Sunday, November 9, 2014

Big Hero 6 isn't just for kids

Everyone, by now, is familiar with the Pixar name and the high quality animated movies that studio produces, from the original Toy Story to WALL-E. Pixar has become known for the length of time they take to develop a story or nurture a script before even rendering a single pixel of information. They do have the occasional stumble (Cars 2), and are facing some backlash after announcing a fourth Toy Story movie, but for the most part they put out the best of the best in CG animated films.

Disney's CG animation arm has not been as successful, at least as far as critics are concerned. Most of their animated films are geared more towards the younger crowd … who will want all of the merchandise that goes along with the movie … and scripts usually are too juvenile for adults to bear. But, since Disney has folded Pixar into the company (complete with Pixar's John Lasseter heading up the animation unit), their CG films have grown up. Their Secret of the Wings was a pretty solid effort considering it was a direct-to-video film with limited theatrical release, and that also seemed to be a test run for the studios best (and most popular) CG animated film yet, Frozen. And now Disney has released a new CG animated film with the curious title of Big Hero 6.

Big Hero 6 tells the story of Hiro and his older brother Tadashi (who live in the mash-up city of San Fransokyo). Both are scientific geniuses, and while the older Tadashi has made something of himself, the teenaged Hiro spends time gambling in (illegal) robot fights. Knowing he can't stop Hiro from going, Tadashi offers to give him a ride to the next fight but ends up taking him to the institute he attends. A new world opens up before Hiro's eyes, and before long he is creating a new type of robot to present for consideration for admission into the institute.

The robots are a success, a "shady" businessman offers to buy them from Hiro but he is convinced it is better to accept the invitation to join the institute. After leaving the competition, the building bursts into flames, Tadashi runs in to save his professor, but an explosion spells the worst for anyone left inside the building. Depression takes over Hiro's life, but his brother's invention Baymax, a personal medical robot, Tadashi's friends and a mysterious supervillain who seems to have replicated Hiro's microbots give Hiro a new purpose in life – find out who stole his invention and killed his brother.

This really is some heady stuff for something that could be looked down upon as just a kids' movie. There certainly is more than enough colorful scenery and laugh-out-loud humor (courtesy of Baymax) for the kids, but the idea of death, revenge, retribution and sacrifice will keep adults heavily invested in the story and the characters. Tadashi's funeral scenes are very reminiscent of the wordless life story of the characters in Pixar's Up, and it will definitely leave you with some very moist eyes. Even though these characters are animated, you feel real human emotion from the "performances" that just tug on your heart.

Another scene near the end of the movie, the one involving selfless sacrifice, not only had tears rolling down my face but had the children behind me having complete emotional meltdowns. That certainly demonstrates the power of the characters to make you believe in them, and the power of the writing to fully engage you in those characters' fates. The only real weak link in the story is the villain, who comes out of nowhere and wears a kabuki mask for no other reason than associating it with the city in which they live. The final battle between Hiro and his friends (the Big Hero 6 of the title, a name they give themselves as they become real superheroes through science) is action-packed and made even more impressive with the stunning use of 3D.

Of course, the real star of the movie is Baymax, a big marshmallow of a robot that is designed to attend to anyone's medical needs, from a slight rash to emotional heartbreak. Baymax is designed to be non-threatening, hence the squishy inflatable look, kind of like a Christmas lawn decoration come to life, but he's equipped with everything one would need for medical assistance. To help fight the villain though, Hiro has to alter Baymax's programming to make him a badass fighting machine, which sometimes confuses the robot, but once Hiro pulls the disk containing the medical programming, Baymax changes into something morally questionable. It certainly is a bold move on the filmmakers' part to take what and who should be the film's good guys and turn them to the dark side, especially in a film with children as its main demographic. But by the end of the movie, you will be wanting your own Baymax.

