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Movie Review: Transformers – The Last Knight

Rated Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo

It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, I was in the throes of doing something that I had sworn never to do again: I was anticipating the release of a Michael Bay film.

Ever since I played with Transformers toys as a kid, I like many, dreamed of seeing those crudely-animated cartoons become real-life ‘robots in disguise,’ and so too did Steven Spielberg. It was Steven who wanted Bay to direct his Dreamworks-produced Transformers film, and upon seeing Steven’s name as executive producer (and Industrial Light & Magic bringing these characters to life), I ended my ‘no Bay’ rule (temporarily). Since then, his Transformers films have been the only Bay-directed films I’ve see in theaters.

The 2007 film became the one film that I was willing to give Michael props on. However, in the 10 years since that film, the live-action series has ‘transformed’ into one built on foreign box-office, and Bay’s frat-boy hubris. And now, the fifth installment in the series has been unleashed on the world, with many wanting to know, if The Last Knight can redeem the series from the critical drubbing it took with 2014’s Age of Extinction.

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Several years have passed since the events of the last film. In that time, the Autobots are still ‘illegal aliens,’ and Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has gone into hiding with them. More Transformers have also been coming to Earth recently, with many in the United States being captured and detained by the human-led, Transformers Reaction Force (aka the TRF).

As Cade attempts to help a number of Autobots on the run from the TRF, he soon finds himself rescuing a young orphan named Izabella (Isabela Moner), and encountering a human-sized automaton named Cogman (Jim Carter). Cogman soon leads Cade to England, where along with an Oxford professor named Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), is introduced to Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins).

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L to R: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), Cogman (Jim Carter)

Burton has concluded, that something big is happening on Earth involving the Transformers, and that Cade and Vivian, are to play an integral part in these events.

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With Age of Extinction, the live-action franchise was diverted in a whole new direction. The world of the Transformers began to open up a bit beyond just the scope of our planet, as we were given hints about the Autobot’s creators, as well as a legendary group of knights, that Optimus recruited to help in the film’s final battle.

With three writers (led by Akiva Goldsman) at the helm this time, The Last Knight faces a new foe, one that has recently caused great anguish for many a film fan in other series: world-building. Apparently, numerous humans have kept hidden their association with giant mechanical robots for centuries. They were there helping King Arthur, they were there to help bring down Hitler, and given shots of numerous famous persons in Sir Edmund Burton’s study, it’s assumed they helped out many, many more humans.

Much of this information is delivered through flashback, but also in a long, drawn-out exposition by Hopkin’s character. He’s basically our ‘Morpheus’ of the piece, telling our heroes what they need to know…but not too much, err we risk not being surprised when we find some things out.

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L to R: Megatron (Frank Welker), and Colonel Lennox (Josh Duhamel)

Character-wise, there aren’t a whole lot to really root for. Almost everyone has an attitude, tries to ‘talk tough,’ and usually try to one-up the other. Probably the most level-headed character is the returning Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), who has become a reluctant member of the TRF, and seems to be the main guy leading a number of soldiers into action.

Cade and Lennox have had experience with Transformers, but every one of these films needs a human newcomer to their world, and that is Vivian Wembley, whose family history secretly connects her to our story. While being a piece to the film’s overall puzzle, she is sadly forced to banter back-and-forth with Cade, in a typical ‘animosity-equals-attraction’ storytelling form, that doesn’t seem uncommon for a Bay film.

Also adding some ‘girl-power’ to the film, is Isabela Moner, one of the most touted new members of the film’s human cast, who plays an orphaned girl in Chicago, who befriends and fixes outcast Autobots (though this skill is largely left up to our imagination, as the most we have is her spouting technical jargon). Much of the time however, her character’s personality feels like a cross between Scrappy-Doo (seriously, she tries to talk tough to Megatron!), and Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly from The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Of all the characters we’re introduced to, it feels like she could be excised out of the film entirely.

