When Heroes Collide – Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War: Review

civil-war-poster-3by Aaron Einhorn
We’ve come to a time where superhero movies are no longer rarities that come along every now and again, but to the point where they are a regular part of the cinematic landscape. Case in point – when Marvel began creating their own films in 2008, the previous year had only given us the poorly received Spider-Man 3.

Here we are less than ten years later, and Captain America: Civil War is the third big-budget superhero film of the year, with another four yet to come. Which means it’s a great time to be a geek – because if you don’t like a given superhero film, there’s another one coming along soon enough.

Comparisons between Captain America: Civil War and Warner Brothers’ Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice are almost impossible to not make. Both movies feature the greatest heroes of their respective universes battle. I’m going to do my best not to draw direct comparisons between the films, because they’re very, very different. BvS is trying to kick off the DC Cinematic Universe while Civil War is the thirteenth film in an ongoing series. This of course means that the stakes are very different – instead of two heroes fighting on their first meeting, instead we see a team of heroes that have history being torn apart. They’re completely separate films, and so I’ll do my best not to compare them.

But of course the real question is “Does Captain America: Civil War live up to the hype?” Well, read on to see my thoughts.

Synopsis

After another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps, one led by Steve Rogers and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

The Feature

Civil War begins with the Avengers in action again, tracking down Brock Rumlow (former Hydra-mole and Cap’s faux friend), who is now known as the mercenary Crossbones. This current team of Avengers is slightly lower powered and lower-profile than the team we saw in action at the beginning of Age of Ultron, but they’re still powerful enough that they unexpected collateral damage can occur during their battles and one such incident is enough to provoke the creation of the Sorkovia Accords.

In short, the governments of the world have become concerned about the abilities of the Avengers coupled with their relative lack of oversight. Their desire is to put the Avengers under the control of the United Nations.

Obviously, this decision tears the Avengers down the middle, with Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow and the Vision being in favor of the accords, while Captain America, the Falcon and Scarlet Witch are afraid of being used as political tools.

Into this tense situation, enter Bucky – the Winter Soldier – still looking for keys to his past, and still wanted for atrocities committed while under the control of Hydra. When the Avengers are sent to take Bucky down, Steve and his allies can’t help but get involved, which brings them into conflict with their former friends.
In addition to this already heavily crowded film, we also see the introduction of T’Challa, King of Wakanda and the Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of Spider-Man, the return of Hawkeye to the team, and the addition of Ant-Man for Cap’s side.

The film picks up steam from here on to the climax, with heroes battling one another while realizing that they’ve been manipulated, and when we finally reach the climax, the Avengers may have been irreparably damaged. At least until The Infinity War.

The Good

The list of things that are good in this film could almost be the entire review. We’ll begin with the script. Unlike the comic book version of Civil War, this script does a remarkable job of keeping any of the heroes from having to pick up the Idiot Ball to justify the conflict. Although this is unmistakably Cap’s film, and our sympathies are supposed to lean towards him, the perspective of Tony Stark and his allies makes sense – and the reasons for the conflict, and each betrayal or changing of sides – make sense.

Next is the cast. We’ve had time to get used to these actors in their roles – so much that it’s hard to imagine a version of Tony Stark that doesn’t look like Robert Downey, Jr. The veterans in the cast have grown into their roles, and Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, RDJ, Jeremy Renner and Don Cheadle are all comfortable in the skin of these heroes, which allows the emotion to be conveyed realistically and effectively. They never feel like they’re acting – it’s easy to just get lost in the performances. They are well matched by the other returning heroes, and Sebastian Stan, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd and Emily VanCamp all fit in easily next to them.

But it would be irresponsible to mention performances without addressing the two newest heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Bosemna provides a delightfully nuanced performance as the Warrior/Inventor/King, and his Black Panther commands attention every time he appears on the screen. This is a character who is equally compelling in-costume or out, and proves himself to be a statesman ready to match the intensity of Tony Stark while still being a warrior capable of going toe-to-toe with Captain America. I am eagerly awaiting seeing more of him when Black Panther arrives in 2018.

As for Holland? While his introductory scene feels like it was cut a bit short (we see very little transition between his recruitment and his battling alongside the other heroes), this kid nails Spider-Man in a way we have never seen in live-action. He takes everything that worked from Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker with the best parts of Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man and synthesizes them into a perfect whole. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man may have helped start the superhero movie craze, but based on what we’ve seen so far, I think that 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming will be the Spidey film fans have been waiting for.

On top of a solid story, and a fantastic cast, the last good thing that has to be addressed is how well balanced this film. With a cast this large, it would have been very easy for Captain America: Civil War to collapse underneath its own weight, and for the leads to get lost in the shuffle. That doesn’t happen. While every character gets moments to shine, this is not Avengers 3. It is very much still a Captain America film, and the movie is focused on Steve, Tony, and Bucky. This is incredibly impressive.

The Bad

Captain America: Civil War does a great job of giving us hero vs. hero conflict in a way that is believable and doesn’t force us to start cheering against any of the heroes we’ve grown to love over the past dozen films. But it doesn’t do quite as well with giving us conflict between the heroes and the villains. Crossbones is almost wasted in his initial scene in this film, and it’s unlikely we’ll see him again. For one of Cap’s most feared foes, I expected better. He doesn’t get much more credit than Batroc did in Winter Soldier, which I also thought was criminally underusing the character.

I could forgive this, if they had managed Zemo better. But they didn’t. This Zemo isn’t a long-time Hydra operative, nor does he have the legacy connection to one of Captain America’s WWII enemies. He’s a modern villain with modern motivations rooted in the previous films, and there is no sign of his classic costume. Zemo – and especially the actions he took with the Thunderbolts – has been one of my favorite Captain America villains for over a decade, and I feel like he was wasted here. Rather than co-op a classic villain, they could have just made him a new character without losing anything. Considering how we’ve seen other Captain America villains handled – including the underuse of the Stuckers in Age of Ultron and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I was really hoping for a better treatment.

There’s also a romance in this film that very much feels shoved in. The characters – and their relationship – deserves a better treatment. This is doubly annoying because we see a different relationship forming through the course of the movie and handled masterfully and deftly.

The Ugly

I gave mention to how well they avoid having the heroes pick up the Idiot Ball earlier in this review. This is true. That said, there is a phenomenal example of Cap grabbing the ball and not letting go near the climax of the movie. It’s realistic enough to imagine that Cap might’ve said what he did at that point – but it was glaring enough that I had to lean over to my wife at that moment and exclaim “Or, you know, don’t say that and start fighting your best friend again.”

Also, while this may be personal, I found that the 3-D effects led to a lot of blurring during the film. When I saw clips of action at home on TV during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I was astonished at how much clearer it was.

Final Thought

At the end of the day, Captain America: Civil War didn’t manage to become my new favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. That honor still goes to Winter Soldier. That said, being my third favorite of these movies still puts it head-and-shoulders ahead of almost every other superhero film that has been released as of yet.

I’m unsure when I’m going to get back to see this movie. I’d like to see it again (not in 3-D this time), but as mentioned, this is one of the darkest entries from Marvel to date (although it doesn’t hold a candle to any of the Netflix series). And while I don’t think it’s too dark for my daughters to watch, it is a film I think I’d like to be able to pause to explain elements to them when they see it.

That said, Captain America: Civil War was a deeply satisfying experience, and it’s a movie I highly recommend.

Bonus

There are two things that every Marvel movie is expected to have, and I’m happy to say that Captain America: Civil War includes both stingers (one mid-credits and one at the very end of the credits), and a cameo from Marvel CEO Emeritus, Stan Lee. This time around, Stan comes in near the end, and while his cameo is slightly less hilarious than some of his others, it’s still deeply satisfying.

The mid-credits stinger is a bit of a miss for me – in that it feels like it belongs as a part of the main film, not as a tease for future films. The post-credit stinger is a more traditional tease which helps move us towards Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both are entertaining, and well worth sitting through the credits for.

(Disclaimer: I was provided a free preview pass screening to attend Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. I received no other compensation for writing this review, and all opinions and views expressed are my own.)

“I Didn’t Get Small… The Pictures Got… Oh, Wait…” Marvel’s Ant-Man: Review

Antman_posterby Aaron Einhorn 
The Marvel Movie machine rumbles on as they bring us the biggest tiny heroes to the screen. The saga of bringing Ant-Man to the big screen is kind of a fascinating one. Originally, this was to be the second of Marvel’s self-produced films. Edgar Wright, of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame was to write and direct the tale, on the heels of Iron Man. This was before there was any idea of such a thing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the interconnected world of superhero films based on Marvel comics. Due to one delay or another, Ant-Man kept being delayed, and as such, the need to rework the film to fit into the greater MCU arose, and eventually Edgar Wright and Marvel parted ways (although Wright has kept both a writing and a producing credit on the film).

What this means is that we have a very different Ant-Man then we would have had Wright made his film, but we also have one that was set to tie in to the greater narrative that Marvel and Disney have been crafting.

But does it work? That’s the big question. Read on.

Synopsis

The next evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe brings a founding member of The Avengers to the big screen for the first time with Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man. Armed with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, master thief Scott Lang must embrace his inner-hero and help his mentor, Doctor Hank Pym, protect the secret behind his spectacular Ant-Man suit from a new generation of towering threats. Against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Pym and Lang must plan and pull off a heist that will save the world.

Marvel’s Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang aka Ant-Man, Evangeline Lilly as Hope Van Dyne, Corey Stoll as Darren Cross aka Yellowjacket, Bobby Cannavale as Paxton, Michael Peña as Luis, Judy Greer as Maggie, Tip “Ti” Harris as Dave, David Dastmalchian as Kurt, Wood Harris as Gale, Jordi Mollà as Castillo and Michael Douglas as Hank Pym.

Peyton Reed directs Marvel’s Ant-Man with Kevin Feige producing and Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Victoria Alonso, Michael Grillo, Edgar Wright and Stan Lee serving as executive producers. Marvel’s Ant-Man delivers a high-stakes, tension-filled adventure on July 17, 2015.
(from Marvel.com/movies)

Antman_004The Feature

There were a lot of interesting creative choices to be made in this film, beginning with the decision to use a Hank Pym who is more a contemporary of Howard Stark than Tony, whose superhero career (alongside his wife, Janet Van Dyne) started in the 1970s and ended in the late 1980s. In the present, set to become an Avenger alongside Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, we will see not Pym and Van Dyne as Ant-Man and the Wasp, but instead Scott Lang taking on the mantle.

It’s a curious choice from the point of view of a comic fan, but from the perspective of a film fan, it does give us an Ant-Man who is not a genius scientist, which frankly the Avengers will already full of. And the good news is that Paul Rudd is amazingly charming as Scott Lang.

