Thursday, May 24, 2018

Sabacc to the Future - Solo: A Star Wars Story

Okay, all cards on the Sabacc table. I entered the theater with tepid interest. In pre-planning for this review, I floated titles like “So Low” and “Smuggler’s Blues.” My friend, who invited me to the screening, echoed my sentiment that this may be the first “non-event” Star Wars movie. As the lights darkened and the familiar blue words flashed on the screen, I sat with apprehension, mostly due to the well-documented drama behind the camera as well as the vitriol being spewed on social media. A certain Sith Lord would have found my lack of faith disturbing. I did take solace in that I unequivocally trust the reliable direction of OG Star Wars fan Ron Howard, who took the Bantha reins from fired directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller due to “creative differences” with Lucasfilm’s Grand Moff Kathleen Kennedy.

What is abundantly evident is that Solo: A Star Wars Story is a love letter to the scruffy, Nerf-herding scoundrel, crafted by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan and son Jonathan. The first act of the film, set on the ship-building yards of Corellia, is where we meet young Han, played by Alden Ehrenreich, and his girlfriend/fellow thief Kira, played by Emilia Clarke. Full of exposition, the first third of the film seems to drag on in spite of a speeder chase and narrow escape in which Han elects to join the Galactic Empire as means to get off Corellia, leaving Kira behind. It’s when Han meets up with a band of smugglers, led by Woody Harrelson, that the film finds its footing and the pace quickens. Harrelson’s character Becket inadvertently sets up events leading to Han meeting Chewie, where they are forced into their first team-up. It’s a great scene that I won’t spoil. Han and Chewie then join Becket’s group with Westworld fan favorite Thandie Newton to pull off the Great Hovertrain Robbery. It’s the first of multiple thrilling heists with double-dealings that send Han down the path to scoundrelship.

Throughout the film, we are introduced to setting and characters that provide copious amounts of fan service while expanding the mythology of Han Solo. Some of the most exciting scenes involve events referenced in the original trilogy. Seriously, I wanted to be sitting at that fateful game of Sabacc where Han won the Millennium Falcon from fellow scoundrel Lando Calrissian, played to perfection by Donald Glover. Or who wouldn’t have loved to ride along during The Kessel Run, which, according to Han, made The Falcon famous?  Both scenes are a blast to watch, and are definitely worth the price of admission, as is a character reveal that caused an audible gasp across the theater.

Many fans will be split on the noteably missing references to both the Jedi and the Force, neither  of which have a place in this part of the galaxy.  Solo: A Star Wars Story delivers on all fronts with great casting, a stirring score, and thrilling action scenes. The film will surprise many fans who can put aside preconceptions and open up their hearts to a self proclaimed “terrible person,” who eventually makes good. Most importantly it answers the burning questions of how Han got his last name, or who gave him his signature blaster pistol. Okay, maybe not burning questions, but good to know!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Something Wicked This Way Comes: 35th Anniversary

Walt Disney Pictures’ 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes was released 35 years ago today. A product of Disney’s “Dark Age," it was a true horror film, based on the novel by the same name by legendary sci-fi author and personal friend of Walt Disney Ray Bradbury. Set in the early 20th century, a mysterious Autumn carnival arrives in the small midwestern town of Green Town.  The initial excitement shared by the 2 young chums William Halloway and Jim Nightshade is replaced by terror as the true nature of the carnival is revealed, leading for a battle for the very soul of their home town and its inhabitants. Moody and atmospheric, the film charted new ground for the studio, trying to target a more mature audience while shaking the stigma of being a “kiddy studio."
While poorly received at the time, the film, like many of the “Dark Age” films, now has a cult following.

Take a midnight journey on Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival Train with us as we tell the story of how the film came to be.  Published in 1962, the novel was an expansion of Bradbury’s short story “The Black Ferris." Part of Bradbury’s Greentown Trilogy, it is a tale of the dangers of longing, regret and vanity.  Early on, Bradbury expressed the desire to bring the story to the big screen, and began shopping a screenplay around. Dancer and entertainer Jean Kelly was looking for the film to be his directorial debut, but was turned down by all the major studios.  Eventually the rights were sold to Paramount Pictures with Director Jack Clayton and Bradbury attached. After languishing in years of development Hell,  Walt Disney Pictures bought the rights from Paramount, and kept Clayton on as director. After a disastrous test screening and five million dollars spent in rewrites, redone special effects, and a new score by James Horner, the film was released to a lukewarm reception. Bradbury even called it “not a great film.”

Something Wicked was released on DVD by Anchor Bay, and later by Disney in 2004, with both versions of the soundtrack released by Intrada Records. In 2014, a remake was announced with the author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith, attached as director. The Disney Company was very different 35 years ago than the Marvel/Star Wars juggernaut that is currently dominating the cineplexes. Chances were taken and mistakes were certainly made (looking at you, Condorman), but the period of experimentation and pushing the envelope gave us a creepy and disturbing period film that will forever have us looking over our shoulders at the approaching storm.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The MCU

It has taken over 10 years to get to Avengers: Infinty War, not that the film has been in development for that long. It is instead the culmination of 18 Marvel films (19, if you include Howard the Duck, which I do) and we might as well throw in ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter. After sitting through the nearly 3 hour long opus, I can say that it's definitely been worth the wait.

