. Animation in The Dragon Prince season one was like watching a Pentium 1 PC try to run Crysis.

All of this is to say that while Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness is an anime and is more visually appealing than most CG anime, it still doesn’t feel like one. It can’t be the subject matter – military versus zombies isn’t foreign to anime. Is it not capital A anime enough? Does it need screeching lolis (preferably eaten by zombies) to feel like anime? Well, no, of course not. Do the eyes need to be bigger than the brain? “What is anime” is a much harder question to answer than one would imagine. To me, I suppose it doesn’t feel like anime because it doesn’t move like anime. There is that indescribable quality which you recognise when you see it. Similarly, when does it go from a cartoon drawing to manga? Plenty of manga don’t fit the standard parameters should someone describe the manga style.

Funnily enough, all animation is “anime” in Japanese. Here is a great video on the subject by Kenny Lauderdale.

So, Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness, regardless of whether it feels like anime, is it any good? It’s okay. A decent action series with zombies, a government conspiracy, and plenty for fans of the franchise. That latter point is both its biggest draw and biggest repellent. Fans of Resident Evil will like seeing classic characters Leon and Claire on screen in a story that occurs between Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5. It follows a new outbreak in southern Asia and the cover up afterwards, leading to an infection in the White House. The president calls in Leon, the man who saved his daughter, to join the operation. Meanwhile, Claire investigates the case on her own for a humanitarian organisation.

For fans, Infinite Darkness will be fine, but outsiders will likely find the characters thin. This anime – as is often the case with tie-in media – relies on the original material to build the world and characters. “You know their personalities, their backstories, their struggles, their ghosts already from playing the games, so why should we waste time on establishing them again?” The result is an average zombie flick, enjoyed but likely forgotten by most next week. If you need a zombie fix and want something more complete, I recommend Train to Busan.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For Resident Evil fans. As a series predicated on familiarity with the franchise, Resident Evil: Infinite Darkness is decent fan service to aficionados.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Katanagatari – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Katanagatari

 

Similar: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

Dororo

Mononoke

Samurai Jack

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Historical Action Adventure Romance

Length: 12 episodes (double length)

 

Positives:

  • Storybook art
  • Whimsical score
  • Fairy tale stories
  • Fun main duo

Negatives:

  • Drags at times

(Request an anime for review here.)

Katanagatari is a series of fairy tale-like stories about a woman collecting the twelve “Deviant Blades” across Edo-era Japan (unaffiliated with the Bakemonogatari series – “gatari” means “story” in Japanese, so “Sword Story” in this case). This is based on real events from history, where a Japanese ruler would declare a “sword hunt” to confiscate all swords possessed by those not native to his territory, believing it would prevent them having the means to overthrow him. Togame, strategist to the shogunate, employs the help of Shichika, current master of the Kyotouryuu style that fights barehanded and turns the body itself into a blade.

The storybook art style is immediately striking and the only selling point I needed to try this anime (several readers have since requested it). One may think it cartoonish or that this is a small children’s anime, but children would find Katanagatari unbearably dull in truth. This is for a slightly older audience and the style fits the tone.

Despite the action sounding title, dialogue is the dominant form of this anime. Each episode is double length to fit the story associated with each sword in a single uninterrupted session. While I like this idea, I don’t feel each episode justifies the extra screen time, as it does drag often for a mere 12 episodes. A variable episode length would be better – I wish all series would do this, just like the variable length of book chapters. It took me a long time to finish this series (to be fair, life keeps getting in the way too). I recommend one episode per session. However, outside of that, I can’t present any other barriers to finishing the series. Katanagatari is a good anime.

First, the main duo is tons of fun. Shichika is muscle over brains taken to an almost extreme. “I’m bad at thinking” – his words. He’s also oblivious to how to treat Togame, the woman he claims to love. He’s humorously embarrassing. By contrast, Togame is all brains and no brawn. She’s a proper lady of good upbringing, unlike this hick country fella. Yet she trips on first meeting him. She talks too much, too many big words, is carried away with her monologues, and assumes other people’s answers only to realise she misheard a minute later. A perfect contrast to Shichika.