As Lang, Rudd gives us a character who is motivated not by wealth or power, not by guilt or a strong sense of moral fiber, but is instead by a drive to try to not let innocent people be hurt while sticking it to the “Man”, and simultaneously driven by the need to provide for his daughter. In fact, the thing that unites Lang and Pym more than their shared mantle as Ant-Man is the need for a father to connect with and protect their daughter, while being completely unsure of how to do that. Being an ex-con, convicted for stealing from Lang’s former employer, Lang is unable to find a legal job to prove his responsibility and get access to his daughter again, and a heist gone wrong proves to Pym that Lang is the man he needs to be his successor.

Antman_005Pym, played fantastically by Michael Douglas, is an older man, driven by the desire to protect the world from his Pym Particles being used by the wrong person. After all, a two-inch high assassin with the strength fifty times that of a normal man would be nigh-unstoppable. Pym’s former protégé, Darren Cross, has spent years trying to unlock the secrets of the Pym Particles, and is finally on the verge of both using the formula and unleashing his armored, flying, “Yellowjacket” suit. Pym’s daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) is working for Cross while secretly still aligning herself with her father. Hope is everything the daughter of a superhero could hope for – brilliant, driven, a skilled fighter, and capable of the mental discipline needed to control an army of ants – but for reasons unknown to her, her father doesn’t want her wearing the Ant-Man suit.

Along the way, we meet Lang’s former cellmate and other criminal compadres, who end up assisting Lang and Pym in their crusade against Cross; and experience the drama surrounding Lang’s ex-wife Maggie, daughter Cassie, and Maggie’s fiancée Paxton (who also happens to be a cop).

The entire film is fun and moves along briskly to the climax where Ant-Man and Yellowjacket fight for both control of the Pym Particles and for the safety of Lang’s family, and ends with a set-up to see Ant-Man in the next films in Marvel’s Phase Three of Films.

Antman_006The Good

The casting is spot on in this film, with Rudd, Lily and Douglas especially standing out. The action is solid, the dialogue is sprinkle with quick one-liners, and the effects are superb. This is a very solid entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and seeing the different cast members introduced here in future films will be very welcome.

Antman_003The Bad

Cross is one of the least interesting villains to enter into the realm of the MCU. He’s almost exactly a carbon copy of Obadiah Stane from Iron Man, and lacks all of the nuance and interest we’ve found in Loki, the Winter Soldier or Ultron. He’s not awful – but he definitely represents a step back.

Antman_002The Ugly

The remnants of Wright’s script are still visible, sometimes in awkward places. There are lines that feel like they were directly lifted from his pen in scenes that otherwise seem like they were completely reworked, and beats in the script that would have worked in a film that was more consistently marked by Wright’s style, but which stuck out like a sore thumb on their own.

Final Thoughts

I would have loved to see what Edgar Wright wanted to do with Ant-Man, but the truth is that once the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a thing, that was never going to happen. Wright is at his heart an independent film-maker, and being forced to rework his script to coincide with events that happened in other films, and to set up future films, was always going to be something he fought against – and Marvel has made it very clear that no creative talent is more important than their overall vision of the MCU. No actor, no director, no producer is more important than the whole (with the possible exception of Robert Downey Jr), and it is probably better to see Peyton Reed directing Ant-Man than to see Wright’s version of the film being hamstrung by Marvel’s requirements.

That said, as someone who is a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think that this film is ultimately more satisfying than a stand-alone, Edgar Wright-driven Ant-Man like we might have gotten back in 2008. It’s a very solid middle entry into the overall saga of the MCU, and is probably at the right level of “everything changes” drama to be a good palate cleaner between Age of Ultron and Civil War. Scott Lang brings a different kind of personality, background and skills to the Avengers than we’ve seen in any of their other members, and this film is perhaps the perfect example of a popcorn film.

The one complaint I have was that it was remarkably predictable. There are tiny little moments that surprised me, but overall, there were no big twists to the film. It was enjoyable, but nothing hit me with the kind of “Wow, did not see that coming,” that I’ve experienced in most of the Marvel films. On the other hand, if I wasn’t surprised by anything in the film, I suspect the reviewability of the movie will be high, since my enjoyment wasn’t based on being surprised – something I’ll find out when I take the girls to see Ant-Man this weekend.

Ant-Man is a very solid superhero film, and if we hadn’t already seen almost all of the elements of the formula that made the movie already, I’d have been thoroughly wowed. Instead, I found myself thinking that there wasn’t a lot new to find here (other than the father-daughter relationships being the driving force of the film), but that it was still a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a few hours. And it’s not like superhero tales don’t all have a certain degree of similarity to begin with, but I still read comics each week. If I’m willing to buy six to ten comics each week that all have elements I’ve seen before, I can certainly afford to spend the money to watch a superhero film that has elements I’ve seen before. And I was happy to do so.

Antman_001Bonus

Stan Lee makes his requisite cameo, and true to form, it’s a pretty darn funny one. Also as we’ve grown to expect (grown… because Ant-Man shrinks… get it?), there is a mid-credits stinger scene that addresses the question that has been on the minds of all of us ever since Ant-Man was mentioned as coming to cinemas – when do we get to see the Wasp? Finally, stick around all the way to the end credits for a sneak peek look at Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War.

(Disclaimer: I was provided a free preview pass screening to attend Marvel’s Ant-Man. I received no other compensation for writing this review, and all opinions and views expressed are my own.

Time to Assemble! Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron: Review

avengers_posterby Aaron Einhorn
It’s a good time to be a fan of things superheroic and comic-related right now. Comic-book based shows are all over network and cable TV, Daredevil has just erupted onto Netflix to critical acclaim, and there is at least one new superhero film scheduled to hit the theatres every six months from now into 2020.

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been seven years since the Marvel Studios train got started with Iron Man, and that it has only been three years since we first saw superhero films connect as never before with The Avengers.

This weekend marks the release of what is arguably Marvel’s riskiest film release yet, with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Very few would argue that the first film did something unprecedented, bringing together three separate film franchises into a single film, filled with a team of heroes, an alien invasion, and some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Director Joss Whedon truly captured lightning in a bottle with that first film. But can he do it again, with the stakes even higher, the cast even larger, and the story even bigger?

It shouldn’t surprise you to discover that I certainly think so. But read on to find out.

Synopsis

Marvel Studios presents Avengers: Age of Ultron, the epic follow-up to the biggest Super Hero movie of all time. When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, are put to the ultimate test as the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. As the villainous Ultron emerges, it is up to the Avengers to stop him from enacting his terrible plans, and soon uneasy alliances and unexpected action pave the way for an epic and unique global adventure.

Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron stars Robert Downey Jr., who returns as Iron Man, along with Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk. Together with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and with the additional support of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill, the team must reassemble to defeat James Spader as Ultron, a terrifying technological villain hell-bent on human extinction. Along the way, they confront two mysterious and powerful newcomers, Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and Pietro Maximoff, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and meet an old friend in a new form when Paul Bettany becomes Vision. Written and directed by Joss Whedon and produced by Kevin Fiege, Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is based on the ever-popular Marvel comic book series The Avengers, first published in 1963.
(from Marvel.com/avengers)

avemgersss

The Feature

If you were a fan of The Avengers, then the good news is that this movie provides more of the same. Much more, in fact. Structurally, this film is incredibly dense, weaving in a battle against Hydra, the creation of Ultron, the reveal of the Black Panther’s nemesis, several battles of Ultron with increasing stakes each time, the introduction of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as villains and their eventual conversion to Avengers, the creation of the Vision, expansion on the role of the Infinity Gems, and Ultron’s defeat. Along the way, it sets up events for Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and it does all this while giving us some character growth, tons of Whedon-esque wit and humor, and some of the most impressive action sequences we’ve seen on film.

I’m exhausted just writing that recap.

The bad news is that Age of Ultron is not the game-changer that The Avengers was. But then, it couldn’t be. The game has already been changed, and Marvel has established that they can bring superheroes from disparate films together into a single epic and make us love it. So, that this one doesn’t bring something new to that element is not a complaint.

Avengers - Disassembled

Avengers – Disassembled

Evans’ Steve Rogers remains the Cap we’ve gotten to know in his previous three films, and the same can be said of Downey’s Tony Stark, Hemsworth’s Thor, Jackson’s Nick Fury, and most of the supporting cast. Three of the core members of the Avengers get to expand on their inner lives and personalities, and it is perhaps no surprise that those are the ones who don’t have their own film franchises to dominate – namely Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Hulk. Renner gets to actually show us who Hawkeye is this time around, something he was largely denied in Avengers, but more significantly, the relationship we see between Johannson’s Natasha and Ruffalo as both Banner and the Hulk leads to some of the most sincere and moving moments in the movie.

The new additions to the cast are also very good, although they get a little less time than we may have liked. Elizabeth Olsen is very convincing as the conflicted Wanda Maximoff, and if Aaron Johnson’s Quicksilver is not quite as memorable as the one from X-Men: Days of Future Past, that is simply because he has so much more to compete with.

Seriously, you know things are going to be bad when the redhead’s hair starts raising into the air on its own…

Similarly short-changed, but with glimpses of a fascinating character to come, is Paul Bettany as the Vision. Bettany gives us a truly alien performance, which both his body type and his voice lend themselves to quite well. We don’t meet the Vision until the final act of the film, so we get less of him then I wanted, but he’s absolutely compelling every time he appears on-screen, and I look forward to seeing much more of him in Infinity War.

But really the show-stealer is James Spader as Ultron. Although I was unprepared for the humanity in the physical design of Ultron (and might have preferred the non-moving mouth with the Kirby dots), Spader steals the screen as the mechanical monster. His decision to exterminate mankind is entirely plausible, and while he may not quite evoke the sympathy that Loki or Magneto can command, it’s hard not to feel a little bad for him – even as he remains a terrifying presence. Ultron is, after all, a child – and he has the emotional maturity of one. He just happens to be a child with an unstoppable robotic body, an army of robots at his command, and a supercomputer for a brain.

avengers-age-of-ultron-hd-background-wallpaper-18

The movie does drag at points, but that is largely because of how dense the film is – and if the set-up for future films does drag on the action of this one, I can still appreciate the groundwork that is being laid for the continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Would I have minded seeing it tightened up a little? Sure. Because at two-and-a-half hours of runtime, there are always going to be some desired trimming, but I can also state that those one-hundred and fifty minutes passed very quickly for me.

The Good

Great action sequences abound, with each hero more than able to showcase their abilities. Joss Whedon’s characteristic humor in writing shows through, and the laughs come frequently and sincerely. Ultron is a rich villain, and the new Avengers each get a chance to shine.

