Wednesday, June 24, 2015

"Inside Out": A Touching Look Inside Our Minds

After missing 2014, Pixar is back with two films this year - the first of which is Inside Out - a story about the emotions that drive us - Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Let's face it - we give Pixar a lot of crap about their past few movies, but Brave and Monsters University weren't necessarily bad films - they were just 'bad' by Pixar standards (Cars 2, I can agree with). Either way, Inside Out does way better than all of those movies and shows that Hollywood's most consistent studio is back.

As per other Pixar movies, Inside Out is preceded by a short film - Lava, a sweet love story between two volcanoes. It has a different style when compared with other Pixar shorts, opting to take the musical path, while traditionally they're pretty short on dialogue. While not as 'deep' as other shorts like Day and Night, Lava is a cute story that entertains - and that song will get stuck in your head.

Like other films from the studio, Inside Out will entertain people of all ages - but the deeper, more emotional parts will fly over children's heads (they'll enjoy the entirety of it one day). It seems like parents will take the most away from Inside Out, in a similar way to Finding Nemo, with a unique coming-of-age story that all of us can connect with.

Director Pete Docter and co-director Ronnie del Carmin takes what can be considered his largest risk on a movie so far - after all, it's about emotions in your brain, but if anyone can, it's him. After directing 2001's Monsters Inc. and 2009's Up (those first 10 minutes...), he's back and ready to take audiences on yet another emotional, creative trip inside the mind.

The team did an amazing job with the characters - managing to portray usually 'negative' characters in a positive light, assisted in large part by the voice actors themselves. Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) drive a lot of the comedy in this movie, while most of the movie focuses on Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), who provide the touching parts. There's also another character to keep an eye out for, although I won't mention them here, who could quite easily be the breakout character of this year.

There's lots of advancements on the visual side as well - it's stunning as you'd expect. When Anger, well... gets angry, there's a smog-ish effect around him, and his 'skin' changes ever so slightly, which is a nice touch. Like you'd expect, Joy literally radiates happiness - represented by a golden glow, of course.

Inside Out is different in the way that tells the story from two standpoints (for the most part) - Riley as a 11 year old girl, navigating through the hardest part of her life so far, and how her emotions react up in Headquarters. Pixar's often been criticized for a lack of leading female characters - after all, this is their second movie with a female protagonist, and it's good to see a realistic depiction, both in Riley and Joy.

The movie explores different parts of the mind - Long Term Memory and Imagination Land, to name a few. Although we explore multiple places and perspectives, the movie never seems to drag on or overcomplicate itself, which keeps our attention firmly on the adventure. Despite the number of puns in the movie, none of them come across as cringy, but rather, they serve to make the film more 'realistic' in its own way.

Michael Giacchino (Up, Jurassic World) composed the score for Inside Out, with a score that complements the movie nicely - always there when you expect it and never distracting or detracting from the movie. I wouldn't be surprised if the score got a nod for an Oscar early next year - it seems like Inside Out will easily get one, but the question is if it will join Beauty and the Beast (1991), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010) by garnering a nod for Best Picture.

Docter and his team managed to turn what seems like a crazy idea that few studios would take on into a uproariously funny, charming, and poignant tale that takes a mature take on emotions and our minds - reminding us all that it's okay to cry sometimes, and that happiness isn't everything - it's all about a balance. Hug it out, everyone.

Inside Out easily ranks among the best Pixar films out there, and that's saying a lot especially when compared to the likes of Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Up. Grab some people you care about, and go watch this movie - oh, and two more things - you might want to pack tissues, and remember to stay for the credits.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Big Hero 6" is Disney's Latest Success

Let’s face it. After the end of the “Disney Renaissance”, and before Disney’s acquisition of Pixar, the iconic Feature Animation studio was lacking decent movie-going fare, with a few exceptions. If you didn’t believe it, even after Frozen, it’s safe to say that the studio is back in a modern-day renaissance with the release of Big Hero 6.

As is tradition since the purchase of Pixar, all Disney animated features are preceded by a short, so I’ll take a look at Feast. Similarly to Paperman (the short for Wreck-it-Ralph), it is a mix of 2D and 3D animation – a preview of what’s to come in future full-length features. It tells the story of a man through his best friend, his dog Winston. Equally fun and adorable, Feast provides a bit of fluff before the action and comedy of the movie.  