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Izabella (Isabela Moner)

We also get a hefty number of Transformers this time around, but most of the time they feel like walk-on ‘set dressing,’ delivering some smart-@$$ lines, and then disappearing from a scene. The most time we get with them is mostly comprised of scenes with Bumblebee, and Burton’s assistant, Cogman. As for Optimus, he’s in the film, but it feels like he only gets about 10 minutes of screen-time.

Along with the task of ‘world-building,’ the bigger problem with Knight, is that even though it is one of the shorter Transformers films (coming in at around 2 1/2 hours!), it feels like it just drags on too long. In a strange way, from it’s first scenes, it feels like it is in a race to juggle it’s myriad subplots, AND hit it’s designated run-time, but it just ends up throwing too much at us, too fast. By the end, I was feeling as fatigued as when I came out of 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen. In fact, the film’s pacing and storytelling even feels like a distant cousin to that film (notable in the neverending battle/ticking-clock ending!).

Like the previous films, it tries to make us feel that the human story is the one we are really interested in, but many of us are just here for the Transformers. Industrial Light & Magic continues upping their game here, from in-camera transformations, to some massive set-pieces, that would have been impossible to animate and render a decade ago.

The film also attempts to stitch together all five films, notably in how we get a number of references (and ‘easter eggs’) to previous ones (and some of the different animated series based on the characters). However, there are still questions that they never give us the answers to (like how/when did Galvatron from the last film, become Megatron again?).

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L to R: Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen)

For those wanting to see some familiar faces, cool transformations, and speeding vehicles, you’ll get that here…but, you might find yourself having to impatiently sit through a lot of exposition that may surely go over the heads of the more casual filmgoer, as Paramount Pictures and Hasbro seem intent to think you’ll be eager to get sucked into a world that wishes to compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Final Grade: C- (Final Thoughts: “Transformers – The Last Knight,” comes off as Michael Bay’s send-off to a world he helped create 10 years ago. While we get plenty of Transformers action and some huge set-pieces, the film sadly gets bogged down by it’s own hubris. The film ends up walking a rather precarious tight-rope, trying to appease seasoned viewers, while acting as a first-step for newcomers into a larger world that will be expanded upon in future installments.)

Movie Review: Cars 3 (with short: Lou)

Feature Review: Cars 3 (Rated G)

Probably out of every property that PIXAR Animation Studios has created, none has garnered more criticism and eye-rolling, than their Cars series. The studio’s Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, had longed to do a film about ‘talking cars,’ and in 2006, his journey was finally completed.

While many were lukewarm to his idea, I had been aboard the bandwagon ever since the first Cars film was announced. Wheeled vehicles have always fascinated me since I was a kid. My parents met while cruising on the streets of their Iowa hometown, my Dad and Uncles subscribed to magazines like Motor Trend, and over the years, I’d go to plenty of car shows. And of course, as a kid, cars (especially sports cars!) were exciting because of the speeds they could reach!

So, I was highly-entertained by the first Cars when it premiered in theaters in 2006, and being that I was a loyal fan of the series, I went to see Cars 2 when it came out 5 years later.

And now, we get Cars 3, which makes the series the second trilogy the studio has produced, following Toy Story.

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Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has been tearing up the racing scene for some time now, but suddenly, a new rookie begins to take the racing world by storm…Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) that is. Storm’s introduction soon changes things, as racing companies begin recruiting faster, and younger sports cars to try and compete against him.

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Pretty soon, McQueen finds himself losing ground, and seeks out the help of a trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), hoping that her skills can help him stay relevant in the world of racing.

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Cars 3 is a notable film, as much like Toy Story 3, it shows a world where it’s characters have ‘matured.’ Unlike Cars 2 that felt like an extended version of the episodic series titled Mater’s Tall TalesCars 3 feels like a distant cousin to the first Cars film. However, it’s a film that puts two tires in the past, and two in the future, straddling the finish line for Lightning, feeling a lot like some sequels these days, that tends to blend the old, with the new.