The Bad

There are pacing issues in the film’s middle – in some ways it feels a bit too much like they’re trying to mirror the pacing of the original Avengers

The Ugly

Although I pointed out frequently how the original film was a great counterpoint to the reckless disregard for civilians shown in Warner Brother’s Man of Steel, the direct calling out of “We need to clear civilians” was a bit too heavy-handed this time around.

avengers-age-of-ultron

Final Thoughts

As I sat down to write this, my first thought was “How to turn superfanboyspazflail into a coherent review?” At risk of understating things, I really loved this movie. It’s not perfect – but that doesn’t change the fact that I was deeply entertained for the entire run-time of the film.

My biggest complaint about this film as compared to the first Avengers is that film was the culmination of several films – it didn’t have to set anything else up (although it teased us with Thanos), and so nothing was wasted. This film sets up Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. With so much set-up, that means some elements get less time than they should have. It’s a balancing act – like spinning plates for a circus, and if some of the plates wobble a bit, at least none of them fall.

I am a Marvel fan, and especially a fan of Captain America, so I was predisposed to like this movie going in, but I was thoroughly impressed with Marvel’s latest offering, and I am looking forward to the film’s general release so I can take Cordy and Mira with me to see it again. It’s not my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe releases (that honor goes to either Captain America: Winter Soldier or the original Avengers), but it was still very enjoyable, and will be given a place of honor on my Blu-Ray shelf once it arrives.

Bonus

Stan Lee has been afforded the opportunity to do a cameo in almost all of the Marvel films to date, and that remains true this time around as well. It may be one of his funniest cameos yet. And as we’ve come to expect, there is a mid-credits stinger scene that sets up a future Marvel movie, but in a departure from all of the other Marvel films, there is no post-credits sequence to stick around for.

(Disclaimer: I was provided a free preview pass screening to attend Avengers: Age of Ultron. I received no other compensation for writing this review, and all opinions and views expressed are my own.

The 32nd Annual 24-Hour Ohio Science Fiction Marathon – One Man’s Recap

The 32nd Annual 24-Hour Ohio Science Fiction Marathon

marathon_logoby Aaron Einhorn
For over two decades of my life, one event has strongly resonated throughout the spring, and that is the annual 24-hour Science Fiction movie marathon in Central Ohio. When the event started it was located at the Drexel North in Clintonville on the North Side of Ohio. I wasn’t able to attend the marathon for the first few years of the event’s existence, because I was a wee lad, so the first time I attended a marathon was the Sci-Fi Marathon’s sister event, the Horror Marathon in October. I first came out for the Night of the Living Drexel 2 in 1989, and my first sci-fi marathon wouldn’t be until the following spring when It Came From the Drexel North 4 occurred on April 22, 1990.

Because of various life-related events (working at the Ohio Renaissance Festival, my brother’s wedding, having a wife who likes to do Halloween-related activities), my attendance at the Horror Marathons has been sporadic throughout the years, but I haven’t missed a Science Fiction marathon since 1990, even as the event has travelled from one theatre to another. (And yes, you may realize if the 4th Annual Event was 25 years ago, but this was the 32nd Annual Marathon, something weird has happened. We’ll just point out that it involved time-travel, and the thirteenth, fourteenth, sixteenth and twenty-second marathons have gone missing, although we did get the fifteenth to re-appear in 2005 – although it pushed the twenty-second off into the vortex.)

This past weekend, March 14-15, 2015, the 32nd Annual(ish) event happened at the Drexel East in Bexley, Ohio. And I will say without reservation that it ended up being one of my favorite years on record.

The Line-Up

12:00 – ALIEN
2:20 – DR WHO AND THE DALEKS
4:30 – The Midwest Premiere of SHADOWS ON THE WALL
6:40 – 32nd Annual Costume Contest
7:00 – BARBARELLA
9:20 – The Ohio Premiere of TIME LAPSE
11:40 – BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT
2:00 – EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY
4:00 – LUCY
5:40 – HARDWARE
8:00 – THE WASP WOMAN
9:45 – ALIENS

Nice, solid line-up with two premieres, three legitimate sci-fi classics, some serious goofy cheese, and at least one film from before 1960. I knew going in to the event that either BARBARELLA or SHADOWS ON THE WALL would be sacrificed to the gods of getting a solid dinner consumed, but overall, it was a line-up I was really looking forward to.

alien_posterALIEN

I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality. – Ash

To a modern audience, it is astonishing how much time this film takes to simply let the action breathe. There is a ton of gorgeous cinematography at work here, from shots of the Nostromo, to views of the alien planet, to extended views of the Space Jockey. To be sure, there are elements in this film that don’t work as well with the passage of time. The “computers of the future” are incredibly dated, for one thing, and some of the puppetry and suit effects for the xenomorph (not ever called that in the film) are showing their age.

But who cares? The tension in this film is tangible, and the adrenaline surges when the alien does actually attack leave your heart racing. The performances hold up as 100% authentic, and the design work looks lifted straight from the page of HR Geiger.

There is a reason that ALIEN routinely makes “Top Whatever” lists for both science fiction and horror. It’s probably been close to a decade since I saw this movie, but I will not go that long without watching it again. Even better, since it is featured on The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Mira is interested in watching it. I’m not sure if it might not be too scary for her, but I’m willing to give it a try.

drwhoandthedaleks_posterDR WHO AND THE DALEKS

Destroy. The. Thalls! – Daleks

I’m a fairly serious recent Whovian. I’ve been aware of DOCTOR WHO my entire life, but never really got in to the classic series. I watched the Fox/BBC TV “Event” with the Eighth Doctor, and enjoyed it enough at the time that if it had gone to series, I probably would have stuck with it, but, of course, it didn’t.

Instead, I got involved with the Doctor starting with Christopher Eccelston in 2005, and have been a loyal fan since then. I’ve gone back and watched a handful of older DOCTOR WHO serials, and have listened to a lot of the radio dramas starring the former Doctors, but had never ventured over to the American film starring Peter Cushing. So, I was looking forward to checking it out.

I was unprepared for a Doctor who was pretty much completely ineffectual, not an alien, and actually named Doctor Who. But that didn’t keep me from being amused at the film. Quite probably I wasn’t amused in the ways that the film intended – in fact, I was more annoyed than amused by Ian’s ineffectiveness – but I still managed to smile through most of the movie (although the mountain climbing scene was more exhausting to watch than it would have been to actually climb a mountain). I won’t be rushing out to see this again, but as a fan of the Doctor, I’m glad to have seen it once.

Daleks manage to somehow still be both completely goofy as villains, and terrifying.

shadowsonthewall_posterSHADOWS ON THE WALL

This ended up being my dinner break, so I have nothing to say here. When I got back, people seemed to have enjoyed it. So, here’s the plot summary for you to decide yourself how you feel about it.

Palmer Marshall, an engineering student with anxiety issues, builds a miraculous device capable of reaching far beyond our understanding of known space. But in breaking this new boundary Palmer and his friends have opened a Pandora’s Box with far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. THE SOCIAL NETWORK meets the X-FILES in this stark and snappy sci-fi suspense.

Costume Contest

I have a love/hate relationship with the costume contest. I enjoy watching it each year, and I love that wit and timing can sometimes count more than costume quality. On the other hand, as a fairly dedicated costumer who puts a lot of effort into his costumes, the fact that I’ve seen people who put a lot of time and thought into their costumes lose to someone with a blanket occasionally really bums me out.

(I didn’t mind at all losing to Zap Brannigan. I was annoyed about losing to a blanket.)

This year offered a better-than-normal group of good costumes that also involved some good timing and wit, and I’m very glad that Barbarella – the later years, Bill and Ted, and the Seventeenth Doctor all ended up at the top of the heap. I felt bad about Jack Sparrow – and actually think he might’ve done better if he’d used a better line from the film.

barbarella_posterBARBARELLA

An angel does not make love. An angel is love. – Pygar

Apparently being married to a director can get you in to a science fiction film where you end up changing your clothing a lot, getting naked a lot, and somehow managing to still succeed in defeating an evil scientist and a world controlled by an evil matmos.

I’ve never completely understood the appeal of this film. It’s goofy, the effects are beyond dated, and Ms. Fonda isn’t even all that hot – which to many people seems to be the justification for the film’s existence.

I feel like I should have a fondness for this film, and I was actually looking forward to seeing it again. but once it started, I just felt bored throughout. When you find yourself wishing that Durand-Durand would just kill the heroine, it’s a sign that the movie is, perhaps, not hitting its mark.

In retrospect, I kind of wish I’d stayed through SHADOWS ON THE WALL and gone to dinner here.

timelapse_posterTIME LAPSE

Cardinal rule. Don’t f*** with time. – Jasper

I knew very little about this one going in, by choice. I had read the basic synopsis on Wikipedia, but chose not to watch any of the trailers. I was therefore unprepared to see that one of our three leads was none other than Danielle Panabaker, whose turn as Caitlin Snow is so charmingly adorkable on THE FLASH that it’s one of the delights of my weekly TV viewing.

I love time travel movies, especially ones that keep you guessing and that are consistent with their laws of casualty and sequence. The best episodes of DOCTOR WHO manage it, and we’ve had a few films throughout the decades that do it really well (TIMECRIMES, PRIMER, HAPPY ACCIDENTS), and then we have those films where Time Travel is a hand-wave for whatever weird stuff they feel like throwing at us. I am very happy that TIME LAPSE falls into the category of ones that did it well.

That said, a consistent time-travel plot doesn’t mean anything if you don’t care about the characters, and I really did here. Jasper, Callie and Finn are all fascinating characters, and watching them change and become corrupted by what the machine can show them is incredibly engaging.

Solid performances, an engaging plot, authentic tension and a consistent time-travel mechanic all put TIME LAPSE on the top of my list for this event, and I am highly recommending it to my friends.

bladerunnerfinalcut_posterBLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die. – Roy Batty

BLADE RUNNER is not one of those science fiction films that I am completely in love with, and in some ways this feeling is exacerbated by the numerous different “versions” of the film that circulate. When someone says “I love this movie,” one’s response shouldn’t be to ask which version. With that in mind, I wasn’t all that excited about the “Final Cut” showing.

To be sure, the film is stronger without Harrison Ford’s voiceovers, and the additional footage of the unicorn dream and the violence isn’t awful – but I didn’t find myself caring all that much about seeing this version over the Director’s Cut, and in some ways I don’t even mind the U.S. Domestic Release.