Onto the main feature now. If you’re wondering “How did I miss Big Hero 1-5?” don’t worry about it. They never existed – Big Hero 6 is a movie based off the Marvel Comics team of the same name. This film won’t be connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mainly due to the logistics of having to connect two worlds together. Although… after watching it, a sequel is definitely plausible – there’s plenty of room for world and character development, and the characters are lovable. I’m wondering if the crew slacked on these two components as a plan to leave it open-ended enough for a few more films. 

Again, the animation is stellar – perhaps even more so than Frozen. The concept and setting of San Fransokyo (a port-manteau of San Francisco and Tokyo) is absolutely stunning and beautiful, although I’d wish that the team spent a bit more time developing the citizens and the feel of the city. A few new software suites allow for beautiful lighting and unique crowd characters – not just people based off the same model.  

The story follows with similar Disney movies. In recent years, the studio has proven it can make more than just princess movies well – as in the case of Wreck-it-Ralph. While the plot is unique, it does take pointers from “the Disney formula” – mainly dead parents (seriously guys, problems can occur in families with living parents too). Of course, this is meant with no offense to anyone.

They’ve also diversified their characters – partly in thanks to the setting (Japanese/American), which is great. Unfortunately, not much time is spent developing each of the team’s members, aside from Hiro and Baymax, as the movie fits into a relatively short run time. However, their personalities are distinct and everyone can find at least one character that they can connect with. GoGo is a great role model for young girls – an outspoken, confident woman who takes care of the situation when the going gets tough – similarly to Colette from Ratatouille. The other three – Fred, Honey Lemon, and Wasabi, provide unique personalities to the group as well, but are underdeveloped.

Baymax is definitely the film’s breakout character (perhaps the year’s breakout character) and Disney knows it. He was put in virtually every marketing piece the studio showed, for good reason too. Unfortunately, Disney still can’t really get their trailer-game together and they still spoil certain elements.

What’s great about the film is that it places science and technology front and centre. Exposing these to younger audiences will definitely inspire and interest them in this field – exposure that’s sorely lacking in films of this genre. While not exactly accurate (can you blame them? It’s a movie for crying out loud), some of this tech portrayed in the film is similar to modern-day elements, but of course, better.

The action scenes play out as per most superhero movies, but with fewer explosions, and I suppose I’m thankful for that. A small training montage is all they need, similarly to Mulan, played for laughs in its entirety.

Big Hero 6 focuses more on fun and laughter than is the usual for Disney films, possibly due to its Marvel origins, but it’s for the better. The first and second act of the film are hilarious to watch and running gags always succeed. Kids and adults alike will love the movie’s jokes. Baymax is the source of the majority of the laughter (and “aww”s) of the film, and his character is an essential part of the film’s success and resonance.

The soundtrack for Big Hero 6 is composed by Henry Jackman (Wreck-it-Ralph, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Unfortunately, this one doesn’t project feelings as well as the other two. The inclusion of “Immortals”, by Fall Out Boy was awkwardly placed, but “Eye of the Tiger” fit in well. Either way, not a major game changer, but still, a bit disappointing.

The film definitely extends Disney’s winning streak at the box office now, starting with their release of The Princess and the Frog back in 2009, although that’s debatable – some will say it started earlier. This superhero team proves that Wreck-it-Ralph wasn’t simply a fluke, and I look forwards to any future action films from the studio. Some components were lacking – character development, a touch of story, and the soundtrack. It succeeds despite these minor wounds, all thanks to Baymax.

Big Hero 6 plays out as a superhero origin film that has basically everything you’d expect from a mashup of Disney Animation and Marvel characters – laughter, fun, and feels.

Oh – one last thing. You should probably wait till the end of the movie for a post-credits scene, as is common with Marvel films (or a Marvel-based one in this case).

Big Hero 6:  B+

Opening Date: 7 November 2014
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Production: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Voices: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Genney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr. Genesis Rodriguez
Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Writers: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Jordan Roberts
Story: Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Joseph Mateo, Chris Williams
Producer: Roy Conli
Executive Producer: John Lasseter
Production Designer: Paul A. Felix
Editor: Tim Mertens
Music: Henry Jackman
Adapted From: Big Hero 6, Duncan Rouleau, Steven T. Seagle
Rated PG, 108 minutes. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Rise of the Guardians" Can't Rise to the Challenge

Rise of the Guardians starts off with an introduction to its main character, a teenage Jack Frost. He discovers his ability to fly and for some reason, decides to try and talk to people, and is shocked when they don’t reply. This is all thanks to the fact that people don’t believe in him, a large basis for this movie and its rather-large amount of plot holes.