The previews do make the film out to be an exciting, fast-paced rollercoaster ride, but like the first film, the filmmakers don’t spend a whole lot of time going fast. There’s quite a number of slower scenes, whose more languid pace I can’t help but feel, will definitely have some kids squirming in their seats after awhile.

I did enjoy where the film wanted to go, showing how in the world of sports, the rookie sports star of today, will eventually have to cope with younger and faster rookies coming up around the bend.

That realization hit me personally in the last year, when I realized I had been working at a company, for as long as Pixar’s been releasing Cars films. I’ve gone from learning the ropes as a young man, to giving advice and tips as an adult to some of our younger newcomers.

What really got me excited while watching the film, was hearing and seeing old clips of Doc Hudson (Paul Newman)! The relationship that was established between Doc and Lightning in the first film is one of my favorite PIXAR friendships (and I won’t lie that I got a little misty-eyed seeing The Fabulous Hudson Hornet back in action in some scenes).

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We also get the chance to meet some older racing legends Doc knew, as well as Doc’s trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Seeing some older-model vehicles had me excited for their appearance, but sadly, it feels like they just come-and-go in the film, as quickly as they entered it.

That was something that bugged me throughout the film. We see a number of familiar faces from the first Cars, but they almost feel like minor walk-ons to just let us know they’re alive (and fortunately for some of you out there, Mater probably only figures into about 5 minutes of screentime). Even when it comes to the new racer Jackson Storm, I couldn’t help but feel like I was seeing ‘Chick Hicks 2.0,’ given how much interaction he had with McQueen.

Where the film begins to pick up it’s rhythm, is with the introduction of Cruz Ramirez. A trainer at the Rust-Eze Racing Center, Cruz becomes Lightning’s ‘Mater’ for this film. Once Lightning manages to get her out of the world of racing simulators, the film really has some fun moments, punctuated by little bits of comedy from Cristela Alonzo.

Personally, I was hoping the film would pull an Incredibles and have Sally (Bonnie Wright) assume Lightning and Cruz were off having an affair, but then again, the Cars series isn’t known for getting that ‘deep’ with some of it’s subject matter.

A highlight scene regarding Lightning and Cruz, takes place at a demolition derby in Thunder Hollow. It’s a madcap nightmare of mud, flames, and wild camerawork, that still manages to be highly entertaining (just watch out for Ms Fritter!).

Speaking of environments, the level of detail in the natural world of the film, will probably have you scrutinizing the scenes much like I was. Unlike the pastel-hued environs of the first film, the more ‘gritty’ look here, makes the vehicles seem to blend a bit more into their CG world.

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I also really got into the design aesthetic of the newer race cars. It follows the current design trend, where in the last 10 years, we’ve gone from more curved vehicle bodies, to more angular ones, with Jackson Storm’s design looking cool, yet dangerous.

While Cars 3 did entertain me in a more emotional way than Car 2, it sadly doesn’t come close to reaching that finish line that Toy Story 3 crossed. It’s a film that seems to be having it’s own mid-life crisis, struggling with it’s identity, as it tries to pull itself together.

I think when it comes to Cars 3, what you bring with you when you go to watch the film, will determine just what you get out of it once the credits start to roll.

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Short Review: Lou (Rated G)

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Taking place on a school playground, one little boy takes great pleasure in taking playthings away from his schoolmates…until a thing called Lou, decides to teach him a lesson.

I will admit, the first hints of Lou that I saw made me wonder if I was going to even like this character. Of course, I soon found myself wondering how I could have doubted Pixar. It’s introduction is cleverly shrouded in mystery, leading up to a pretty impressive reveal.

Lou ends up being both humorous, and emotional, as well as something that everyone in the audience can either relate to, or learn from, depending on your age and experience. The filmmakers do try to have a little bit of ‘bad-fun’ with how the bully takes things away from the other kids, but also never making you feel that he is justified in doing these things. However, where they take him in the story, went in a direction I didn’t see coming.