The digital restoration, on the other hand, was incredibly impressive, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prettier version of BLADE RUNNER. But maybe it was simply because of the fact that we were edging past midnight, but I simply wasn’t as moved by the film as I have been in the past.

earthgirlsareeasy_posterEARTH GIRLS ARE EASY

I just want to say that being chosen as this month’s Miss August is like a compliment I’ll remember for as long as I can. Right now I’m a freshman in my fourth year at UCLA, but my goal is to become a veterinarian, ’cause I love children. – Candy

After the heaviness of BLADE RUNNER, this was the perfect palate cleanser. There is no part of this movie that isn’t charming in its own goofy, ridiculous way.

Now, this movie is so eighties it hurts, and the fact that it was MTV produced and existed as much to push Julie Brown as to actually make a good comedy is only barely disguised.

But who cares? Sometimes all you want is a film that is fun and goofy and charming, and EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY delivers in spades. The songs are upbeat and catchy. The aliens are ridiculous and silly but still charming in their own way, and Goldblum and Davis always have fantastic chemistry together on-screen.

While certainly not a movie that will be high on my “Oh man, I need to see this again” list, I don’t think I would ever object to watching EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY if I was channel surfing and came across it, and I’d be happy to see it grace the marathon screen again in a decade or so.

lucy_posterLUCY

Time is the only true unit of measure. It gives proof to the existence of matter. Without time, we don’t exist. – Lucy

Scarlett Johansson is one of my biggest Hollywood crushes, and I consider it nothing short of criminal that Marvel/Disney has not yet made a BLACK WIDOW film starring her. She’s gorgeous, the camera loves her, and she’s a very capable actress. Despite all this, I never got around to seeing LUCY when it was in the theatre, so I was really looking forward to checking this out.

The premise is completely goofy – in that we actually use all of our brain. But if you’re willing to handwave that, the movie is actually pretty enjoyable. To be sure, there are some ridiculous plot holes (namely “Why does she need the drug from the dealers? With the access to information she has, surely she could have just synthesized it herself.”) and in many ways it never really feels like the stakes are high – because once she starts unlocking her abilities, Lucy really isn’t threatened by any mundane threats.

So, call it more a philosophical film about mankind’s potential, mixed with some Michael Bay-esque action sequences. And in that regard, I think it succeeds. Again, not on the list of movies I feel a need to rewatch soon, but not a movie I regret having seen.

hardware_posterHARDWARE

Machines don’t understand sacrifice – neither do morons. – Chief

HARDWARE originally showed at It Came From The Drexel North 5 in 1991, which was my fourth one of these twenty-four hour events, and at the time, I think I was too exhausted to really be able to get into the film. I remember thinking that the lead female was sexy enough that I understood why she was the object of obsession of her neighbor. I also remember thinking that I didn’t care about any of the characters in the film at all, and that the cyborg was kind of goofy. Even with the post-apocalyptian overlay, I couldn’t see a reason to watch HARDWARE over THE TERMINATOR.

Unfortunately, the passage of time hasn’t done much – if anything – to change my mind. Maybe it was still because of the lateness of when it was shown, but I still just didn’t find myself caring at all during the film. Stacey Travis is still hot, but I still didn’t care.

It’s far from the worst film we’ve ever shown at the Marathon, and I’m not at all upset that it aired. It gave me a good reason to decide “To heck with it,” and close my eyes and catch a few winks. But I don’t ever need to see it again, and retrospect, I should’ve left and gone for a walk to get some breakfast during it.

(Note: The Wasp Woman does not appear like this in the film.)

(Note: The Wasp Woman does not appear like this in the film.)

THE WASP WOMAN

She will kill her as easily as any wasp would destroy its enemy. – Eric Zinthrop

The tried and true “Dangerous Feminist” genre has a place in cinematic history, and the horror/sci-fi trope of the woman who becomes a predatory monster is certainly a part of that. THE WASP WOMAN fits squarely into the middle of the pack of these kinds of movies.

It wasn’t a bad film. The performances were fairly sincere, and the plot was… well… no more unfeasible than many science fiction films of the fifties and sixties. Susan Cabot actually seemed believably conflicted, and she’s certainly not hard on the eyes, which is important when the premise of the film is that the wasp enzymes make you younger and more attractive – at least until you become a wasp monster.

The Wasp Woman makeup itself hasn’t aged well, but it’s no worse than the makeup from the original version of THE FLY. Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about the movie is that at this late hour of the event, I managed to not nod off during its runtime.

aliens_posterALIENS

Take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. – Ellen Ripley

As good as ALIEN is, many people will say that ALIENS is better. I don’t know that I agree with that – if only because in so many ways it is unfair to compare the two. ALIEN is a horror film – it’s the serial killer/haunted house in space, with a significant secondary dose of body horror, and there’s a reason that ALIEN can be shown as a part of a horror film festival as easily as it fits into science-fiction. ALIENS is a much more typical science-fiction film –and that’s not a Bad Thing, it just makes the experience of the two movies very different.

It is funny that – even when you account for the improved weaponry and combat training – how much the aliens suffer from Conservation of Ninjitsu. Any single xenomorph is no threat to the marines or to Ripley (excluding the Queen, of course), which is a far cry from a single creature destroying the entire crew of the Nostromo.

But really, none of that matters. ALIENS is a well-made film, with great performances all around, incredibly solid special effects that have aged quite well, and a compelling personal character story in the midst of the action. There’s a reason this film remains on the top of many lists, and it was possibly one of the best films to end a Marathon in the many years of the Ohio Marathon’s history (which is probably why this isn’t the first time that we ended the ‘thon with ALIENS).

Summary

I was sad that Christina wasn’t able to come out to the event this year, because I think it had one of the more solid line-ups in recent memory. By the time we were done on Sunday (only about fifteen minutes late, despite the delay with getting ALIENS loaded into the DCP projector), that sadness was exacerbated – I think she would’ve had a lot of fun this time around. I’m also thinking that I would love to see the kid’s tickets return, because Mira is getting to the age that I think bringing her for at least the first few movies would’ve been a lot of fun – but I couldn’t justify a $40 ticket price to only bring her out for ALIEN, DR WHO, SHADOWS ON THE WALL and BARBARELLA (which is probably when I would’ve taken her home, although keeping her there through TIME LAPSE might’ve been an option).

Not among the films, but important to note. The tribute to Leonary Nimoy was great, and I really enjoyed both the episode of STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES, and to see that Mr. Nimoy was overwhelmingly voted in to the Hall of Fame this year. I also thought that the trailer for PROMETHEUS was absolutely fitting to make the Upside-Down-and-Backwards offering for the year. In general, it seemed like we had more shorts and fewer trailers, and I don’t know how much I prefer that trend, but the event still came off well.

As always, Bruce and Joe deserve more thanks than I can put into words for organizing this event and making it happen each year. I had an absolute blast, and I’m looking forward to coming back next year. I don’t know if the Horror Marathon is going to happen – partially because I might end up running in the Columbus Marathon that weekend – but I’m really happy to see both events continue from year to year.

certificate

Disney’s Cinderella (2015): Review

posterby Aaron Einhorn
We’re big Disney fans in this household. Just a few weeks back, the entire family traveled to Walt Disney World to spend a week in the resorts and parks, and to take part in the Princess Half Marathon weekend. Christina ran the Enchanted 10K, the girls ran the Kid’s Mickey Mile, and I took park in the Princess Half Marathon itself. After the race, I took my race bib around Disney property and had each and every Princess sign it. I may be a dude who is more in to superheroes and science fiction than fairy tales and tea parties, and the Disney Villains may be those I flock to, but we still love the Princesses.

That doesn’t change the fact that the first few Princesses who compose the Disney Princess line are a bit… well… dull. Snow White is a fairly meek girl (remember, she’s only fourteen!) whose only real defining trait is being nice, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) barely even shows up in her own movie, and Cinderella… well… the fantasy of being taken away from a horrible, dull, impoverished situation into becoming the Princess is appealing, but what actually defines Cinderlla’s character, other than an ability to talk to mice and birds?

Disney took great strides with the later Princesses, of course, but the first three remain just a little flat. So, it was with immensely high hopes that I sat down to see Cinderlla, the live-action reimagining of the 1950 classic animated film. Did it bring me over into the ranks of Cinderlla fans? Read on.

Synopsis

The story of Cinderella follows the fortunes of young Ella whose merchant father remarries following the death of her mother. Eager to support her loving father, Ella welcomes her new stepmother and her daughters Anastasia and Drisella into the family home. But when Ella’s father unexpectedly passes away, she finds herself at the mercy of a jealous and cruel new family. Finally relegated nothing more than a servant girl covered in ashes, and spitefully renamed Cinderlla, Ella could easily begin to lose hope. Yet, despite the cruelty inflicted upon her, Ella is determined to honor her mother’s dying words and to “have courage and be kind.”

She will not give in to despair nor despise those who mistreat her. And then there is the dashing stranger she meets in the woods. Unaware that he is really a prince, not merely an apprentice at the Palace, Ella finally feels she has met a kindred soul. It appears her fortunes may be about to change when the Palace sends out an open invitation for all maidens to attend a ball, raising Ella’s hopes of once again encountering the charming Kit. Alas, her stepmother forbids her to attend and callously rips apart her dress. But, as in all good fairy tales, help is at hand, and a kindly beggar woman (Helena Bonham-Carter) steps forward and – armed with a pumpkin and a few mice – changes Cinderella’s life forever.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Cinderella stars Lily James, Hayley Atwell, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter and Richard Madden.
(from Disney)

kinopoisk.ruThe Feature

The 2015 Cinderella follows the story of the classic 1950 version nearly identically. There are certain elements that have been changed – notably, the film is not a musical, and while she does get assistance from her mice friends, there are no talking animals in the film.

Where the films differ most focus on giving expanded backstory to each of the main characters. We get to see a lot more about Cinderella’s life before her mother died, and we get to see a growing connection between Ella and her father. The mantra of “have courage and be kind” is repeated and we see how it shapes Ella. We’re given a reason (however thin) for why Ella never fights back, or simply chooses to leave the house and strike out on her own. Similarly, we get to see a bit more between the Prince (Kit) and his father, and we see a charming relationship between Father and Son and between King and heir, and where those two relationships have to come into conflict.

Lady Tremaine is given a bit more backstory and explanation for her motives and for why she never cares for Ella.

Best of all, however, we get scenes of Ella and the Prince where they do more than just dance. They get to talk to one another, and share secrets and thoughts and ideas. It’s still a thin scene, and doesn’t leave them with much more time to build a lasting romance than Anna and Hans have in Frozen, but at least it’s more than just “They danced, and therefore they’re in love.”

Lily James gives us a very convincing Ella/Cinderella, and Richard Madden has cleaned up exceptionally from Game of Thrones to make a very dashing Disney Prince. Cate Blanchett plays Lady Tremaine with gusto, seeming very much like a younger Angelica Huston, and Helena Bonham-Carter’s Fairy Godmother is perhaps a bit more scatterbrained than the animated version, but is a heart-warming presence.

kinopoisk.ruThe Visuals

Kenneth Branagh has a fantastic eye for the cinema, and with a Disney-backed budget, we would expect nothing less than fantastic from the director who gave us Thor, Hamlet and Henry V. I chose those three films specifically to point out how high the bar was set.