At the heart of this movie is a reminder of something lost to the majority of us – our childhood. Setting out to make us recall who we once were - believers in the most fantastical characters of our past, DreamWorks Animation recruits 4 Guardians – Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Rabbit, and Sandman. They make up the Guardian quartet, although I haven’t heard of the last one. The premise is almost entirely based off these wonderful characters, who, while entertaining, are based off a generic character frame. How many times have we seen two characters in a group hate each other, then learn to love each other? Far too many. The Guardians have to suffer through dull, mentally painful sequences, making it hard to feel sorry for any of the characters.

In this modern-day world, children are “protected” by Guardians, but that’s not shown until Pitch Black, the boogeyman and villain, decides to introduce the world to his “Night-mares” – essentially bad dreams in horse form. Well played, well played. Thanks to his arrival, the quartet must unite, and with the help of Frost, defend against the evil that lies in the darkness.

The comparison and relationship between Jack Frost and Pitch Black is all too familiar especially due to their reoccurring meet-ups and Frost’s “neutrality”, as put by Black himself. Their introduction, conflict, and resolution is incredibly cliché.

Pitch comes from a not too unfamiliar background. His character invokes a bit of sympathy, seeing that he’s been alone and neglected for most of his past. Like the others, his character isn’t used to his full potential and we’re left with yet another generic character, except this time in villain form.

Like most animated movies, Rise of the Guardians is packed with witty comments and laughable moments to ensure that the mood is kept light enough for children. It has its fair share of background moments and running gags that are actually successful.  That’s about as good as it gets. Older viewers may question the movie’s absurdly large amount of plot holes, which will fly past children’s minds.

Rise of the Guardians’ is something akin to a fairy tale, but without the magic that accompanies those sorts of movies. This childhood tale proceeds only as an opportunity for Jack to discover himself. The writers can’t seem to evolve this movie into anything but a self-discovery story. Due to the consequences of not being believed in, the weakened Guardians result in consequences that are only sometimes enforced in certain scenes for dramatic purposes.

The movie has eye-catching and colourful animation, highlighted by the “Dreamsand”, which Sandman and Pitch Black utilize. The contrasting environments and characters allows for a variety of contrasting personalities to be introduced. The writers take advantage of this and give each character a unique identity. Rise of the Guardians is filled with epic combat sequences which are kid-friendly and visually appealing but which are diminished by its lackluster musical score.

Guardians, unfortunately, plays solely towards the younger portion of the audience. The contrasting colours and well-known characters and premise will attract their attention, not to mention the large fight scenes. Rise of the Guardians has a strong framework for a cash-grabbing sequel, along with well-known characters. However, it seems that the plot drags the movie’s potential into the depths of the earth. Much to the chagrin of older audiences, the story doesn’t rise to the challenge, and instead it comes across as cliché.

Rise of the Guardians might be a movie all about believing, but I can’t seem to believe that much effort was put into this movie.

Rise of the Guardians: C

Opening Date: November 21, 2012
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Production: DreamWorks Animation
Voices: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman Dakota Goyo
Director: Peter Ramsey
Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire
Producers: Nancy Bernstein, Christina Steinberg
Executive Producers: Guillermo del Toro, Arin Finger, Tom Jacomb, William Joyce, Michael Siegel
Production Designer: Patric Hanenberger
Editor: Joyce Arrastia
Music: Alexandre Desplat

Adapted From: "The Guardians of Childhood", William Joyce
Rated PG, 97 minutes.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

"Maleficent" Isn't Quite so Magnificent

Maleficent, Disney’s latest in a seemingly never-ending series of big-budget live-action fantasy films, appears to be a dark film right from the get-go. Thanks to what seems to be a Disney tradition of creating misleading trailers, it hides the film’s relatively-light mood and instead portrays an extremely dark film.

Maleficent is the perspective-flipped live-action remake of Sleeping Beauty, and if it’s one thing that die-hard fans of original films hate more than sequels, it’s remakes. Especially remakes that tell the story from a different point of view. Why? Quite often, discrepancies appear between the two movies. These two can’t avoid that fatal flaw.