Some scenes with Lou went by so quickly, that I almost wanted to slow down the scene to eyeball some of what was done (I guess I’ll just have to wait for the Cars 3 Blu-Ray to do that).

I liked the message that was given here (with no dialogue), and I think some people would agree, it would be nice to have a few Lou’s out in our own world.

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Final Grade for “Cars 3”: B (Final Thoughts: While being stronger than “Cars 2,” “Cars 3” seems to be suffering it’s own midlife crisis, as it tries to straddle the line between it’s past, and it’s future. A decent capper to the “Cars” trilogy of films, as we follow Lightning McQueen on a rather unconventional journey for an animated sequel.)

Final Grade for “Lou”: B+ (Final Thoughts: Pixar’s latest animated short is a simple-and-sweet film that helps to show that oftentimes, niceness can trump selfishness and greed. The film’s animation on Lou is also quite an eye-opener, and will surely leave some with a smile on their face when it ends.)

 

Terrible 2’s Reviews: Speed 2 – Cruise Control

*Some people may say that most films lose their way by a third sequel, but that isn’t always the case. For every “Wrath of Khan” or “Toy Story 2,” there’s a dozen ‘number 2’ films that were made, that could not uphold the energy and enthusiasm of the first film. This review section, aims to talk about these “Terrible 2’s”*

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Oftentimes, a studio has a film that they think may be a modest hit, but are surprised when it ends up doing even better than they expected.

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Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, from “Speed”

That was the case in 1994, when Twentieth Century Fox released the movie Speed. Starring Keanu Reeves and Sandras Bullock, the story of a bus with a bomb on it, ended up cracking the Top 10 for box-office grosses that year. With over $350 million made in worldwide grosses (and on a ‘measly’ $30 million budget!), the film helped jump-start a number of careers attached to the film, and seemed to become to the 90’s, what Die Hard was to the 80’s.

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From “The Critic’s” parody trailer, for “Speed Reading.”

Shortly after it’s release, Speed quickly ended up the butt of some pop-culture jokes. Homer Simpson couldn’t recall it’s title in a Simpsons episode, only recalling it was “about a bus that had to speed around a city, keeping it’s speed over 50.”

On the TV show The Critic, it’s writers envisioned a 30-second sequel titled Speed Reading, in which Dennis Hopper’s character rigs a book to explode, and has Reeves’ character try to read it (“Bogus!”).

Of course, Fox already had high hopes for the film upon early word-of-mouth, and after seeing how well it performed over it’s first weekend, they quickly greenlit a sequel.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

When looking at the prospects of a sequel from the first film, there really didn’t seem to be much left to expand upon.

The mad bomber Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) had been taken care of, the bus had exploded, and Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), had ended up in each other’s arms.

So…how could Hollywood mess up that happy ending? In several ways.

The hook for the sequel seemed to elude the filmmakers for awhile, until director Jan De Bont recalled a recurring nightmare he would have, where a cruise ship crashed into an island. This quickly became the jumping-off point for the sequel.

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A scene from the film’s climactic (and expensive) boat crash!

And what of Jack and Annie? Well, according to Speed 2′s story (which encompassed over 6 writers!), Annie was apparently right the first time, about how “relationships based on extreme circumstances never work out.” Apparently, Jack’s involvement in the LAPD’s bomb squad and his wanting to take risks, became too much for her, and they split.

However, she didn’t get far, before she ended up dating another member of the LAPD (and our lead for this film), Alex Shaw (Jason Patric). However, unlike Jack’s high-octane position at work, Alex has claimed he simply does bicycle patrol work at the local beach. This soon turns out to be a lie, when upon taking a driver’s test, Annie runs into Alex on assignment for the LAPD’s SWAT team.

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Annie (Sandra Bullock) and Alex (Jason Patric)

That’s our Annie: just wants a nice quiet LAPD officer, but keeps ending up with the guys who are livin’ on the edge, 90’s style!