Branagh surpasses it. Cinderella is absolutely breathtaking. From the little details of watching butterflies magically transform into jeweled accents, to the sweeping vistas of the kingdom, to exploring the little details that make Ella’s house a warm and loving home, Branagh uses the camera to overwhelm us visually, using both sweeping wide shots and intimate close-ups. The line between CGI and practical make-up and effects is hard to draw, and everything is given the attention to make the visual world of Cinderella a fully immersive experience.

fairygodmotherThe Music

Like their other recent live-action reimagining (Maleficent), Disney chose not to make Cinderella a musical. Instead, we get a beautiful score from Patrick Doyle, along with two after-the-credits reprises from the animated feature.

Doyle’s score is more than up to the task of guiding us through the emotional arc of the film, without ever once drawing attention to itself. I leave it to the viewer to decide if this is a good thing or if it merely makes his music serviceable, although I personally lean towards the view that the music should only become the focus of a scene when it is, in fact, the focus of the scene.

During the post credits, Lily James sings “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” and it is very pretty, while Helena Bonham-Carter provides a humorous take on “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” that left a smile on the faces of my entire family.

The Good

Breathtaking visuals, a strong score, and excellent acting gives us a film that manages to retain almost all of the charm of the animated film while giving additional depth to the characters and the story. Cinderella herself is notable for being given significantly more agency and drive in this film, as opposed to the mostly passive version we see in the animated classic.

The Bad

The explanation for Lady Tremaine’s wickedness doesn’t really mesh with her actions when she first moves in with Ella and her father, even before his untimely death. Although Cate Blanchett does her best with the role, it never really manages to elevate her above the cartoon version of the character.

The Ugly

Even with additional depth to the characters, the central conflict of this film remains a fairly dull one to base a story around. The romance is better, and we know the characters better, but it never made me care that much more about the story. Additionally, that deeper look at the characters comes with additional run-time, and even with the modest run-time of 112 minutes, Cinderella still felt like it ran too long.

ladytremaineFinal Thoughts

As a life-long fan of Disney, I wanted to love Cinderella, and have it redeem the 1950 animated classic which, let’s be honest, is extremely problematic from the point of view of a Dad raising two daughters and wanting them to have strong role models.

Did Cinderella succeed? Not quite. It is, in almost every way I can think of, a better film than the animated one, and I certainly enjoyed myself at the screening. But Cinderella’s tale remains one seeped in problems, and I cannot see her rising to the heights established by more recent Princesses such as Belle, Ariel and Jasmine, much less the much more proactive and heroic ones like Rapunzel, Tiana, Anna and Merida, or even the less successful and lesser known ones like Giselle and Meg. (And you get no points for saying that Anna technically isn’t a part of Disney’s Princess line yet, or that Giselle and Meg never made it into that line at all.)

It is a beautiful film, and one I’m sure we’ll watch again. But Cinderella’s tale is simply not one that will ever move me, and I can’t see myself being excited about revisiting this when it comes out on Blu-Ray.

Bonus: Frozen Fever

frozenfeverThere is, of course, the segment of the audience who is coming not for the feature, but just to see Frozen Fever, because of the… well… Frozen fever that has struck Disney fans. (No, we’re not immune. I love Frozen, and during our recent visit, we did the Meet and Greet with Anna and Elsa and attended “For the First Time In Forever: A Frozen Sing-A-Long” at Hollywood Studios.)

As a short, one should not expect Frozen Fever to have the same depth as the original feature. It doesn’t, nor should it.

What it is, however, is a heartwarming short tale about Elsa (along with Olaf, Sven and Kristoff) trying to plan a perfect birthday for Anna (after thirteen years of Elsa being completely absent from Anna’s life during birthdays). But, despite being the Queen of Snow and Ice, Elsa is not immune to the type of cold that comes from a virus rather than chilled temperatures, and her magical abilities interact with her cold to make the day go rather less smoothly than planned.

It’s very cute, and all of the original voices (except for Hans) reprise their roles. The original song for the short “Making Today a Perfect Day” is charming and pleasant, and if it won’t push “Let It Go” out of your child’s playlist, it will at least add some variety to a soundtrack that most parents have heard repeatedly.

(Disclaimer: I was provided free tickets for the preview screening, however I received no other compensation. All opinions are mine and mine alone.)

On Top of the World! Disney’s Big Hero 6: Review

Big_Hero_6_film_posterby Aaron Einhorn
In some ways, it’s weird to see Big Hero 6 being heralded as the first ever Disney/Marvel collaboration. We are now closing in on it being half a decade since Disney purchased Marvel, which means that every Marvel film since The Avengers has been solely produced and distributed by Disney, and we’ve seen Disney take control of Marvel-related animated series on their cable networks. Big Hero 6 is also not close to being Disney’s first work with superheroes, being proceeded by The Rocketeer, The Incredibles and Sky High.

It may be the first time Disney has brought an animated feature film to the screen that is based on Marvel characters, but to be honest, the team of Big Hero 6 bears only the loosest resemblance to the heroes from the comic pages. (So much so that Marvel has even said that they have no plans to reprint those issues, because the characters found there are not going to be the ones that movie fans are looking for.)

So, let’s get the whole issue of “the first” aside, because at the end of the day, that question is really only of interest to comic book wonks. What we really want to know is, did the studio which has brought us The Incredibles and The Avengers deliver with Big Hero 6? Read on to find out.

Synopsis

From Walt Disney Animation Studios, the team behind Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, comes Big Hero 6, an action-packed comedy-adventure about the special bond that develops between Baymax, a plus-sized inflatable robot, and prodigy Hiro Hamada. When a devastating event befalls the city of San Fransokyo and catapults Hiro into the midst of danger, he turns to Baymax and his close friends; adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago, neatnik Wasabi, chemistry whiz Honey Lemon and fanboy Fred. Determined to uncover the mystery, Hiro transforms his friends into a band of high-tech heroes called Big Hero 6.

BIG HERO 6The Feature

Big Hero 6 is an interesting mix of being a classic superhero story and a fairly traditional Disney film. We have the Disney protagonist (young, orphaned, ready to go off and have their adventure), but we also have a very typical superhero origin story that could have been taken from the script for Iron Man (genius inventor finds that his technology is being used by an evil mastermind, uses technology left by his deceased family member and his own developed super suit to do battle against his own tech).

big-hero-6-villain

This makes for a film that is both extremely satisfying from the point of view of action and spectacle (the scenes of Baymax and Hiro flying through the skies of San Fransokyo are right up there with those of Stark flying in his Iron Man armor, and the battles between the team and Yokai are easily as well done as those of the Avengers facing against the Chitauri), while also giving us plenty of time to explore the family dynamics and relationship between Hiro and his brother Tadashi (and then later, Baymax).

The team of heroes, including Hiro and Baymax, and rounded out by Honey Lemon, Wasabi, Go Go and Fred, round the cast out nicely, with each character having enough personality to be distinct characters, and their various super suits are varied enough to keep the heroes from being redundant. Other members of the cast have certainly enough personality to keep them interesting and make them more than just background, and they’re all fairly consistently developed, which is certainly a plus.

On the downside, one of the glaring missteps that we noticed was that the friendship between Hiro and the rest of the gang is almost completely left off-screen. We have it clearly established that they were all very good friends (and classmates) with Tadashi, and it is implied that Tadashi told them all about his genius-prodigy-younger-brother-who-has-been-wasting-his-time-with-bot-fights. There is a montage that has the potential to establish that Hiro has begun forging friendships with the rest of the gang, but their appearance in that montage is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it short. Similarly, they’re present at the memorial for Tadashi, but we don’t really see them interacting with Hiro, yet by the time we get to the second act, we’re supposed to just accept that they are all the closest of friends, and that the idea of putting on super suits and fighting Yokai is something they will all just go along with.

BigHero6(4)

A lot of this is simply a result of a badly balanced script. While establishing the relationship between Hiro and Tadashi is vital, a bit too much time is paid to it, and therefore not enough time is left to create the bonds between Hiro and Go Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi and Fred. In fact, for all that they are each developed a bit, and each character has distinct personalities and interests, we don’t see a lot of time given to any member of the team.

It’s a tough thing to balance, and certainly something that creators of other ensemble superhero films have struggled with. But one only needs to look at The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy or X-Men 2 to see where it works well. Big Hero 6 falls just a little short on that regard.

But what balances this misstep and makes the film delightful is Hiro and Baymax. Baymax is, perhaps, Disney’s most successful “cute sidekick” creation of the past two decades. He’s adorable and cute, but is also absent of the more annoying traits of the cute sidekick. Although ignorant of many things, Baymax is never dumb. His voice is calm and soothing instead of loud and grating. And he absolutely is vital to the plot, in a way that cute sidekicks never are.

Little kids will want a plush Baymax to cuddle. Older kids will want an armored-up Baymax to play with and to fight alongside the Avengers and Justice League and Incredibles. And parents will wish they had a Baymax to send out in to the world alongside their children.

japanese-teaser-trailer-big-hero-6-tadashi1

The Good

We have great action, inspired character design, and a really touching story about two brothers. Add in a villain with a complex motivation, and some great moral lessons and Disney delivers again.

The Bad

Insufficient time is given to four members out of the six heroes to make them fully-realized characters. They’re great sketches, but that’s all they are.

The Ugly

If you’re a big fan of the appearances of the Big Hero 6 from Marvel Comics, then this movie is not for you. Their names and powers are (mostly) the same, but the characters couldn’t be much more different.

Big-Hero-6-Movie-Review-Image-8

Final Thoughts

Again, Big Hero 6 is not a perfect movie, and it would be very easy to fall prey to letting this movie become a victim of over expectations. Which would be a shame, because what Big Hero 6 is, is a lot of fun. There’s a good heart-warming story at the film’s core, accompanied by some great action, incredible visuals, solid voice acting, and lovable characters.

Don’t overthink it. Sit back, relax and enjoy the film, and I think you’ll find Big Hero 6 to be a worthwhile experience. We really enjoyed it (the girls even said that they thought it was better than Frozen, which is an astonishing claim – although Christina and I didn’t think it was quite as good), and are even planning to take them to see it again.

Also, don’t forget that this is a Marvel movie. Look for the requisite Stan Lee cameo appearance, and be sure to stick around for the post-credits stinger.