The meeting of this art style, whimsical score, and mystical stories reminds of fairy tales, as mentioned earlier, for which you need the right mindset. Each episode is about confronting an owner of one of these swords. Naturally, they are reluctant to relinquish their powerful weapons, so a conflict ensues. Sometimes it’s a typical action scene, though often there’s more thought to it, like a moral quandary or a puzzle to solve – as seen in fairy tales.

For example, one wielder is the last swordsman in a fallen kingdom swallowed by sand. He sits in a room in the castle with his sword at the ready, capable of slashing faster than light at anyone who dares enter. If you think logically, this falls apart. How does he eat? Go to the bathroom? Why don’t they fire a cannon from outside behind him? Those aren’t questions for this type of story. In Little Red Riding Hood, you don’t worry about how the hell a wolf could ever pass for an old granny. Approach Katanagatari with that mindset and you will have a good time. I mean, one guy punches with his guns. Need I say more?

Why is it okay to ignore those questions here but not in, say, Sword Art Online 2, you may ask? No story can encompass everything, account for every possibility, or factor in every detail from reality. Would make for rather boring stories. Instead, stories choose what focus on and the style in which to deliver the message, the morality, the character study, the action – whatever. Weak stories will either execute this vision poorly or sometimes not account for something that within the logic of its world breaks the story. Sword Art Online is garbage for many reasons, but the sword versus guns problem is idiotic because if a sword is so effective and bullets are so slow, why would anyone ever choose a gun in competitive play? By the logic established within that world, no one would use a gun.

Thankfully, Katanagatari isn’t Sword Art Online.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Katanagatari is unexpected in style and execution and I recommend it taken one episode per session. Cheerio!

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Stunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Castlevania – Full Series Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1 review (old)

Castlevania Season 2 review (old)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Action Fantasy Horror

Length: 32 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Vampire majesty
  • Faithful adaptation without getting bogged down by the source material
  • Brutally gothic in action and tone
  • Political intrigue amongst excellent villains
  • Great lore and magic

Negatives:

  • Give me more, please

(Request an anime for review here.)

With the conclusion of the fourth season, Netflix’s Castlevania comes to a great end. Rather than do a review for the final season only, I thought I would go back and cover the full series in one place, give my overall thoughts on this triumph (no need to read the other reviews either).

My astonishment at the quality of a video game to film adaptation has been the greatest surprise throughout Castlevania’s run. I’m hoping this is the turning point where adaptations are things to look forward to rather than dread, similar to when comic books became good films more often than not. Superhero film fans are spoilt for choice these days. They don’t know of the Affleck Daredevil and Elektra days. Watching a good adaptation can sometimes make you forget the bad – the atrocious – such as Far Cry (anything by Uwe Boll, honestly), Dead or Alive, and the notorious Super Mario Bros. It’s hard to stress how weird it feels to see quality when the expectation is absolute ass.

For the newcomers, Castlevania is a long-running franchise of loosely connected games about a bloodline of vampire hunters from the Belmont family battling against creatures of the night, usually led by Dracula. The Netflix series roughly follows the third game, Dracula’s Curse, though pulls from several entries and brings much of its own material to the canvas. That last point is a key to Castlevania the animation’s success. Most adaptations fail because they don’t realise that gameplay comes first in [good] video games and trying to translate this to a cinematic only experience doesn’t work. There’s a reason the “princess is in another castle” trope is a common ailment of game stories (the recent God of War, for example), yet not often seen in film. Games use it to tack on another 5-hour gameplay world before, of course, the princess is again in another castle and you have another world to explore. It’s fine to want to be faithful to the source material, but there’s no point if it makes for a garbage film. Character, theme, tone, and style matter when adapting, not the gameplay mechanics or exact plot.

In terms of story, what makes Castlevania? Vampire hunters, vampires, monsters, magic, gothic, horror, religion, and labyrinthine castles. Your story isn’t a failure if your vampire hunter doesn’t jump and whip, jump and whip, jump and whip. It’s like those movies based on FPS games, where they think that because they have a scene in first person as a guy mows down fools with a gun, they’ve nailed it.

This series understands what makes for an engaging story in the world of Castlevania.

Enough preamble already, onto the review proper! This story opens on the meeting and courtship between the human Lisa and the vampire lord himself, Dracula. He teaches her science and medicine to help the local humans, which doesn’t please the Church, who see science as heathen magic and burn her at the stake. Dracula’s fury in response knows no equal and he unleashes a horde of demons upon the nation. Hell reigns.

