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.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

TRON's Sonic Legacy

Walt Disney Studios' landmark masterpiece of CG/live action wizardry, TRON, turns 35 today. Produced during Disney's "Dark Years" experimental period, TRON represented a monumental transition in creativity and focus from the WWWD (what would Walt do?) old guard to the new field
of story tellers responsible for the animation renaissance of the late 80's. The film was a painstakingly improvised hybrid of live action, CG, and traditional hand drawn animation, which is why Disney was the ideal studio for such an undertaking. Much of what audiences thought was CG was actually animation hand drawn on the film cells. While not considered a commercial success at the time, the film has gone on to spawn a franchise with a dedicated following, and has left an impression on pop culture.

The score of TRON is as much of a hybrid as the film, seamlessly combining electronic and symphonic melodies into a musical landscape for both the real and electronic worlds. The original concept was for a traditional symphonic score during the "real world" scenes, transitioning to purely electronic as we enter the electronic world of "The Grid". To helm the electronic score, Disney tapped synth pioneer Wendy Carlos. Carlos had provided early synth-based soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining and was known for atmospheric soundtracks relying primarily on synthesizers.  In the liner notes for the 20th anniversary CD release, Carlos states that she lobbied Disney to compose the entire soundtrack, citing her extensive education and background in composing for full orchestration.  The studios agreed, and the result is a full, rich score melding electronic and analog instruments for the first time in a major motion picture soundtrack.  While Carlos has revealed that time constraints enforced by the studio strained her relationship with the orchestra, she is pleased with result.

There were to be songs contributed by director Steven Lisberger's favorite rock band; Supertramp. The band, who was reportedly on the outs, declined and the studio then chose the hottest rock band of the early 80's; Journey.   Journey was riding at the top of the charts at that time with the the album "Escape" and the hit single "Don't Stop Believin'".  The song, "Only Solutions", was referenced in the film by Jeff Bridges' character, Kevin Flynn, in the line "Like the man says, 'There are no problems, only solutions'".   In an interview, guitarist Neal Schon states that they essentially threw the song together in the studio. The other song the oddly named "1990's Theme", was an instrumental by Schon and keyboardist Jonathan Cain. Both songs can be heard playing in the background during the scenes filmed in Flynn's Arcade.  The soundtrack was released on LP prior to the movie opening, however, instead of being released on  the Disneyland Records label, it was released under the Columbia records label, possibly to attract an older audience.

It would be 20 years before the soundtrack would be available on CD with a re-release on Walt Disney Records label.  Again, the studios turned to Wendy Carlos for the release, but the master tapes were in a severe state of deterioration.  In an interview, Carlos relates that she had to use a baking method to restore the masters to their original condition. The CD was released in conjunction with the 20th anniversary DVD release of the film.  The soundtrack has remained a milestone in the fusion of electronic and traditional instrumentation, and has influenced recent artists like Trent Reznor, Micheal Giacchino, and Daft Punk for their own TRON Legacy soundtrack. The soundtrack to TRON later became available (appropriately) as a digital download, coming full circle back to the Grid from whence it was conceived.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 Review

2014's Guardians of the Galaxy was an amazing film. It was a breakout hit about a Marvel team that no one, even Stan Lee, had ever heard of. The film was a departure from previous MCU films in that it was a snarky, irreverent science fiction fun-fest. 2015's Avengers Age of Ultron was a bloated, bland, soulless money maker that sucked all of the goodwill established by GOTG and Captain America Winter Soldier out of the MCU. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 falls somewhere in the middle. Whereas I loved The first film, I liked the second. The film is a fun bang-em-up CG spectacle with amazing digital set pieces, the best "de-aging" motion capture performance since Rogue One, and an awesome soundtrack of 70's and 80's cheese.

What's missing is the element of surprise that propelled the first film to such heights. The adage "lightning never strikes the same place twice" applies here, which is not necessarily the fault of the film, or its director James Gunn. The parts that made the original film work are here: flashy space battles, high body count, comedic banter between the Guardians, and signature pop songs from Awesome Mix Volume 2. Where the first film was an exercise in team building, director Gunn attempts to flesh out Star Lord's daddy issues and Gamora and Nebula's sister/daddy issues. There is even a kumbya moment as Rocket and Yondu come to terms with their messed up youth. The most well adjusted character is Drax who has come to terms with the loss of his family, and his role in his new Guardians family. New characters Mantis and Ayesha add to the mix, and Baby Groot is adorable (which ultimately proves life saving for the little sprout!) Speaking of Groot, his scenes constituted the majority of laugh out loud moments for me during the film's over two hour run. While the original film was full of opportunities for spontaneous gut busting, Volume 2's laughs were more forced, like I laughed because I thought I was supposed to.  Many scenes were drawn out to the awkward point, as when Ego started reciting the lyrics to Brandy by Looking Glass, and doesn't stop.