Bonus

feast_a

Disney has typically included an original short film before their films, and they’ve really been knocking it out of the park with the last few animated releases. Wreck It Ralph featured the exquisite Paperman and Frozen gave us the hilarious Get a Horse. Big Hero 6 one-ups them with Feast, which is both incredibly funny and heart-breakingly sweet. The story of one man’s life through the dog he adopts – seen entirely from mealtimes. If Feast doesn’t tug on your heartstrings, then you’re made of stone.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Review

posterby Aaron Einhorn
When it comes to my favorite superheroes, believe it or not, I’m very much a DC Comics kind of guy. Superman will always be, for me, the ultimate expression of what a superhero should be. Batman, when handled right, is a fascinating character, and Wonder Woman should be the ideal to which all ladies can look up to.

But for the past decade or so, I’ve been solidly in Marvel’s camp. Not only have their comics been consistently better written, featuring both more nuanced character development but also having better epic, world-shattering events (despite a few missteps along the way), but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been knocking things out of the park, ever since Iron Man. While there have certainly been some films I enjoyed more than others, I haven’t disliked a Marvel movie yet.

That said, not going to lie, the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy left me cold. Peter Jason Quill, aka Starlord, seemed like an impudent man-child, and the film seemed like it was going to focus on humor of the lowest common denominator. Was this what the Marvel Cinematic Universe had come to? After the brilliance that was Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Later trailers softened my opinion, showing a bit more action, a bit more plot, and showing that Quill is rarely rewarded for acting like an idiot – so much so that, by the time I was able to attend a screening last night, I was actually quite looking forward to Guardians. So, now that I’ve seen the movie, did a thief, an assassin, two thugs and a maniac deliver on a film that is worthy to stand alongside The Avengers? Read on.

XXX GUARDIANS-GALAXY-MOV-JY-0693.JPG A ENT

The Milano flies away from Xandar.

Synopsis

From Marvel, the studio that brought you the global blockbuster franchises of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers, comes a new team–the Guardians of the Galaxy. An action-packed, epic space adventure, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos, where brash adventurer Peter Quill finds himself the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan, a powerful villain with ambitions that threaten the entire universe. To evade the ever-persistent Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of disparate misfits–Rocket, a gun-toting raccoon; Groot, a tree-like humanoid; the deadly and enigmatic Gamora; and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer. But when Quill discovers the true power of the orb and the menace it poses to the cosmos, he must do his best to rally his ragtag rivals for a last, desperate stand–with the galaxy’s fate in the balance.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which first appeared in comic books in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (Jan. 1969), stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, featuring Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, with John C. Reilly, Glenn Close as Nova Prime Rael and Benicio del Toro as The Collector.

team_jail

The team assembled before their jailbreak.

The Feature

Guardians of the Galaxy is a fairly straightforward team-introduction movie, but that doesn’t make it boring or predictable. The movie begins with a very young Peter Quill on Earth, who following the death of his mother, is taken in to space. Why is he taken in to space, and by whom? Well, you’ll have to wait until later in the film for that. We then flash-forward several decades until Quill is a grown man and a thief, who in the pursuit of a MacGuffin, runs afoul of both the Kree and the Xandarians – two races who until recently, were at war. Caught between two galactic empires and a bounty on his head from a former partner, Quill crosses paths with Gamora, Rocket and Groot, which leads to all four in jail together where they meet Drax.

What follows is almost a comedy of errors and betrayals, as Quill and his companions escape the prison, attempt to sell the orb, then realizing that the Orb is actually one of the six Infinity Stones (and we have it confirmed for us that the Tesseract and the Aether are as well – clearly we’re building to the Infinity Gauntlet – a hypothesis only strengthened by the presence of Thanos as the man behind Ronan), we see the team trying to stop Ronan from using the stone to destroy all of Xandar and the Nova Corps.

Along the way, there is a lot of humor, a ton of action, and some surprisingly human and tender moments between Quill, Gamora, Drax and Rocket (with Groot continuing to steal every scene it appears in.)

nebula_wide

This is *not* Amy Pond.

The Visuals

Guardians is fairly middle-of-the-pack when it comes to visuals. Action scenes are shot well, with a minimal amount of shaky cam and quick cuts, from both space battles to hand-to-hand fights. We get some impressive scenery shots of both planet-wide-vistas and close-ups of exotic locales. I was particularly impressed with Knowhere, for instance. But where it does deserve special mention is in creature design. Guardians features more alien races than your typical Star Wars film, and each and every alien is believable. There’s still an emphasis on rubber-forehead aliens, but the more exotic creatures are present and fully-realized.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rocket and Groot. Although it’s impossible to be completely unaware of the fact that these two characters are CGI over a mo-cap suit, both characters feel like they’re actually present and have weight – and that takes some serious skill.

Rocket and Groot engage in carnage.

Rocket and Groot engage in carnage.

The Music

James Gunn has discussed the use of the soundtrack in the film and how he made use of it on the set. By having the audio tape worked in to the plot, we have a convenient excuse for why music of the late seventies is playing throughout the movie, and while the question of where, exactly, Starlord gets AA batteries for his Walkman is valid, it’s easily handwaved.

"Oh... yeah."

“Oh… yeah.”

The Good

The Guardians themselves are just about perfectly cast, and not a single one of them is the one-dimensional character you might expect them to be. Each member of the cast shows some nice development throughout the course of the film’s action, and every time I expected a cliché to rear its ugly head, Gunn manages to avoid it. I particularly like the fact that Gamora does not become a love interest for Quill – and the mostly naked shot of Zoe Saldana from the rear which is so prominent in the trailers did not make it to the final cut of the movie.

This isn’t strictly limited to the Guardians, either. We do manage to see some really nice character moments from Thanos’ daughter, Nebula (played by the lovely Karen Gillan), from Glen Close’s Nova Prime, and even John C. Reilly’s Nova Corpsman gets some nice moments.

Ronan was deadly before getting an Infinity Gem. Now? He may be unstoppable.

Ronan was deadly before getting an Infinity Gem. Now? He may be unstoppable.

The Bad

One of the reasons that The Avengers worked so well is that by the time the characters start meeting each other and making each other miserable (in advance of becoming an actual team), we had already met them all. We knew who Stark was, we knew who Steve Rogers was, we knew Thor. Guardians has to do a massive amount of world-building and character establishment before it can get us to that point, and it doesn’t always work. There are elements that simply do not get fully realized, and while some of this leads to future hooks for the next film (Who is Quill’s father? Comics fans know, but general audiences don’t. When Christina asked me, and I told her, she looked at me blankly and flat out said “You could be completely making that up.”), some of it just seems undeveloped.

"I'm Star-Lord, man."

“I’m Star-Lord, man.”

The Ugly

Some of those underdeveloped moments really hurt the development of the film’s villains. Much like Thor: The Dark World never had time to establish anything about who Malekith was and why he wanted to destroy everything, much less to define his right-hand-man, Kurse, we see the same thing here. Ronan’s defining moment is the way he first stands up to, and then betrays, Thanos. But that’s it. Why were the Kree and Xandar at war? Why was the peace treaty so hard to get signed? Why did Ronan reject it? Who is Korath? What drew Ronan into Thanos’ orbit, and why did Thanos give him the use of both Nebula and Gamora? We have no clue. And Ronan from the comics is not a one-note villain. He’s a man of honor and quite devoted to the good of the Empire. This Ronan has about as much personality as the Destroyer armor from Thor, and that’s a disservice to him.

Also, the stingers at the end of Marvel movies have been one of my favorite elements of them, and the stinger for Guardians was held back from the preview screening.

One by one, the cosmic McGuffins are assembled.

One by one, the cosmic McGuffins are assembled.

Final Thoughts

So, I quite liked Guardians of the Galaxy. The movie is a lot of fun, and is excellently paced – perhaps the best paced of Marvel’s films yet. The action is solid, the humor is great, and the acting deserves kudos all around.

I am already hearing people say that it’s the best Marvel film to date, and I think that is, perhaps, taking it a bit too far. I still think that Winter Soldier is the most perfectly put together of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries, and The Avengers has better moments than Guardians – and more of them.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is everything I would hope for in a summer action film, and remains a worthy addition to the canon. The cosmic element of the Marvel Universe is here, and had a very solid foundation to build on.

yondu

(Disclaimer: I was provided free tickets for the preview screening, however I received no other compensation. All opinions are mine and mine alone.)

Disney’s Maleficent: Review

Disney-Maleficent-Posterby Aaron Einhorn
Generally speaking, I like a nuanced villain. I like a villain who has a reason behind the evil acts that they do. Give me Magneto over the Red Skull any day. Because let’s face it, outside of thirteen year-old boys, no one really thinks of themselves as Evil. We’re all the hero of our own stories, after all, even if it may require a lot of self-justification on our parts.

So, for that reason, I tend to really like alternate-POV stories. I like to understand what makes a villain tick. The story of Erik Lensher is a fascinating one – but one that makes the actions of Magneto no less reprehensible. Loki has reasons for what he does in Thor, which is why Tom Hiddleston now has legions of fans – but no one would argue that Loki was right in doing what he did. Understanding is not the same thing as condoning, after all.

I’m even usually ok with those alternate tales where we find out that the character we thought was the villain is, in fact, the hero. Or might be, depending on which version of the story you want to believe. You cannot simultaneously accept both Wicked and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but you can certainly simultaneously enjoy both.

So, I did my absolute best to go into Maleficent with an open mind and willing suspension of disbelief. Would Angelina be able to deliver as a live-action rendition of one of the most iconic of the Disney villains?

Maleficent within the wall of thorns.

Maleficent within the wall of thorns.

Synopsis

Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take dramatic actions that will change both worlds forever.

The film stars Angelina Jolie as Maleifcent, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.

Before losing her wings, Maleficent is the protector of the moors.

Before losing her wings, Maleficent is the protector of the moors.

The Feature

The film starts with a young Maleficent, the orphaned fairy who is the protector of the moors – a fairy kingdom which has an uneasy relationship with their human neighbors. Enter the similarly orphaned Stefan, who enters the moors as a thief, but who strikes up a friendship – and ultimately, more than a friendship, with the fairy. As time passes and the years move on, Stefan’s ambition takes him away from his first love, and into the service of the king – a king whose dying wish is to destroy the fae on his borders and reclaim the moors as a part of his kingdom. Stefan’s ambition ultimately wins out on his loyalty to his lover, and as the old king dies, Stefan takes his place as the new King – while a betrayed Maleficent turns cold and bitter.

Incidentally, anyone who witnesses the moment where Jolie plays out Maleficent’s reaction to the betrayal and doesn’t feel their heart break, has no soul. It’s a masterful scene, and puts you completely on Maleficent’s side for the remainder of the film – if you weren’t there already.