Trevor Belmont, the last in his line of vampire hunters, drinks his way to the end of his days unmoved by the massacres nearby. A plea from some humans wakes him from his drunken haze and he finally does what he was born to do. He soon meets the magician Sypha.

Hearing this premise and knowing the video game origin, expectations are for little more than good guy fights series of bad guys to get to big bad guy in terms of story. However, Castlevania is so much more. In fact, there is enough material just amongst the villains to make a full series. Dracula’s court consists of vampires and humans, each with their own motivations and purpose in this story. Politics plays a larger part than action does in the conflict. They aren’t evil for the sake of evil. Dracula is the most powerful being on Earth, yet the death of his wife broke him. Isaac, one of Dracula’s Forgemasters (demon constructors), is waging a war against his own kind, whereas the other Forgemaster is a tad hesitant though no less involved. Some amongst the vampire “sisters” question their existence as vampires. Are they truly to rule for all eternity? Over everyone? The nuance to these villains (are they all villains?) particularly in later seasons had me glued to the screen.

A recurring problem in stories featuring secret societies of the supernatural is homogony within the society. The Underworld films (a guilty pleasure of mine), The Mortal Instruments, and Blade are but a few examples. How many stories have you seen where all the vampires (except maybe one) or werewolves or whatever supernatural race are the same? Where they have no lives saves for waiting around to drop from above in groups when someone walks down a back alley? They may as well be the clone troopers from Attack of the Clones for all the difference between them. This cliché stems from how people imagine other cultures. They see people in their own country are as varied as the plants and animals of the world, yet everyone in a distant country is one homogenous blob of whatever stereotype they know and not just as varied. Or the writers are just lazy. Of course, one story doesn’t have room for thousands of different personalities, but variety in what characters you do have goes a long way, even the villains.

On a hero front, Trevor’s “I’m so over this” attitude combined with his family duty makes for a fitting hero, a better choice than a typical “hero” in this gothic tale, and his chemistry with Sypha brings a touch of levity. Alucard is a more unusual character. Like his father, he’s powerful yet amongst the most mentally weak after having lived a sheltered life. I love the way he talks as well. His vocal mannerisms alone inform much of his experiences and mental state. And let’s not forget the charismatic has-been Saint Germain. What is he up to?

Even the minor characters are memorable, from the religious fanatics to the sentient demons. My only complaint with the characters is that we don’t get to see more of them. I could easily do with twice as many episodes of character interactions and vampire politics.

If action is more to your taste, Castlevania is excellent there as well. Apart from a few rough cuts, the animation is great and the action never feels generic. It’s always interesting to watch and improves with each season. Gory too, as it should be for a horror series. The massacre in episode one sets the tone perfectly.

Castlevania started as an animation to which I paid no attention. Now, I love it. It has a great start with four episodes as a proof of concept followed by a second season that brings the cast to strength, and then a third season elevates it to excellence with nuance before a final season delivers an explosive action finish. This is one of the best fantasy series I’ve seen in a long time. I can only hope future video game adaptations receive even half the care and effort as Castlevania has received.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania is a triumph of an adaptation and a fantasy series. I heartily recommend it.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Ex-Arm – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ex-Arm

 

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Akira

Guilty Crown

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Nothing

Negatives:

  • Ugliest anime ever?
  • Incompetent script
  • The directing is terrible
  • Doesn’t even know how to use CG properly

(Request an anime for review here.)

And so we come to the 30th review of the past 30 (+2) days. I saved the best for last. Ex-Arm is a thing of beauty, an art piece of wonder so spectacular it defies reality. Physics hold no power over Ex-Arm.

CG anime is often terrible with bad writing to match. However, the recent triumph of Beastars and Dorohedoro seemed to turn a real corner for CG in this medium. Then comes Ex-Arm to set the industry back three decades. The story behind this disaster is even worse than the resulting product itself. I don’t know where to begin with this. There are so many things wrong with the art alone that I want to say them all at once. I can’t decide which is the worst!

What about the opening scene? It actually starts with 2D animation – well, I say animation, but can you call two frames flitting back and forth as characters drag across the screen “animation”? Then they have a shot of a character surrounded by lightning as the world tears apart. The still image below is almost as animated as the video. Only the lightning moves as this guy holds the sort of pose some weeaboo would post a photo of themselves imitating on Twitter with the caption, “Cross me and the devil comes out to play,” serious about it. They are so proud of this shot. Expect to see it several dozen times across the 12 episodes. Snap cut to the opening sequence.