This story tries to show us that Alex IS actually more of a settling-down guy than Jack, as he convinces her to go on a caribbean cruise, where he intends to propose to her.

However, Alex’s calming getaway plans are put on hold, when a man named John Geiger (played by Willem Dafoe), comes aboard, with a major revenge plan, and his own agenda.

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Doing It For the Money

“I want money, Jack. I wish I had some loftier purpose, but, I’m afraid it all comes down to the money, Jack” – Howard Payne, Speed (1994)

Sure, the creation of sequels to successful films usually means that bigger paydays are in order, but when it came to Speed, many from that film felt there really was no need to continue what seemed a pretty simple story.

However, some of the cast and crew couldn’t say no to a bigger paycheck from the studio.

While Titanic was on many person’s minds that year with it’s rocky production stories and $200 million budget, Speed 2 came up with budget estimates between $100-120 million. To many, that seemed excessive when compared to it’s first film’s more ‘modest’ budget.

One of the most famous stories regarding money and the cast, was Keanu Reeves turning down a payday of over $10 million to appear in the sequel. Instead, Reeves chose to tour with his band (Dogstar), and star in The Devil’s Advocate instead.

Sandra Bullock also was going to turn down the sequel, but she accepted the studio’s payday (for $11-13 million!), with the added caveat that Fox fund a film she wanted to make (1998’s Hope Floats).

Of course, most sequels usually bring back a few familiar, supporting characters to earn a few extra dollars, and that happened with two actors from the first film

Joe Morton returned as LAPD officer McMahon, though having gone down from a Captain’s role, to that of a Lieutenant.

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The legacy of “Tuneman” lives on, in “Speed 2: Cruise Control.”

One of the more memorable minor characters from the first film, was Maurice (Glenn Plummer). In Speed, Reeves’ character commandeers his Jaguar to get onto the bus. In the sequel, Plummer’s character is now living on the island that the ship crashed into. Almost as a nod to the first film, Patrick’s character commandeers Maurice’s new mode of transportation, a boat (also bearing the name “Tuneman,” just like his Jaguar’s license plate).

The writers even throw in a little referential jab, when Maurice finds out Allen is also a member of the LAPD (“Do you know how many hours of therapy I’ve had because of you guys?”).

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Amping up the] Extras

In the first Speed, the passengers on the bus were somewhat one-dimensional, but they still managed to stay entertaining.

When it comes to the passengers that Bullock and Patric encounter, it feels almost like they are there to be examples of ‘possible futures’ for Alex and Annie.

Because it’s a cruise ship, the majority of the passengers our leading couple meet, are married couples with problems of their own.

They range from a newly-wed couple, to a bitter middle-aged couple, and even one couple that have brought their deaf daughter with them, who seems to be having issues ‘communicating’ with her father, on an emotional level.

The film tries to use the daughter as a ‘plot-device’ soon enough. First with the revelation that Alex knows sign-language and can communicate with her, but later, she ends up in a perilous situation, and he springs into action to save her.

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Not quite Dennis Hopper, but Just as Nuts

Though having a minor role in Speed, method-actor Dennis Hopper made his few moment on screen count, as the logically-psychotic Howard Payne. Payne was a former bomb-squad member, who had decided to use his skills to try and claim ransom given his age and health.

For the sequel, the idea seemed to be to find someone who could be even crazier than Dennis Hopper, and who better fits that bill, than the freaky-faced, Willem DaFoe?

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John Geiger (Willem Dafoe)

Yep. If you saw that bug-eyed image of DaFoe online, and wondered where it came from…now you know! That’s one of several shots of him mugging for the camera as this film’s bad guy.

DaFoe’s John Geiger however, just ends up becoming ‘Payne 2.0.’ Upset that his cruise ship designing company jettisoned him after he got copper poisoning, Geiger’s main plans are to get away with the fortune in jewels aboard the ship, but soon just decides to become another ‘mad-bomber,’ and sets the ship on a collision course with an oil tanker later on.