For some reason, I find myself getting drowsy during CG animated films maybe because of the over-stimulation of the colors or the movement, or maybe even the 3D, but Big Hero 6 had me fully engaged for the entire running time. If you think cartoons are just for kids, then have your attitude readjusted by Big Hero 6. As an added bonus, the animated short Feast precedes the film, a story about the life of a cute pooch (and his owner) as they go from bachelorhood to romance and break-up, all told through the dog's eyes (and appetite). It's a charming film that has as much, if not more, heart packed into its short running time than most live action, feature length films can muster. Together, these films are a real treat for all ages.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy is the
most comic booky comic book
movie yet

There's been a lot of talk about what the movie of the summer will be. A few weeks ago, everyone seemed to be in agreement, for the most part, that that movie was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. But it looks like Marvel Studios has hit another home run ... make that a Grand Slam with their latest offering, Guardians of the Galaxy.

The studio has certainly been cranking the hype machine for several months now trying to get audiences who only know Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the rest of the Avengers familiar with this new group of characters from a comic that has many fervent fans, but that fan base is considerably smaller compared to those who are at least familiar with the characters who have already hit the big screen from the Marvel Universe.

Guardians of the Galaxy tells the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a human who had been abducted from earth as a child moments after his mother dies. The story moves from that moment to Peter as an adult, apparently some kind of treasure hunter working with a blue alien, Yondu (Michael Rooker), to retrieve an orb for a client. Quill gets the orb, but also finds himself captured and incarcerated after a fight for the orb with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that draws the attention of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered creature that looks like a racoon, and Groot (Vin Diesel), an ambulatory tree whose vocabulary consists of "I am Groot" (only Rocket seems to understand what he's really saying).

Needless to say, things escalate as the four escape prison (with another prisoner, Drax the Destroyer, played by Dave Bautista) and they learn what the orb contains -- an Infinity Stone -- and who wants it to potentially destroy the galaxy -- that would be Ronan (Lee Pace) who is supposed to deliver the orb to galactic villain Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Guardians of the Galaxy, as directed by James Gunn, is a visual feast. It is the most comic booky comic book movie that's come along in quite some time. It really is one of the most wildly colorful movies out there with a color wheel of aliens of all hues: blues, green, pink, just about any color in the crayon box. The film, for the most part, is also very bright with most of the major scenes taking place in full daylight. It's far from a depressing movie.

But all that light and color doesn't mean the movie is light and fluffy. Yes, the movie is very, very funny with a script full of one-liners fans will be sure to be quoting for the rest of the summer (one of my favories involves the words "pelvic sorcery"). But with all of the comedy and action, the film has a great big heart too. You'll laugh a lot and you'll cry (or get a little weepy) a couple of times too. It's this great balance of action, laughs and heart that makes the movie work so well.

The cast, of course, also gets as much credit as Gunn and his scriptwriters. Pratt, whom most people know as paunchy, lovable oaf Andy on Parks & Recreation, cuts a fine form as the film's hero. Most people know he can pull off the comedy, but he puts all of his heart into the role too and makes Quill a fully rounded character, even when he's being an "a-hole." Saldana kicks ass with the best of them, and Bautista is surprisingly good delivering his very funny dialog with dead-on earnestness.

But whodathunk the film's real breakout stars would be a talking racoon and a talking tree? The CGI artists have done some amazing work bringing them to life, but Cooper and Diesel have done outstanding work lending their voices to a couple of characters that could have ended up as the butt of the joke and brought the movie way, way down. But they both elevate their characters to the same level as their human counterparts, becoming just as integral to the story and just as heroic as Quill by the end.

There really isn't much more to say about Guardians of the Galaxy. It's definitely a movie that needs to be seen to be appreciated, and it needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. After seeing the 17 minute IMAX preview, it was a bit of a letdown to see it on a regular screen but credit must be given to Gunn for really planning and composing each shot for 3D. This is a conversion, but it's one of the finest conversions I've seen. Thank you, James Gunn, for really using the format to its best advantage. If you've had any reservations about seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, put them aside now and make plans to see what is undoubtedly the most entertaining movie of the summer.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Captain America: The Winter
Soldier changes everything

It's a pretty safe bet to say that since Marvel started making their own movies under their own banner (unlike Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Daredevil and … Ghost Rider), it's hard to say that there's been a stinker in the bunch … well, Iron Man 2 for me has been the worst of the bunch. So expectations are exceptionally high for the second outing for the First Avenger in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Whereas the first movie played out like a 1940s war movie with comic book overtones (in the guise of Red Skull himself and the super soldier program), The Winter Soldier has a nice 70s political thriller vibe to it. Think The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and even All the President's Men; and two of the three star Robert Redford who is not so coincidentally cast as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Alexander Pierce, Nick Fury's right hand man. (And it seems that Three Days of the Condor is especially required viewing to further appreciate The Winter Soldier.)