Now, anime openings are known for being of high quality, sometimes even deceptive of the anime’s actual quality. I think Ex-Arm’s OP may be worse than the series. The highlights are character profile shots of the typical OP, but they have no animation. A rotating 3D model of the characters shows up instead. Boy, are they proud of those models. They want you to see them in all their glory to get you excited for what is to come. That’s what an OP is for, right? We also bear witness to the fire effects, which look pasted in by a fan edit.

Once the OP ends, we establish the setting at a Japanese high school and at this point, I think they must be trolling us. They do something I never thought someone would even consider. I want you to imagine what a camera zoom looks like. The camera starts at a distance and zooms in on the subject, bringing the detail closer to the eye. Sounds accurate. What it doesn’t do is blow up the image. Ex-Arm though, in its avant-garde genius, does blow up the image as if zooming in Photoshop, to the point where you can see the pixilation. Funniest moment of the entire series! Don’t believe me? Look at the image below and keep in mind it is full HD 1080p.

The comedy doesn’t end there. Classroom interior, protagonist sitting bored at his desk in glorious CG. Enter two classmates – in 2D! I couldn’t stop laughing. Ex-Arm can’t even remain visually consistent. This isn’t the only instance either. Flat characters pop up at random throughout the series and the protagonist’s brother is 2D as well, for some reason that I’m sure is beyond the understanding of my puny brain. (The classmates stop animating halfway in the scene, by the way.)

We’re less than three minutes in and every artistic decision is the wrong one. Soon after, the first action scene enters the fray and removes any hope of value in Ex-Arm. When the police android kicks a guy in the head, it has the impact of a pillow fight. There is no recoil, no weight, no mass to anything, most noticeably in action scenes, and the woman doesn’t move that fast (I’m sure she’s meant to), yet dodges a thousand bullets out in the open. The director claims they used motion capture for Ex-Arm, but I don’t believe it. No way. This cannot be motion-captured animation. Perhaps it was, before the incompetent animators “improved” it in post.

Imagine being the poor bastard who wrote the source material seeing this result. Only something like Redo of Healer would be improved by such visuals.

Who made this atrocity, you might be wondering. This Crunchyroll original comes from new studio Visual Flight, made up of what seems like a team with little animation experience. Most come from the live action space. The director, Yoshikatsu Kimura, equated the logic that because live action is done in the real world – a 3D space – he is fit for a 3D anime. Furthermore, he brought on his usual crew from live action work, not experienced anime workers. I promise you they have never heard of animation ramping. Yes, the production committee is responsible for hiring him, but this clown made every wrong decision from start to finish. Can you believe this anime’s trailer has the line, “Declaring war against all SF (science fiction) series around the world!”?

You’d think that with a live action director, it would at least have good cinematography and directing. Perhaps it looks terrible in CG, but you can imagine how it would have looked great if done in live action. Nope, it would still be miserable. Interviews with him tell all you need to know about how doomed Ex-Arm was before it started.

They couldn’t even get the key visuals right. Look at this crap below, also used as the static ED:

I haven’t even covered the story yet. It follows high school student Akira, who meets with Truck-kun one day and wakes up years later as a brain inside an electronic briefcase. Inhabiting an android proxy, he fights against terrorists alongside a special police force.

The story sucks. It’s not as bad as the visuals, though it doesn’t elevate the piece an iota. The script is the worst aspect in terms of story, riddled with cliché – particularly of the fan service variety – and like the animation, has no weight. Just vapid. There are much worse anime stories out there, yet it has no positives. On an audio front, some of these voice actors are far too good for this, while others, such as the villains, deliver bad performances though it may not be their fault on such a project. Wait until you see the accompanying mouth animations.

I am baffled at Ex-Arm’s existence. Self-awareness seemed to have flown out the window in the making of this disaster.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Must be seen to be believed. Ex-Arm’s handling of CG is so incompetent that words cannot do it justice.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative:

Atrocious PlotAwful DialogueHorrendous ActionRubbish Major CharactersUgly Artistic DesignUseless Side Cast