As a stand-alone movie, Maleficent is a decent film. As a perspective-flipped remake, that depends on how protective you are of the original material. Disney changes the names of characters, their alignments, and what role they play in the film. Major characters get relegated to minor roles too (joy!). Of course, all of this is in comparison to the original Sleeping Beauty. The creators quickly cover for this by deeming Sleeping Beauty as the “tale” and Maleficent the “truth”. Take it however you’d like.

Maleficent is the debut film for director Robert Stromberg, who previously won 2 Academy Awards in the fields of Production Design and Art Directon (the same category). Writing the script is Linda Wollverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland). Unfortunately, this movie is more akin to the most recent of that trio – a movie that focuses more on visuals and less on story.
The movie begins by introducing Maleficent and her world as a child and we’re exposed to the colourful, contrasting world of the Moors. Also introduced is Stefan (a young boy at this point). The two grow up, together and apart, in a few minutes and with somewhat out-of-place narration to boot. Nothing’s quite too clear during this time and it feels a bit rushed, thanks to the short 97 minute runtime.

The movie spends way too much time dilly-dallying around with epic large-scale fights that look amazing but aren’t completely necessary. The costume design for the characters is done very well and the Moors’ citizens look great as well. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the majority of the environmental CGI, which occasionally appeals, but otherwise, it disappoints. The fog is unrealistic and there’s one scene with a crumbling fence that is completely out of place and is downright distracting.

Luckily, the movie is saved by the titular character herself, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and by Aurora (Elle Fanning). As expected, these two interact quite a bit (in no small part due to the curse). Jolie does an elegant job with her character and her dry wit injects some needed humour into the film.

Other characters – Diaval (Sam Riley) and the three fairies, get their fair share of screen time but sorely lack much character development. Stefan (Sharlto Copley) closely resembles Macbeth, whether or not he is actually based upon him is another story, although I wouldn’t be too surprised if he was, given Wollverton’s adaptation of Hamlet for The Lion King.  

As Maleficent marks the second Disney movie in the last few months to feature two female leads, the other being Frozen, parallels can be easily drawn between the two films. They’re easy to compare and some parts seem to derive from the same concept. Had the animated hit been, well, not so much of a hit, Maleficent could’ve had a larger impact. The last few years have made it obvious that Disney wants to change its society-created image of creating weak female leads, although the arguments for that often neglect several characters. Maleficent doesn’t stray from that track and instead highlights themes of assault and recovery. Others, with Jolie confirming this, mentioned that one of the movie’s scenes is essentially a metaphor for rape.

The soundtrack doesn’t stand out as magnificent, but it also isn’t bad in that regard. James Newton Howard’s focus on choirs and toned vocals sets Maleficent’s soundtrack apart from most other big-budget films. The leitmotif is formed and reoccurs at the right times, so well done for that. However, Lana Del Rey’s dark recondition of Once Upon a Dream is the highlight of the film’s soundtrack, being the only lyrical piece. It’s elegantly haunting and plays during the credits sequence. If you haven’t heard it online, it’s worth staying for.

While the movie has its heartwarming and cute moments, which are almost socially mandated thanks to the Disney label, the film doesn’t spend enough time on dialogue, the characters, and their interactions with each other. Family, and younger, audiences can watch films longer than 97 minutes. A longer runtime and a more in-tune and character-driven script would’ve executed to the entirety of Maleficent’s potential, but unfortunately that didn’t materialize.

Maleficent is a movie with great themes, characters, and potential, but unfortunately is bogged down by action scenes that are akin of generic summer blockbusters. 

Maleficent: B-
Opening Date: 30 May 2014
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Production: Walt Disney Pictures
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley
Directors: Robert Stromberg, John Lee Hancock (re-shoots)
Writers: Linda Woolverton
Producer: Joe Roth
Executive Producers: Sarah Bradshaw, Don Hahn, Angelina Jolie, Stephen Jones, Palak Patel, Matt Smith
Production Designer: Dylan Cole, Gary Freeman
Editors: Chris Lebenzon, Richard Pearson
Music: James Newton Howard
Based on: La Belle au bois dormant, Charles Perrault; Little Briar Rose, Jacob and Wilheim Grimm; Sleeping Beauty, Erdman Penner et al.
Rated PG, 97 Minutes

Monday, May 26, 2014

REVIEW: D-Box MFX Motion Seats

What is D-Box?