The Winter Soldier is set some time after the events of The Avengers, but the battle that ravaged New York City is the jumping off point for the story as S.H.I.E.L.D. is preparing to launch a new global security system called Insight which, in a sort of Minority Report kind of way, scans every human on the planet, examines all of their personal data and then determines if they will eventually commit a crime with the end result being their elimination. Fury tries to convince Cap/Steve Rogers that this is the way the world is now and without this we don't have freedom. Cap comes back at him with a line sure to stir up some folks, “This isn't freedom, this is fear.”

But something causes Fury to ask Pierce to delay the launch of Insight and after an attempt is made on his life, he tells Rogers to trust no one … but why? That's pretty much all I'm willing to say about the plot because there are some major developments that completely destroy everything we know about S.H.I.E.L.D. (and if you've been watching ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the ramifications are going to significantly alter the series as well).

My expectations for Captain America: The Winter Soldier were very high, and I can confidently say that they were exceeded. I know some folks want more connection between the films, but I see these solo character movies as their own thing with threads to the other movies. The Winter Soldier does prominently feature Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, but there's no Hawkeye, Hulk or anyone else besides Fury. The film does introduce Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/The Falcon, Emily VanCamp's Agent 13 (who may eventually be named Sharon Carter if they follow the comics), Frank Grillo's Brock Rumlow (who may become Crossbones), while bringing back Sebastian Stan (the presumed dead Bucky Barnes), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill) and Maximiliano Hernández as Jasper Sitwell. Sitwell has appeared in Thor, The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and has a very pivotal role in the events which drive the movie. I'd love to know if this has been in the cards since he was introduced into the filmic Marvel Universe.

Since I can't say much about the plot, I will say that the film itself looks spectacular (and I can't judge the 3D version since the press screenings were only 2D this time around). Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have done a terrific job of grounding the story in reality while shooting on actual Washington, D.C. locations (and Maryland's own Fort Meade even gets a shout out). While I'm sure there are a ton of digital effects throughout the movie, they are virtually invisible, helping to sell the realness of the story. The story itself is pretty deep, a bit dark, very violent and not at all cartoony. I would actually hesitate to take small children to see this just because it is so realistic.

The performances are all terrific as well, but I would have liked to have seen just a little more character development for Pierce. I think his part in the story's events would have been even more surprising had we seen him in some of the previous Marvel movies. As it stands, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is now at the top of the Marvel movie heap for me. I loved the style and tone of Captain America: The First Avenger, but I enjoyed even more all of the plot twists and turns and the “where do we go from here?” feeling we're left with at the end. 

Of course, it wouldn't be a Marvel movie without a post-credits stinger, and we get two this time – one sets up The Avengers: Age of Ultron (introducing “the twins”) and the other all the way at the end of the credits maybe setting up the future of Captain America himself. And do take note: if you are a viewer of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., do not watch any more episodes until you see the movie! You have been warned.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

My 2014 Oscar predictions

It's Oscar night, so I just wanted to make a quick list of all the awards I'm predicting (or guessing, since who has seen any of the documentary and animated short subjects?! Okay, I did see Get a Horse because it was shown with Frozen.) for the March 2, 2014 ceremony. I'll update with the actual winners after the ceremony is over to see how well (or poorly) I did.


  • Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
  • Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey
  • Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto
  • Best Actress: Cate Blanchett
  • Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o
  • Animated Feature: Frozen
  • Cinematography: Gravity
  • Costume Design: American Hustle [The Great Gatsby]
  • Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
  • Documentary Feature: Dirty Wars [20 Feet From Stardom]
  • Documentary Short: Prison Terminal [The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life]
  • Film Editing: Gravity
  • Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty (Italy)
  • Makeup and Hair: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa [Dallas Buyers Club]
  • Original Score: Gravity
  • Original Song: "Let It Go," Frozen
  • Production Design: The Great Gatsby
  • Animated Short: Get a Horse [Mr. Hublot]
  • Live Action Short: Helium
  • Sound Editing: Gravity
  • Sound Mixing: Gravity
  • Visual Effects: Gravity
  • Adapted Screenplay: Philomena [12 Years a Slave]
  • Original Screenplay: American Hustle [Her]
My final score: 17 out of 24. Biggest surprise -- Her winning Best Original Screenplay. Biggest disappointment -- Bad Grandpa not winning for hair and makeup.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Her is a sweet love story,
but is it original?

There's a lot of hype surrounding the new Spike Jonze movie, Her, a story of a man who falls in love with his computer operating system. The film takes place in a retro future where people are more connected to their personal devices rather than the humans around them. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is trying to come to terms with an impending divorce that has left him devastated in the relationship department. Oddly enough, he works for a company that "writes" personal letters for people and Theodore is constantly praised for how heartfelt his letters from a husband to a wife, or parent to child, are. It's a totally bizarre concept, and makes one wonder what kind of world these people live in. I've heard of people writing poems for other, but personal letters with intimate details takes the concept just a bit too far.

Theodore goes through his day writing lovely letters for people and trying to satisfy his own needs at night, usually through a kind of online, cybersex hookup (the one we see does not turn out so well for him, but is hilariously voiced by Kristin Wiig). When a new personalized operating system hits the market, he decides to give it a try and discovers a very human sounding voice helping him sort his email, his calendar and his personal life (it goes so far as to find a date and book a restaurant reservation for him). But the OS is designed to truly interact and grow as it communicates with its owner, and the fact that it sounds like Scarlett Johansson is a definite plus. The OS names itself Samantha, and Theodore begins to feel that he's found the perfect woman … even if she doesn't have a body.

The film deftly follows the developing relationship, and both Phoenix and Johansson give terrific performances … made even more amazing as Johansson was not the original voice of Samantha. We see their ups and downs, and are introduced to Theo's friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband along the way, as well as his boss (Chris Pratt) who wants to go on a double date with his new girlfriend, Theo and Samantha. With Amy's introduction, we learn that she and Theo dated in college for a minute … and that they really would be perfect for each other if they could only see that for themselves. Both actors are so good that we ache for her to ditch her controlling husband and pull the plug on Samantha so she and Theo can live their lives happily ever after.

Aside from the excellent cast, Jonze's direction and eye for production design are impeccable, but I do have to take issue with the pants all the men wear. Does Jonze think everyone loses any sense of fashion style in the not-too-distant future? All the men wear tweedy, very high-waisted pants that are this side of ugly. Chris Pratt even seems to be wearing a pair of "The Pants That Ate Fred Mertz" that come up to his nipples. Not a good look on anyone. The script, by Jonze, is sweet and sad and is being praised for its originality but … is it all that original?

I can think of two cases of stories that have computers and humans falling in love. Electric Dreams (1984) had a human, Miles (Lenny Von Dohlen), and his computer (the voice of Bud Cort) vying for the affections of neighbor Madeline (Virginia Madsen). It got some notice at the time for its depiction of technology becoming intelligent but is mostly forgotten today. There was also a TV movie anthology (a pilot for a proposed series) called Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love which also had a segment in which a computer falls in love with its programmer (I remember watching this when it aired and bawling my eyes out when this story came to a tragic end). So while Jonze's twist on the story and execution are emotional, I wouldn't really call the foundation for the story "original."

The one thing, though, that does stand out is the voice acting of Johannson. Many people are saying this is truly a case for rewarding a voice only performance with an Oscar nomination, but we know that will never happen. She is, however, excellent and even though we only hear her voice, the performance is so powerful that you could almost swear she is actually in the movie. If Her deserves praise for anything, it's the decision Jonze made to recast the voice with Johansson, who in turn brought a lot of humanity to the artificial intelligence. That's not to take anything away from the movie as a whole, but I do think this one is a case of over-hype for a movie that could have just been a sweet but strange love story and now has the burden of being Oscar bait resting on its shoulders.