There can be no doubt of the power and craft of the Marvel MCU films. It's in their uncanny ability to pack a deeply emotional character story and comedic moments in the middle of amazing special effects and fisticuffs. In this tradition of excellence, Avengers: Infinity War does not disappoint. The story picks up immediately following the events of Thor: Ragnarok as the Asgardian ship is intercepted by Thanos, played with conviction by Josh Brolin. All the familiar characters are reintroduced in subsequent scenes with team pairings that even a casual fan would salivate over. Most of the comedic moments are provided courtesy by the narcissistic banter of the Stark / Strange / Quill triad. It's as fun as you think it would be.

The film isn't just played up for laughs. There are genuinely heart-wrenching moments, especially in the final act, which can't be discussed without spoilers. Never did the run time of this film seem too long, and the pacing and action are tight. The film sets itself up nicely for a second chapter, which will be in cineplexes in a year.  Avengers: Infinity War is a visceral and gutsy thrill ride that will leave you thinking, "Oh no, they didn't!" But yes, Marvel did.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Disney announces chain of Barcades

The Disney Company is planning to build on the current nostalgia driven trend of blending bars with classic video arcade games (Barcades). The new Flynn’s Barcade concept is modeled on the classic video game arcade featured in the films TRON and TRON: Legacy. In 2011, Disney experimented with a Flynn’s arcade as part of their ElecTRONica section promoting the film. Due to the popularity of the site, and the success of barcades like Dave and Busters and 1983 popping up around the country, Disney has decided to capitalize on the trend.
Flynn's at ElecTRONica
Disney CEO Bob Iger has hand-selected Current Executive Vice President of Disney Stores, Paul Gains, to head the project. “We are proud to bring the Disney brand to the exciting arena of barcades.” said Gains. “We hope to benefit from the name recognition of Flynn’s to cater to Gen-Xers who miss the nostalgia of going to their local video arcade with a pocketful of quarters.” Gains also stated that all games will only cost one quarter to play and that change machines will be provided throughout the facilities. To make up for the reduced cost of the games, beer and alcohol will be provided at a premium price.
Artist Rendering
In a shift from current trends there will also be a smoking section of the arcade where patrons can rest their cigarettes on the player control consoles to create the authentic burnmarks so loved by millions.  To further enhance the experience, cast members will be roaming around the arcade wearing 80’s style clothes such as tube socks with shorts, parachute pants, and male cut-off shirts. “We will be the first barcade to incorporate patented Disney Smellitzer technology to recreate the smell of mildewed carpets and body odor that was synonymous with arcades in the 70’s and 80’s.” said Gains. Pilot locations will be opening in Yee-Haw Junction Florida, Blue Ball Pennsylvania, and Walla Walla Washington.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ready Player One: The Quest for IP.

Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg, is based on a dystopian novel by Ernest Cline. Cline also contributed to the screenplay. The events of the novel set in the near future center around a pervasive virtual reality landscape called The Oasis. It is basically an ARG on steroids where people, through the use of goggles and haptic gear, escape the bleakness of society to live out their days in a fantasy realm. The creator of The Oasis, on his death, creates an Adventure style hunt with the prize being full control of The Oasis. Many parties, including the ruthless corporate antagonist IOI, race to take control for their own nefarious designs.
In order to solve the riddles placed in the game by the creator, players have to be intimately familiar with 70’s and 80’s pop culture references. While the novel is ambitious in incorporating these properties, a regular film maker would find insurmountable barriers in securing the many licenses required. Only one man has the Hollywood clout to pull off such a win; Steven Spielberg. But even he struggled to get other studios to buy-in. A job made even more difficult with his unfortunate decision not to include his own many properties that were the focus of the novel. This isn’t Spielberg’s first trip to the licensing rodeo. As producer of the Touchstone Pictures animated classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Spielberg used his substantial clout to secure licenses for characters from Betty Boop to Bugs Bunny. Since Touchstone was an arm of The Walt Disney Company, securing Mickey Mouse and friends was a non-issue.