Not all theatre seats are made equally. D-Box Motion FX (MFX) Seats are the next generation in movie immersiveness, or at least it tries to be. I recently watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier with D-Box at the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre, which is one of only two D-Box equipped theatres in Toronto, the other being Silvercity Yorkdale.
D-Box is a Canadian company based out of Longueuil, Quebec that has been in the motion FX business since 2001. Originally catering to the luxury home market, the D-Box system was integrated into home theatre and gaming seats. The D-Box system then made its 2009 debut in a commercial theatre with The Fast & Furious.

D-Box uses a patented system to translate their Motion Code into MFX with actuators in the seat. It can produce horizontal and vertical movement in addition to vibrations. The Motion Code is created by D-Box to sync with action occurring in the movie.

The D-Box Experience

Since D-Box seating costs twice as much as a regular ticket, my expectations were quite high. Upon entering the theatre, it is clear where the D-Box seats are since they are distinctively red. D-Box presentations have assigned seating so there is no need to rush into the cinema to fight for a good seat.
Row of D-BOX seats
Most D-Box cinemas have two rows of the seats. The cinema I went to had the two rows of D-Box seats at the very back while others may have them somewhere in the middle. Upon arriving at the seats, a staff member asks you for your ticket to ensure you paid the premium price.

The D-Box seats are not just conventional theatre seats that move. The seats are different in a number of ways. The left armrest has a standard cup holder, while the right arm features a special controller. The controller allows the guest to select the level of motion, which varies from absolutely nothing to high. Aside from having a larger amount of legroom, the D-Box seats were also wider and more comfortable. Another great feature is that each guest has their own set of armrests - no sharing necessary. Thanks to the built-in motors, the seat is also higher than most theatre seats. I did not notice it myself but one of my friends pointed out to me that their feet could not reach the floor.  

D-BOX seat
Another fact worth noting is that these motion seats do not have seat belts. Unlike other motion theatres, notably those at amusement parks where the motions are significant and the seat belt is actually needed, the motions are much more subtle with D-Box. The motions were largely just vibrations of different intensities. The vibrations in the car chases and fight scenes were also indiscernible between one another. Swaying in different directions were used in scenes where the camera was tracking something falling. As the movie progressed, the motions got more repetitive. D-Box would be much more immersive if there was a footrest that moved with the chair, which I compensated for by lifting my feet off the ground.

Leaving the cinema, I found that my legs were somewhat numb from all the vibrations. A possible reason for the subdued motions is that the motions can take a toll on your body. Motion theatres at amusement parks usually feature shorter films which clock in at around 15 minutes. This allows them to move much more as the duration of those films are quite short. On the other hand, D-Box is used for full length feature films which last around two hours. If traditional motion seats were used for a full length film, guests could become quite numb, if they are not sick. Because of the more subtle motions, D-Box is suitable for movie snacks and spillage should not be a problem although drinks will be shaken.

D-Box is definitely not for guests that are prone to motion sickness, if that was not obvious, as it is also normally paired with 3D. While I am not prone to motion sickness, I did get a slight headache near the end of the movie as the combination of the 3D and the motion got to me.

My D-Box experience was not the best as it could be because of the theatre. At the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre, four pairs of lights on either side of the screen were on and only slightly dimmed during the movie. When we asked the manager of the theatre, they said they had to be left on for safety reasons even when the cinema had in-floor lighting to help guide guests if they had to leave during the movie. Other theatres I have been to did not have the need for this ‘safety’ measure as in-floor lighting was enough, rather than bright lights on either side of the screen which was very distracting.

The D-Box experience had its pros and cons. In terms of immersiveness, D-Box was better than just regular 3D but it was far from realistic. It could be greatly improved with a simple footrest attached to the seat. While D-Box provided lackluster motion, the seats were quite comfortable and they provided the benefit of reserved seating, extra legroom, and personal armrests. Also, the first row of D-Box seats may be better than the second row as the motion from the first row may be distracting for guests in the second row, depending on how much space there is between the rows.

D-Box is usually available for blockbuster action films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or The Amazing Spiderman 2. Other genres, such as romantic comedy, won't have D-Box options - for obvious reasons.

While the cost does not justify the experience, it is worth a try. With Cineplex’s SCENE loyalty program, once you earn 1000 SCENE points, you can redeem a free movie and this includes D-Box presentations, which is a great way to spend your points. An awesome addition would be the integration of motions in TimePlay, an interactive quiz-style game played on guests' mobile devices, to provide tactile feedback when a question is incorrect, further immersing guests into the game.

Images courtesy of D-Box.