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.
D-BOX
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
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.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Marvel Rallies "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" to New Heights


Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) returns to star in Marvel’s latest big-budget blockbuster, the aptly-named Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Well, we’ve solved the obvious part of the equation. Now, who’s this “Winter Soldier” guy? I’ll let the movie answer this question, if it hasn’t already been spoiled for you.

Captain America, being a serum-enhanced “ordinary kid from Brooklyn”, is probably the least-superheroish guy out there. His films, seeing that he is supported by ordinary humans (Peggy Carter, Natasha Romanoff, Sam Wilson), take the qualities of superhero films while keeping it firmly grounded to reality. The first film struck a balance with its World War II setting and the second follows, except this time, it’s set in a modern-day conspiracy-filled surveillance era. The film puts a large focus on realism which the first sorely lacked; the Cap himself makes a visit to a PTSD seminar, a reoccurring sub-theme.

Captain America is supported by the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who returns from her role in The Avengers. As they struggle to fight against the Winter Soldier, Rogers enlists the help of a new friend, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). The movie places an emphasis on character development and the basis of trust – especially given the setting of The Winter Soldier.

Evans and Johansson exhibit a strong bond as partners and when Mackie joins the fray, it gets better. The trio shoot jokes at each other and Johansson’s always there to bug Evans about “that nurse” after an intense firefight. As military veterans, Rogers and Wilson bond spectacularly well, mentioning their past, while planning the future as comrades. The film is scripted with elegance in order to balance humour, plot, and a few touching moments.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) reprises his role as SHIELD’s director alongside Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Secretary of Defense – SHIELD’s, and in turn, Fury’s, gate to the National Security Council. The two, as friends, play a stoic role in highlighting the humanity and morals of leaders stuck in a modern-day society.

Alongside the major cast, Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) features as one of Fury’s trusted aids, who is introduced early-on in the movie and neglected until nearly the end. Alongside her is Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp) who plays an even more minor role than Hill.

The movie opens with a hostage-rescue attempt, in which Captain America and the Black Widow are sent, alongside members of SHEILD’s STRIKE team. While a bit stretched out, like a few other scenes in the movie, it is used to set the tone of the film – secrecy – and is used effectively as a way to drive his relationship with Romanoff and Fury, one focused on trust – or the lack of it.

In something-akin to Pixar’s WALL-E, except with adapted themes, The Winter Soldier delivers a stunning and politically astute film to audiences. It highlights the dangers of surveillance, order, and control, in what seems to be a criticism of modern-day government policy and agencies. Like WALL-E, Marvel shows a possible future. Instead of a garbage-filled wasteland, we are on the onset of having have cannons and guns ready to kill anyone, at any time – essentially handing over the world to SHIELD.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely take the opportunity to tie this movie to the first, having Rogers visit the Smithsonian’s exhibit dedicated to himself. He later visits Peggy Carter, an old love, but she’s now bedridden and suffering from memory loss. For those that haven’t watched the original film, or those who’ve forgotten, a flashback to old memories is essential to amplify this poignant scene. Aside from that heart-rending reunion, the pair expertly script the movie to stand on its own accord – no prior knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or superhero films, required.

There’s no shortage of CG scenes in this movie, being an action film. The film’s usage of 3D doesn’t add to or detract from the film, which is disappointing given the premise. This can be attributed to the directors’ choice of converting to 3D in post-production. In no scene were there hazards flying at the audiences, surprising given the amount of explosions and fight scenes – the action seems to almost stop at the screen.

At the centre of the movie’s plot are three gargantuan helicarriers, which are destined to eliminate all hostile threats from thousands of feet above the Earth. Aside from those flashy carriers, the crew smartly excludes the overabundance of CG that dragged down the first film. Accompanying the larger-than-life CG is a score composed by Henry Jackman (Turbo, Captain Phillips) alongside the score from the first film (Alan Silverstri). The two combine together well enough to envoke a sense of nostalgia.

The film’s climatic and suspenseful third act is scripted and performed with elegant clarity which will keep viewers glued to the screen as the writers elegantly clean up all remaining arcs. A few references to the characters’ pasts are made, this time punctuated with a prior flashback. Once everything is resolved, a few more threads are loosened up, in preparation for next year’s Avengers: The Age of Ultron and an unnamed Captain America sequel in 2016. We can most likely expect a returning of the majority of the cast and hopefully minor characters Agents Hill and 13 will receive a larger role.

As with other Marvel films, make sure to stay right to the end. There are two post-movie sequences – one mid-credits, one post-credits.