This leads us to the scene from Sleeping Beauty that we all know and love, although Maleficent plays with a few details – and this is easily one of the best scenes in the entire film.

From there, the story follows the one we know, with the difference being that Maleficent is not hunting for the missing princess, but in fact watches her grow from infant to child to young woman, and although Aurora never knows the truth about her “fairy godmother,” the relationship between Aurora and Maleficent is fascinating to watch.

The film’s climax plays out not entirely dissimilar to the one from the animated classic, but different enough that you’ll never see it coming, with saviors found in unexpected places, and villains found in others.

Aurora (Elle Fanning) drawn to the spinning wheel like a moth to the flame.

Aurora (Elle Fanning) drawn to the spinning wheel like a moth to the flame.

The Visuals

Maleficent is stunning to look at. Whether the camera is looking at the sweeping views of the moors, zooming over a fierce battle between human and fae, closing in on the ruins of a spinning wheel, or focusing on the exquisite Ms. Jolie, the lens practically makes love to its subject.

The CGI is quite well handled, and the green-screening is easy to ignore, with the inconsistencies easily hand-waved by the fact that the entire film is, in fact, a fairy tale.

Special mention has to go to Rick Baker’s makeup effects on Angelina Jolie to transform her into Maleficent. The makeup is subtle, but deeply effective. There are prosthetics on her cheekbones and chin to change the shape of her face, and contact lenses to give her inhuman eyes, but you have to look really hard to notice. She may no longer be the green-skinned version of the character we know from the animated feature, but while she is unmistakably Angelina Jolie, she is also, without a question, an inhuman fairy creature.

"Listen well..."

“Listen well…”

The Music

To the disappointment of some, I’m sure, Maleficent is not a Disney musical. I know fans of either Sleeping Beauty, or the closest theatrical equivalent, Wicked will no doubt be dismayed, but ultimately this is probably for the best. Maleficent doesn’t need that level of being removed from reality that the “heightened reality” of being a musical would bring with it. That said, the score by James Newton Howard is strong and effective, and Lana Del Rey’s rendition of “Once Upon a Dream” (which plays over the closing credits) is absolutely haunting. Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.

The Good

There are a lot of really good elements to the film, it’s hard to make a short list. To begin with, the film is almost entirely focused on Jolie’s Maleficent, and this is not a bad thing – because she is at her best in this role. Every now and then an actor goes on screen and you think “This is the role you were born to play.” It happened with Chris Reeve when he donned the red and blue tights of Superman, it happened when Robert Downey Jr. took the role of Tony Stark, and it is evident here with Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, green skin be damned. The CGI is solid, and most of the other acting is excellent. Sam Riley, who plays Diaval is surprisingly good, although his resemblance to a younger Orlando Bloom is oddly distracting. And as already noted above, this is visually a beautiful film, with a strong soundtrack.

The Bad

In Sleeping Beauty, Flora, Fauna and Merriweather are arguably the protagonists of the film. Aurora is beautiful, but she doesn’t actually do much, and without the aid of the faeries, Prince Philip would never have done anything other than be captured and then grow old in a cell. Our three fairies in Maleficent, Flittle, Thistletwit and Knotgrass, are silly, useless creatures who manage to do nothing effective throughout the course of the film. (They don’t even manage to be the reason the curse is mitigated from “death” to a “sleep like death” where she can be awoken by True Love’s Kiss.) Similarly, despite the fact that Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Philip does nothing without the aid of the fairies, in this film, he’s not much more than a glorified cameo.

The Ugly

Sharlto Copley’s King Stefan is not just a foil to Maleficent – he’s an entirely one-dimensional villain of Shakespearean temperament – willing to do anything for ambition, driven mad by the consequences, and completely uninteresting. He’s ambitious, and vengeful, and dull. And you know, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora was one of the few Disney princesses who had a father figure we could admire – why not destroy that?

King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) plots his revenge against Maleficent.

King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) plots his revenge against Maleficent.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, my feelings on Maleficent are that is a well-made film, beautifully shot (or composed, since so much of it is CGI against green screen), and for the most part, wonderfully acted.

And I was completely dissatisfied with the movie. Why? Well, because this is my vision of who Maleficent is.

My vision of Maleficent is one of a villain – and not just a villain but a villain who enjoys her villainy. She is evil, and she delights in being evil. And Maleficent gives us a very different character who happens to share a name.

I came into the screening hoping for a movie that would give us her backstory and make us feel sympathy for the famed villain. I was hoping we would see a reason for Maleficent to be the evil character we know her to be, but I was also hoping that she would still be a villain. And at the end of the day, Maleficent casts the dark fairy as the hero. She’s a flawed hero, to be sure, because what she does to Aurora is unprovoked and fairly horrible considering that Aurora is innocent of Stefan’s crimes – but the rest of the film makes it clear that the horrible things she does are only out of misguided vengeance.

It’s a great movie, but it’s not the one I was hoping to see. But having now seen it, and having deemed it to not be too scary for our daughters, we’re going to see it again. And I can admire it for what it is. But I’ll never be able to reconcile my feelings about this version of the character with the villain I love to hate in Sleeping Beauty and when I visit Disney World and watch Fantasmic.

But if you don’t have the irrational attachment to keeping Maleficent a villain the way that I do, I think you’ll be able to love Maleficent.

(Disclaimer: I was provided free tickets for the preview screening, however I received no other compensation. All opinions are mine and mine alone.)

Disney’s Frozen: Review

I’m resurrecting this post in honor of Frozen being released to home video yesterday. Enjoy!

frozen_posterby Aaron Einhorn
I try to be a fair and unbiased reviewer when doing my film reviews on this site. I’m aware that I have personal preferences that have nothing to do with the actual quality of the media I’m consuming – I will always prefer a superhero comic to a non-superhero tale, but I can still acknowledge that Maus is a fantastic example of the genre.

So, with that said, let’s get it out up front that I am a Disney fanboy. I adore the animation, the music, and the joy that we get as a family when we share their films. Our family trip to Walt Disney World last February was one of my most treasured memories, and although my daughters don’t know it yet, we’re going back this March.

In other words, yeah, I was pre-disposed to Frozen before walking in to the advance screening. But I was predisposed to like Thor: The Dark World, which I walked away from somewhat indifferently. And we were dealing with similar circumstances – a crowded preview screening, heading over after work, and I was tired before we got there, and hungry from skipping dinner.

So, how did I feel about Frozen? Read on.

Synopsis

There are two Princesses of Arendelle: Elsa (Idina Menzel), the soon-to-be Queen, and Anna (Kristen Bell). Elsa has the ability to create snow and ice, yet has been suppressing these powers after a traumatic childhood incident involving her sister. After letting her cryokinetic powers get out of hand during her official July coronation, she goes into hiding, only for her emotions to trigger a magical, eternal winter that freezes the entire kingdom.

Anna, a fearless and daring optimist, must journey with extreme mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and reindeer sidekick Sven in an epic journey, encountering mystical trolls, a comical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), Everest-like extremes and magic at every turn in a race to find Elsa (now known as the Snow Queen), save their kingdom from eternal winter, and make things right before it’s too late.

The Feature

So, the first thing to get out is that Frozen bears about as much resemblance to the original Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Snow Queen as The Little Mermaid does to its source tale. So, if you’re a big fan of the classic fairy tale, please put it out of your mind in advance, because otherwise you will be sorely disappointed.

olaf

“I love warm hugs.”

The other thing that absolutely must be touched upon is Olaf. Olaf, the enchanted magical snowman who wants to experience all things warm. Olaf, who has been featured almost exclusively in the previews for the film to the point that you might be surprised to discover that there are two Princesses in the movie. Olaf, who really is the Jar Jar Binks of Frozen.

As I had feared, there is entirely too much of Olaf in this movie, which is entirely unnecessary. The film already had “cute creatures” a-plenty in the form of Sven, the reindeer, and the trolls who provide exposition and an additional source of magic and fun to the movie.

Fortunately, even though there is too much Olaf, there is also a lot less of him than I had feared there would be, and he even manages to add some to the plot. Not a lot, but some.

Frozen also suffers from the lack of a strong villain, a la Urusula, Jafar, the Shadowman or Mother Gothelle. The story is more about struggles within yourself, and the sisters being able to connect to one another, and the external threats aren’t all that terribly significant.

The other negative strike against Frozen is the fairly weak romance. Disney has a very hit-and-miss record with making the romances of their leads believable and/or necessary, with Tangled and Princess and the Frog nailing it, and Brave showing us that you don’t really need it. The romance in this film is a bit contrived, and ultimately not all that important. What it does do, however, is gives us an excuse to include a couple of male characters in the film that were probably essential to convince young boys to come see it, and it allowed directors Chris Buck (Tarzan) and Jennifer Lee (screenplay, Wreck It-Ralph) to really play with the standard Disney tropes of in True Love’s Kiss in a way that I found really surprising and gratifying.

Now, with the negatives out of the way, let’s discuss some of the things that make Frozen worth watching – and there are plenty.

ice_palaceFirst of all, the visuals of the film are absolutely breathtaking. Although I have heard some complaints that the new CGI-style of Disney animation means that Anna and Elsa bear a little too strong of a resemblance to Rapunzel from Tangled, I was able to look past any initial similarity to the point that the sisters quickly became distinct. Elsa has a cold reserve to her that you can see on her face, and the way she never quite smiles but often smirks captures the facial tics of her voice actress, Idina Menzel quite wonderfully.

Separated at birth? You decide. (Left: Rapunzel and Flynn from "Tangled", Right: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Hans from "Frozen")

Separated at birth? You decide. (Left: Rapunzel and Flynn from “Tangled”, Right: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Hans from “Frozen”)

Similarly, Anna’s slightly crossed eyes and freckles give her a wonderful humanity that we haven’t always seen in the Disney Princesses. Even the tomboys and outsiders and misfits are beautiful – and there’s no doubt that both Anna and Elsa are – but seeing some imperfections makes them a little bit more real.

Of course, visually, the real star of Frozen are the ice and snow effects, and those are simply amazing. There were real gasps in the audience when Elsa creates her Ice Palace, and the way that the snow swirls, and the ice grows and cracks is just amazing.

As characters, it’s hard not to love both sisters. Anna is outgoing, energetic, clumsy and forthright, while Elsa is cold, reserved and restrained – but still clearly empathetic and compassionate. On a personal note, it was hard not to see my two daughters in the sisters, and there was a long discussion about that similarity on the drive home from the theatre.

Anna’s quest to save her sister, and in turn, the kingdom, resonates strongly because at its core, it is more about Elsa than it is about Arrendale – which makes it something easily relatable. Saving a kingdom is more than most kids can understand, but wanting to be with your sister is something that most kids will easily relate to.

