Sunday, July 9, 2017
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.
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Wednesday, May 3, 2017
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
Saturday, April 1, 2017
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
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.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
After watching Rogue One last weekend, I anticipated writing a review about how much I love the new direction this film was to take. Originally conceived by writers John Knoll and Gary Whitta as an espionage story; with studio re-shoots and writer changes, we are left with another X-wing / TIE fighter battle at the film's climax. Now I love a good fighter battle as much as the next fanboy, but we've all seen it before. Add in two dimensional characters and forced laughs, and I found myself longing for the film we were promised: a spy thriller set in the Star Wars universe.
From the in-your-face fan service references that scream "Hey, remember this from the movies you liked?" to the lack of any chemistry between the characters, I had no emotional investment in the characters or plot. That is the film's biggest crime, because a lot of bad happens to the characters that I just didn't care about in the first place. Don't mention the not-so-funny reprogramed Imperial droid voiced by the very funny Alan Tudyk.
That's not to say that Rogue One doesn't take risks. One of the most striking is the exquisitely rendered CGI likeness of the late Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Far from the "uncanny valley" version of a young Jeff Bridges from the 2011 film, TRON Legacy, this doppelganger for 1977 Cushing will fool anyone who is unaware of the actor's passing in 1994. Slightly less impressive is a young Princess Leah shown toward the end of the film. Also, I think it is safe to say that Rogue One is a bloodbath of major characters, solidifying its place as a stand alone film and justifying it's PG-13 rating. For all the parents taking their little girls (and boys), with Jyn Erso figure in hand, to this film, be aware that all doesn't end well for our heroine or her friends.
I liked Rogue One for the risks it took, but I wonder what the original version would have looked like before the studio suits got their way. Here's hoping that there will be a alternate version available in the near future, but Disney typically doesn't so that sort of thing. Rogue One reveals details and fills out the Star Wars narrative well for the events leading up to A New Hope. Expect that, and you won't be disappointed.
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Marvel has a knack for making blockbuster films using relatively unknown characters from their catalog. Some of the most well received films in the MCU are outside of The Avengers, including Guardians of the Galaxy and Antman. Doctor Strange, relatively unknown to the casual, non-comic book reading fan, is the latest hero to grace the screen. The good doctor was created by artist Steve Ditko in 1963, and has been featured in comics and in a forgettable 1978 live-action made for TV movie.
The latest iteration stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Steven Strange. Cumberbatch plays to stereotype as an arrogant, egotistical neurosurgeon (they aren't really like that, are they?) who, due to a spectacular auto accident, suffers a debilitating injury to his most prized possessions; his hands. With no options available with western medicine, Steven travels to Kathmandu (leading to a hilarious Bob Seger reference) to find The Ancient One portrayed brilliantly by Tilda Swinton. Under the tutelage of mystic Mordo and stoic librarian Wong, Doctor Strange is reluctantly drawn into an age-old conflict between the mystical forces of good and evil. The main antagonist, a rogue former student of The Ancient One is played by the reliably devious Mads Mikkelsen.
Director Scott Derrickson brings a decidedly surrealistic element to the MCU with his experience directing the supernatural in films like Sinister. Writer Jon Spaiths brings science fiction cred from his involvement in Promethius. Together they deliver a visually stunning piece of surrealistic eye candy with fight scenes set in environments reminiscent of Inception and The Matrix. This is a film that really pops in Imax 3D especially during Doctor Strange's travels through multiple universes.
In a world weary of big overblown final battles ( I'm looking at you Ultron), the film chooses instead to go in a much more cerebral direction. This is a film that will please hard-core and casual fans alike, and nicely sets up a sequel with well-done end credit easter eggs. With steady pacing, brilliant casting (with a grossly underused Rachel McAdams), and mind-bending visuals, Doctor Strange will no doubt be a major blockbuster for Marvel and will lead the MCU into new, mystical directions.