The film is fun, action packed, visually bombastic, and will make a ton of cash.  While containing more adult subjects than the original, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 will be a hit with families and fanboys alike, and sets up the Guardians' participation in Avengers: Infinity War. Walk, don't run to see the film and stay for the record setting 5 stingers during and post credits, along with the obligatory Stan Lee cameo. Then you will want to buy the soundtrack, obviously.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Disney Sci-Fi love at Mondo Art Show

Friday was the opening for the Disney themed Never Grow Up: A Disney Art Show by Mondo Studios.  Various prints have been previewed for the show, but now Mashable has posted several in all their glory online.  Included in the collection are multiple prints highlighting Disney science fiction and horror films.  In addition to the Atlantis poster, here are a selection of some prints that we love:

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Disney To Remake 60's Science Fiction Classic

With the string of current live-action remake hits, Walt Disney Pictures announced the plans for a remake of the classic science fiction/comedy film, Moon Pilot.  The 1962 film (celebrating it's 55th anniversary) is based on the Robert Buckner novel, Starfire, and tells the story of a reluctant astronaut Richard Talbot and his encounter with aliens on a manned mission to the moon.  The film starred Tom Tryon as the titular Air force captain, in a role that defined his career.  Costarring as the alien love interest was the gorgeous and seductive Dany Saval.  The film was a breakout success for Walt Disney Pictures at the time and ushered in a new era of science fiction comedies.  Director Stewart Raffill cited Moon Pilot as the main inspiration for his cult favorite science fiction/comedy, Ice Pirates.  Not only was the film a commercial success for the struggling Disney Studios, but the soundtrack also spawned the top 10 song, The Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae.

In a recent article, Disney CEO, Bob Iger, expressed the desire to reboot the beloved Moon Pilot franchise, and extend the film's sequels for the next 15 years.  "Although we are aware of the difficulties we faced with the Star Wars films, we are optimistic that Moon Pilot will be a viable property in the 21st Century."  The film is scheduled to start production in 2018 with Benedict Cumberbatch, fresh off the Doctor Strange debacle, hoping to restart his struggling career by portraying astronaut Talbot. In a bold casting move, The alien character Lyrae will be brought to the screen by Josh Gad.  The film will also bring back the fan-favorite space chimp, this time fully CGI realized with motion capture artist, Andy Serkis.  To capitalize on the strength of the prior film's soundtrack, the title song, Seven Moons of Beta Lyrae, will be performed by the angelic Adele Dazime.  Watch Lightears blog for more updates on this exciting film, and the Moon Pilot 55th Anniversary Disney Parks celebrations and merchandise. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Tale As Old As '91 : Beauty and the Beast Review

The following is a "spoiler free" review of Disney's new live action version of Beauty and the Beast.
By "spoiler free" we mean that you should see the film first; that is, unless you have seen the original 1991 Oscar nominated Walt Disney Pictures animated classic (that, along with The Little Mermaid, lead to the Disney animation renaissance, and spawned a film and merchandise frenzy that led the way for Tangled, Frozen, and Moana) or own the VHS Black Diamond or Walt Disney Masterpiece versions, Laser Disk, DVD/Bluray Platinum, Diamond, or Signature Editions.  

Disney's recent string of live action reboots has been mostly well received in terms of critics and box office returns, ensuring that Beauty and the Beast is guaranteed to be financially successful.  The film is a direct adaptation of the 26 year old animated adaptation of Le Belle et la Bete, the novel which was first published in 1740, and follows the well-known script and songs to the letter with the exception of a handful of new musical numbers. The studio even dusted off Celine Dion (Peabo who?) for a new ballad.  What elevates this film above a simple studio-funded cosplay is the stunning visuals, costumes, and brilliant casting.

The film was reformatted for IMAX 3-D and the visuals really pop. The contrasts between the summertime brightness of the village scenes and cold, grey eternal winter of the castle and surrounding woods are striking and provide for a clever running gag. The castle and grounds are brought to life in stunning CG and sets for the exterior and interior.  The only disappointment in sets is the infamous forbidden West Wing which, in my opinion, should have been far darker and creepier. The motion capture of the beast and other CG characters is well done.  

The weakest point of the casting is the two main characters of Belle and Beast.  Emma Watson proves to be a capable singer, but doesn't elevate her performance above a standard doe-eyed damsel.  While casting the "insufferable know-it-all" will, no doubt, bring some Potter fans, she fails to convey the odd, book nerd or the strong woman she grows into. Dan Stevens is present as the beast without any of the inner conflict of a cursed narcissistic prince learning to love another.  The story is carried by the supporting cast of Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellean, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, and Luke Evans as a spot on Gaston.

There is nothing objectionable for the target audience of young princes and princesses and their Millennial parents reliving the nostalgia of the 1991 version.  The film is beautiful, the original Alan Menken / Howard Ashman score is brilliant, and the cast is superb.  The film will be a hit out of the gate, and will ensure that the trend of Disney trolling their catalog for more live-action reboots will be continued.