In any case, for all that one of them is technically a Queen, I think both Anna and Elsa will become a welcome addition to Disney’s Princess line.

sisters

The Music

When it comes to Disney features, the music can make or break the movie. Many fans turned away entirely from Hercules because of the unexpected musical choices with the Gospel-style songs (although I am personally a fan), and to this day, I think that if Disney had made the music integrated into Tarzan the way they did the Broadway version, it would have ended up being a much bigger hit.

Well, Frozen is an absolute win in the musical category, and if you’re a fan of Broadway, then you will be very, very pleased.

The orchestral score from Christophe Beck is quite, quite lovely, and pulls you strongly in to the film right from the beginning. But as solid as the score is, the actual songs are where Frozen soars.

“Frozen Heart” starts the film off strong with a solid, sea-chanty-esque rhthym, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” establishes the relationship between the sisters and is heart-breakingly sweet and sad at the same time. “Reindeers Are Better Than People” is a cute little ditty featuring Jonathan Groff, and “Fixer Upper” is fun and energetic and will make great background music when walking through the Disney parks.

But there are three songs that everyone will be talking about.

“For the First Time in Forever” (and its reprise) is the adult counter-point to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and is absolutely essential to understanding who both Anna and Elsa are. It has a great build throughout, catchy lyrics, and really fun visuals. Think of it in the same vein as other Disney “I Want” Songs, and you won’t be far off at all.

“Love is an Open Door” is a really lovely love-song duet, and in a different film, could easily be the one that everyone will remember at the movie’s end. The opening and closing of doors is a recurring theme in Frozen, and when the song plays, it is easy to see how Anna can be swept away by her handsome prince.

Incidentally, although we’re past the point where this should be surprising, Kristin Bell has quite a lovely singing voice, and she’s really fun to listen to throughout.

But the breakout hit song of Frozen is, without question, “Let it Go.”

Anyone familiar with Idina Menzel’s career knows this, but that woman has an amazing voice, with a tone very unlike many others. She isn’t always technically perfect, but she is incredibly talented, and the imperfections in her voice are what allow it to bring so much emotion to what she sings. If you only know her from watching Glee, than this may surprise you. If you’re familiar with her from Rent, then you know she has the pipes, but you may not be prepared for her ability to reach in to your heart and twist. If you know Menzel from listening to Wicked, then you know what I’m talking about.

I was introduced to Idina Menzel’s singing when she performed “Defying Gravity” at the 2004 Tony Awards, and fell in love, rushing out to purchase the soundtrack. Although I love the entire show, “Defying Gravity” was my favorite feminine power ballad of all time, and remains a regular on my iPod.

“Let It Go” is better.

The song is already listed on Disney’s “For Your Consideration” website for Best Original Song, and if there is any justice, it will be nominated, and Idina Menzel will sing it at the Oscars. But just as fortunate, that means that Disney has put the song up on the site for you to listen to. I implore you to do so. Here’s a link.

frozen_svenThe Good

Really strong story, great characters, beautiful visuals and incredible music. The additional short “Get A Horse” is also a really nice tribute to the history and the future of Disney animation, although I’m unsure if it will work in 2D.

The Bad

Disney may be marketing this film entirely wrong, and there will be plenty of fans of the classic fairytale who are disappointed with the changes (but aren’t there always? I’m pretty sure that “Princess and the Frog” didn’t involve New Orleans or jazz music or a talking alligator or a princess who becomes an amphibian either.)

The Ugly

Even though I didn’t end up hating him as much as I expected to, I’d be entirely satisfied to see a cut of this film that didn’t involve Olaf.

Final Thoughts

Assuming that people come to see it despite less-than-adequate marketing, Disney has another hit on their hands with Frozen. It is easy to see the last four Princess films from Disney as marking a new Renaissance. Princess and the Frog started it off strong, Tangled has been about as perfect a modern fairy tale as I could have imagined, and Brave gave us the first Disney Princess from an original tale who doesn’t do it all for love.

Frozen is as strong a film as any of them, and one that I cannot wait to go see again. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to “Let It Go” again.

Thor: The Dark World: REVIEW

thor_posterby Aaron Einhorn
Marvel is now two films in to “Phase Two” of their cinematic universe. “Phase One” was unquestionably strong, with good box office takes and even better critical reviews of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and decent results from The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2.

And, of course, The Avengers.

The first film in Phase Two, Iron Man 3 was met with mixed reactions. I liked it more than many, but while the film was almost certainly a success, it wasn’t the same kind of instant sensation that the original Iron Man was. Marvel was therefore banking quite a lot behind Thor: The Dark World, and especially in the charisma and good looks of its stars, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Tom Hiddleston (Loki).

I was lucky enough to catch a preview screening of the film on Monday. So, how was it?

odin_thorSynopsis

Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World continues the big-screen adventures of Thor, the Mighty Avenger, as he battles to save Earth and all the Nine Realms from a shadowy enemy that predates the universe itself. In the aftermath of Marvel’s Thor and Marvel’s The Avengers, Thor fights to restore order across the cosmos… but an ancient race led by the vengeful Malekith returns to plunge the universe back into darkness. To defeat an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor sets upon his most dangerous and personal journey yet, forced into an alliance with the treacherous Loki to save not only his people and those he loves… but our universe itself.

malekithThe Film

There are some truly wonderful things that are done in Thor: The Dark World. Chris Hemsworth has transformed from the petulant godling we saw at the beginning of Thor into a true hero. He’s self-assured, but not cocky; patient with those around him; and a devoted son and brother. This version of Thor will be familiar to readers of the comic. The other members of the cast are equally skilled, although some characters get more screen time than they deserve, while others are painfully ignored when they shouldn’t be.

A notable addition is, of course, Tom Hiddleston as the Trickster god, Loki. Hiddleston has stolen the screen in every scene he has played as this character for two films now, and that continues in Thor: The Dark World. Loki is magnetic and captivating, whether he is trading barbs with Thor’s companions, acting indifferent while imprisoned in a cell, or truly caught in the grip of emotion. The fortunate news is that we are very unlikely to be finished with seeing Loki after this movie.

The action moves effortlessly between the otherworldly realms of Asgard and Svartalfheim to our own Midgard (also known as Earth), and Director Alan Taylor’s knowledge of how to film fantasy from Game of Thrones is on fine display here. Action is mixed well with drama, and most of the humor works.

It is also nice that Jane gets more to do this time around, and her scientific knowledge helps tip the scale of the battle at the film’s end. This almost makes up for the fact that Jane spends nearly the entire second act of the film as the McGuffin – the thing that everyone wants – and not really a character.

lokiThe Good

With only a few exceptions, the cast absolutely makes this film. I’ve already praised Hemsworth and Hiddleston, and it should go without saying that Sir Anthony Hopkins is wonderful. Idris Elba gets to flex his muscles a bit more this time around as Heimdall, and although their scenes are all too brief, the Warriors Three and Sif each have several nice character moments where they get to shine.

Portman’s Jane Foster also has some excellent moments, while Stellan Skarsgard gets to show us a brilliant man who has been destroyed mentally by his past encounters with the gods. Although painfully underutilized, Christopher Eccleston manages to give us a nice portrayal of Malekith, leader of the Dark Elves, as does Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Algrim/Kurse.

What was an amazingly refreshing stroke in the characterization column was Renee Russo as Frigga, queen of the gods and mother to both Thor and Loki. In her we can see why Loki may reject Odin as a father, but never rejects that she is his mother, and she has a truly inspiring scene reminding us of just why Odin picked her to be his bride. Some of the most effective dramatic moments of the movie involve her.

It’s also worth noting that there are many moments involving Loki that are hilarious. As in, laugh-out-loud funny. Expect to see lots of Loki quotes coming out of this film as memes on Facebook. And the cameos are superb. Stan Lee once again gets to appear, and there is a member of the Avengers crew that gets some additional time to shine – acting very out of character, but in an entirely appropriate way.

jane_diningThe Bad

Underutilization. There is no other way to say it. Thor: The Dark World has enough different plot elements that it means that some of them simply do not get explored. Why do the Dark Elves wish to destroy everything and return to Darkness? Well, because they’re Dark Elves. No other explanation is given. Eccelston is amazing, but he gets so little time to actually show us who Malekith is, and never gets to deliver dialogue in English.

Similarly, there is an interesting side-romance to be developed involving Sif, which is given lip-service, but then is dropped almost entirely. There are many moments involving Jane Foster and Sif that could have been explored using this theme, but they’re not there. Maybe they were filmed and left on the cutting-room floor, but it left me wishing that they had simply never even brought up the idea that Thor should be with Sif.

As I mentioned above, The Warriors Three are each played well, and it’s nice to see Zachary Levi as Fandral, but they could almost have been cut from the film for as much as they have to do – and in fact, Hogun departs their company in his first scene.

The pacing of the second act is also really off. The film starts strong, but by the time Loki, Thor and Jane leave Asgard, I found myself severely losing interest, even almost nodding off in the theatre. It picked up again at the film’s climax, but it was still a tough half-hour or so to get through.

darkelvesThe Ugly

Darcy. Oh… Darcy. I’ve been a fan of Kat Dennings in the past, and quite enjoyed her in the first Thor. But this time around, I found myself frequently wishing she would just shut up and go away. There was literally nothing she did that couldn’t have been accomplished by Jane alone, and the inclusion of Darcy’s intern was both uninteresting and took time away from the story elements that should have been expanded on.

jaimie-alexander-sif-thor-dark-world1Final Thoughts

My main thoughts about Thor: The Dark World are that the film is in the realm of “If this had come out in the 90s or early 2000s when we had so many terrible superhero films in a row, this would have been hailed as the Second Coming.” But now that we’ve had some legitimately amazing films? This one was just ok.

It’s not awful by any means. The plot is serviceable, the action is decent, and it’s filmed well. There are some legitimately touching scenes, and most of the humor was fun.

But the pacing is off. The film lacks urgency. The Dark Elves never have any motivating factor other than “They’re dark. They like darkness.” They have a little bit of a revenge plot motivation, but that’s just because the first time they wanted to destroy everything and create darkness, the Asgardians stopped them.

Did I regret watching it? Not at all. And I’ll see it again and purchase it on Blu-Ray. But in my opinion, this may be the weakest of the seven films Marvel has put out. I still enjoyed it more than I have any of DC’s offerings since Watchmen and The Dark Knight, but I’d rather watch the original Thor, Iron Man or Captain America: The First Avenger over this one.

This may spell a sign of trouble for Marvel. Have they lost their mojo entirely, and could the great experiment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe be headed for collapse? It’s probably too soon to tell, although critical response to Iron Man 3 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which I am enjoying) may lead you to think so. We’ll have a better idea after this Spring rolls around, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy to look forward to.