Dafoe does get more screentime than Hopper, but most of the time he’s just mugging for the camera, and being someone whom Sandras Bullock can just scream “let go” to over and over again (seriously, you could make a drinking game out of how many times she says those two words to Geiger).

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Upping the (Effects) Ante

Much publicity was made over the implausible bus-jump in the first Speed film, which used minimal amounts of effects and model-work to tell it’s story.

For the sequel, the boat-crash scene at the end, became it’s centerpiece event. Rather than opt for miniatures, Jan de Bont wanted to do the crash into the island at full-scale.

The scene would cost upwards of $25 million, to construct everything from false buildings, to a recreation of the ship’s bow, which was placed onto 50-ft of underwater track for the sequence.

For less-practical effects, digital effects houses Industrial Light & Magic and Rhythm & Hues, would tag-team on the film.

ILM took on the brunt of the effects work that dealt with the cruise ship (such as using a digital model in the the ship-crash scenes), while R&H handled some of the more low-key shots, such as compositing in propellers and bubbles when Patric’s character attempts to slow down the ship underwater.

They also contributed to the fiery oil tanker explosion at the end of the film, as seen below.

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“Cow.”

Given the debris flying into the air, Rhythm & Hues added a little in-joke regarding director Jan de Bont. It’s not noticeable on the screenshot, but one piece of debris that is thrown into the air from the explosion, is a cow (a little nod to de Bont’s previous summer blockbuster, Twister).

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With Titanic being pulled from their release schedule due to editing and effects issues, Fox was left to hedge their summer bets on Speed 2.

At the time of it’s release, I recall how they really ramped up advertising on it, hoping to draw the crowds in. They even got a segment on Dateline NBC, telling how they filmed the climactic ship crash.

The film did open at Number one it’s opening weekend, but it was considered a ‘soft opening,’ given it’s $23 million weekend draw. However, staying power was not in the cards for Speed 2 like it’s predecessor, and by the end of the Fourth of July Holiday Weekend, it sank from the Top 10 weekly grosses, eventually making back less than $50 million domestically.

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Revised advertising poster for the film, with Siskel and Ebert’s “approval”

The critics weren’t kind to it either, with almost every major critic claiming it had few redeeming qualities…except for two big names.

On their At The Movies TV show, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert claimed that they actually enjoyed it! I still recall Ebert claiming that while it wasn’t a great movie, it was still a good one, and even Siskel was contented enough, that the film ended up getting the duo’s “Two Thumbs Up” approval, which Fox has whoringly thrown onto all of the films’ advertising materials, even to this day.

During the 1997 awards season, the Annual Razzie Awards (a group that consider themselves “The Anti-Oscars”), nominated the film for eight of it’s awards, including Worst Screenplay, and Worst Picture. Out of all the nominations, they did win Worst Remake or Sequel, beating out the likes of Batman & Robin, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

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I was willing to give Speed 2 a chance when it came out, but after seeing it, I felt there really was nothing more to say. To me, the film is still an example of the over-bloated spectacle of 90’s cinema. It’s less of a film, and more of a ‘manufactured product.’

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The one thing I do remember most from that summer-afternoon screening, was the erratic ‘shaky-cam’ during the boat-and-plane chase scene at the end. We often complain about too much ‘shaky-cam’ in our films today, but I recall how just trying to watch this scene was a chore, as I struggled between the camerawork and the editing, to pull together some coherency over what was happening.

Many years later when I saw it was on Amazon Prime, I gave the film another viewing, but found my opinions hadn’t changed much over the years. Most of the time, it just feels like one of those parties where everyone shows up out of obligation…but in truth, noone wants to be there.

At the time, I felt a sequel to Speed should have encompassed a plane, given the greater probability for crashing, let alone a tense passenger scenario. The cruise ship concept was pretty ludicrous overall, given that it was a rather slow-moving ship on a large body of water. I often joke that since we had Speed 2: Cruise Control, if they did a third film with a plane, they could call it Speed 3: Air Conditioning.