Marvel delivers a suspenseful and stunning truth of the world with its latest installment, which never fails to highlight the humanity and basis of our heroes – trust.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier:  A-

Opening Date: 4 April 2014

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Production: Marvel Studios
Cast: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie
Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Story: Ed Brubaker
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive Producers: Victoria Alonso, Mitchell Bell, Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Michael Grillo, Stan Lee
Production Designer: Peter Wenham
Editors: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt
Music: Henry Jackman, Alan Silvestri (Captain America: The First Avenger)
Based on: Captain America, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon
Rated PG-13, 136 minutes.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Frozen" Will Melt Your Heart


Disney’s animated musical Frozen tells the tale of two royal sisters, a younger, rambunctious Anna, and her regal older sister, Elsa, who possesses magical icy powers. As children, they share a close bond, but one night, after Elsa strikes her sister with her powers, they are separated. When Elsa is coronated, she reveals her powers to the public, and runs away to the North Mountain. Princess Anna, with the help of a visiting prince, a tough ice-harvester, and a talking snowman, will discover the true meaning of love.

It’s not uncommon to see good animation, and Frozen sports visuals that we’ve come to expect from Disney. Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) does their homework when it comes to movies; Frozen is no exception. Staff traveled to an ice hotel and walked through snow in dresses. The colourful environmental design adds to the realism of this fantastical movie. Emotion is conveyed especially well thanks to detailed facial animation.

The movie’s first act is highlighted by a short montage that almost manages to reach the standard set by Pixar’s Up. The second act is typical of adventure-themed movies, although it lags in a few places. The action scenes are disconnected from the rest of the movie, boring viewers instead of keeping them on the edge of their seats. There’s also a major plot point that may leave eagle-eyed viewers confused – how can a visiting prince hold more power than the reigning monarch? The musical is relatively front-heavy, which occurs due to the action picking up drastically in the much-too short final act. Some arcs are wrapped up quickly, while a few are left hanging. Although its flow and plot are of passable quality, Frozen relegates the common “good versus evil” template to the backseat, replacing it with the much more effective and relatable, yet rare, theme of “fear versus love".

As much as it’s mentioned, Frozen is not the first Disney film to show that women can be independent. Frozen subverts many traditional “Disney themes” – “love at first sight” or a prince/princess relationship. While Frozen evolves themes, it stops short of revolutionizing them. Even though a relationship can’t happen after one hour, it can still happen after one day apparently. Regardless, Frozen does well with its roots growing from familial, not romantic love. Its heartwarming themes are accompanied by meaningful symbols – doors, gloves, and Olaf. He evolves from the all-too-overused comedic relief to an important, epiphany-inducing character who symbolizes the bond between the two sisters.

Aside from an adorable snowman, Frozen features not one, but two princesses as its lead characters. Both are multi-faceted and have a tragic background that will quickly evoke sympathy from the audience. Anna is clumsy, joyful, and entirely un-princess-like, a Disney Princess that young girls can relate to. Her sister, Queen Elsa, having grown up secluded, is incredibly stoic and cold. Accompanying the two female leads are three main males: Olaf, a talking snowman, Hans, a model prince, and Kristoff, a bulky, pragmatic ice harvester. These unconventional yet memorable characters make Frozen what it is – a ground-breaker of animation.

Thanks to song composers George and Kristen Anderson-Lopez as well as score composer Christophe Beck, Frozen is accompanied with a glorious soundtrack. While Idina Menzel’s leading song, “Let It Go”, is a defining power ballad, the reprise of “For the First Time in Forever”, shows off its own literary power and keeps Disney tradition in mind, driving a significant amount of character development and plot. Although most songs are amazing, two songs – “Fixer Upper” and “In Summer” could have been removed in order to cut down on its 102-minute runtime. The movie has an excellent score, but the “Epilogue” track stands out from the bunch, reprising both “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” and “For the First Time in Forever”. It’s one of the tracks that can be listened to without context, a property that few scores possess.

Disney’s recent efforts in animation fell behind the performance of its competitors, namely sister studio Pixar. With Frozen, Disney found its place. Frozen is a ground-breaking film which shares the unconventional premise of Pixar movies. Both it and WALL-E stem from unconventional premises, but execute well, teaching humans how to love. Just as WALL-E has robots who showed us how to love, Frozen has a snowman who does the same. The movie’s stellar animation goes beyond what we’ve come to expect from typical CG fare. A slow-moving plot, ridden with the occasional plot hole can be forgiven thanks to strong characters and beautifully written themes and symbols. Frozen is accompanied and carried by a fitting cast and soundtrack, which is only rarely out of place. The mixture of these creative elements produces Disney’s best animated film since the early stages of its Renaissance Era (the 1990s).

Frozen earns its place among the magical movies of the Disney Animated Canon by proving that “the power of family is the strongest magic of all”.

Frozen: A-

Opening Date: 22 November 2013 (limited), 27 November 2013 (wide)
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Production: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Voices: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana
Co-Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Writer: Jennifer Lee
Story: Paul Briggs, Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Shane Morris
Producer: Peter Del Vecho
Executive Producer: John Lasseter
Production Designer: David Womersley
Editor: Jeff Draheim
Music: Christophe Beck, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
Adapted From: The Snow Queen, Hans Christan Andersen
Rated PG, 102 minutes.