Fast forward to 2015. Spielberg decides to direct the screen adaptation of Ready Player One. He and his team set out to secure properties integral to the story, and have relative success with all except one; Star Wars. Arguably the biggest pop culture influence in the last two centuries, Star Wars figures heavly in Cline’s novel. Since Spielberg worked his magic so well for Disney on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and to add that he recently directed the modestly successful BFG film for Disney, one would assume that the studio would cooperate. In an interview, he stated that they weren’t able to get the ok to use Star Wars from the Mouse House. Ironically, Disney itself had a similarly frustrating experience getting IP for the many video game characters featured in Wreck It Ralph, and were unable to convince Nintendo to allow the use of a certain Italian Plumber. In spite of these experiences and their history with Spielberg, Disney was being stingy with Star Wars.  However, at some point after the interview was published, Spielberg reported that Disney relented, presumably to avoid more fan backlash than the Studio was already facing from The Last Jedi. The Star Wars references in the film are little more than brief flashes of R2-D2 and an X-Wing Fighter. In a possible jab at Disney, the script features a scene where an IOI bigwig dangles the Millennium Falcon as a carrot to entice a player to give up the solution to a puzzle. The player responds with genuine disbelief that getting the ship would be possible. Here’s to hoping for more inter-studio cooperation in future films.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Separate Worlds : Black Panther Review

Marvel's new entry in the MCU, Black Panther, is more than another stand alone superhero movie. We all have come to expect visually extravagant fight and chase scenes, bold locations both real and CGI, booming sound effects with sweeping cinematic scores, and witty discourse between players. Black Panther has all of those elements, but what sets it apart from the fray, is a deeply political undercurrent intertwined with strong and broken family ties and conflicting loyalties. King T'Challa, the protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, is played again by Chadwick Boseman in his second turn in the role after Captain America Civil War. In a break from convention, the male protagonist is overshadowed by his all-female cadre consisting of a warrior general played by Danai Gurira, a spy/love interest in the form of Lupita Nyong'o. Rounding out the trifecta is Latitia White playing King T'Challa's kid sister, a tech and weapons expert ala James Bond's Q.  Chadwick's performance is serviceable as the new king, thrust into the role by the death of his father. To be fair, King T'Challa has some great scenes dealing with the sins of the father, while struggling to protect the secrecy and traditions of the world he loves.

This is a film in which protagonists and supporting cast are more fun to watch. Michael B. Jordan is Eric Kilmonger, a villain made more sympathetic by his truly heart wrenching backstory. As King T'Challa is thrust into the role, so is Eric Kilmonger, whose motivations, while nefarious, are understandable and it is hard to hate him. Anthony Serkis plays Klaw, who serves mostly as an springboard for Kilmonger's schemes. Winston Duke portrays the leader of a rival tribe who is as hilarious as he is intimidating, and dominates the too few scenes that he is in. The most amazing supporting character is the hidden city of Wakanda itself. Hidden by a cloaking shield and an impenetrable rain forest, Wakanda was built on a huge deposit of Vibranium (the strongest mineral that forms Captain America's Shield) Wakanda is a technological marvel akin to the city of Tomorrowland in the Disney film.  The architecture draws both from ancient African temples and the modern skylines of Dubai. It is a place that I would like to visit again, and probably stay.

Driving the story is the incredible score written by Ludwig Göransson. it is lush combination of African tribal rhythms with symphonic and techno elements. Like the fabled city, the soundtrack is both ancient and futuristic. Supplementing the score are hip hop songs by artist Childish Gambino with Kendrick Lamar producing. It is not an understatement to say that Black Panther is a flashpoint in popular culture that will certainly be relevant for years to come.  While providing strong African-American male and female role models, the film touches on topics of abandonment, betrayal, and the the pitfalls of isolationism and protectionism, all the while taking a not-so veiled swipe at the current political climate. As King T'Challa said, "In times of crisis, wise men build bridges, fools build  barriers."

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Finding Flubber

Today marks the 55th Anniversary of Walt Disney’s Son of Flubber, the hit sequel to The Absent-Minded Professor.  The film was released 1963 and was a rare sequel for the Disney company at the time, as Walt Disney did not approve of returning to prior works according to his "Keep moving forward" philosophy.  Many of the first film’s story ideas were not used due to budgetary and time constraints, so Walt approved going ahead with a second film. Son of Flubber (the title a parody of  the many Hollywood monster sequels of the time) continued the adventures of Dr. Brainard and his bouncy creation, Flubber and was a commercial success.

Toy company Hasbro created a real world version of the goo to capitalize on the popularity of the film.  After extensive testing for toxicity, and determining the mixture of synthetic rubber and mineral oil to be safe, Hasbro released Flubber on the hordes of eager kids in 1963. Soon after release however, reports of rashes, sore throats and folliculitis (inflammation of the hair follicles) followed by lawsuits and a full FDA investigation led Hasbro to remove the product from shelves.

One problem remained: what to do with tons of Flubber? Hasbro tried various methods to dispose of the stuff. Much to their dismay, they discovered that Flubber doesn’t burn! It emits toxic black smoke. The next logical step is burial at sea, which would have worked if Flubber didn’t float. The only other solution is to bury it. Interestingly, there are no records of Hasbro actually doing it. So, where is the Flubber? Shot out to space? Made into comfortable sofas? There is an urban legend that there is a huge cache of Flubber buried under the parking lot of Hasbro's old headquarters in Rhode Island.  However, soil tests have been negative for the chemicals associated with Flubber, and the company does not confirm actually burying it anywhere. So, the next time you are out for a walk and you have an extra spring in your step, you might just be walking on Flubber.