The only really good thing I can say about the film, is that I do enjoy what composer Mark Mancina brought to our ears.

Mancina first captivated me with his hyper-kinetic music in the first Speed film, and after hearing his Oklahoma-meets-action stylings for 1996’s Twister, I was prepared for what he had here.

Most notable with this film’s score, is how he takes the original film’s driving strings theme, and adds an extra later of adrenaline to the mix, almost like a second heartbeat. Sadly, there would be no release for the film’s score until 2010, when Lalalandrecords released a 14-track album (limited to only 3,000 copies).

Movie Review: Batman & Bill

The title Batman and Bill, may sound like some new personalized TV concept from Hulu, but sometimes, perceptions can be deceiving.

For years, I and many others had been used to seeing artist Bob Kane’s name on anything Batman-related, assuming he was the full creator of one of comic’s most famous characters. However, there was one name that was often pushed out of sight, except by a select few. That name, was Bill Finger.

Throughout the years, Finger’s name would pop up in conversations with Kane and others in the comics industry. Some could easily assume Bill was one of the many ‘ghost artists/writers’ over the years who worked on the comics, but unlike an artist hired on for a small stint, Bill worked with Bob for several decades, starting at the creation of Batman!

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Bill Finger’s only credited ‘Batman’ writing role, featured in the “Batman TV Series” (1967)

While Kane may have gained notoriety for drawing the character, much of Batman’s mythos was created and written by Finger. He not only helped shape Batman’s intimidating look, but was also responsible for the creation of many of the series’ characters, and even came up with the nickname, “The Dark Knight.”

Bill would write over 1,500 Batman-related stories (often going to great lengths to research what went into them), but was never given any credit in the comic books. It wasn’t until the 1967 Batman TV series episode, The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes, would Bill’s name finally be associated with the character he co-created.

However, while that one episode gave Bill a chance to shine, he remained largely hidden in the shadows of Bob Kane. Over the years, many would try to give Bill Finger proper creative credit, but none roared loud enough, until author Marc Taylor Nobleman.

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Marc Taylor Nobleman

Upon researching the history of the Batman character, and finding out Finger’s importance, Marc set off on a quest worthy of “the world’s greatest detective”: to find out everything he could about Bill, and maybe, get him and his family the recognition that had been denied him for over 75 years.

Directed by Don Argott (Rock School) and Sheena M Joyce (The Atomic States of America), the film is a simple-yet-intriguing documentary, with Nobleman (whose name sounds perfect for a comic character!) being the main focal point.

The film could easily have ended up as simply a large progression of ‘talking heads,’ but to illustrate the life and times of Bill Finger and his family, the filmmakers turned to a company called Alkemy X. They created the animated, comic book-style imagery for references to Bill’s journey, that prove to be a real, emotional treat.

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Alkemy X image, of Bill Finger and Bob Kane, designing the look for “The Batman.”

A number of notable Bat-fans are included as well. There’s commentary by Kevin Smith and Michael Uslan (the executive producer on all modern Batman films), as well as those who actually knew Bill (like his friend, Charles Sinclair).

It should be noted, that while there is some flak thrown towards Kane and how he seemed to deny Finger credit (Kane didn’t even share the 1966 TV show’s monetary successes with Bill!), there is very little hate on-screen for the man. I found this largely admirable with many parties, who at the most, simply wanted Bill to just get some recognition.

Where the film trips up for me, is in it’s last third.

This area deals with those who knew Bill, along with his surviving family and descendants, including his granddaughter, Athena Finger. Though having never met Bill, she did recall some stories her father (Finger’s only son, Fred) told her. Through Marc Nobleman, her role in the story, becomes about finding acceptance and closure regarding her family’s legacy.

I can understand the filmmakers wanting to give the family it’s 15 minutes of fame, but it feels like they spend a little too much time with Finger’s family members, and it seems to slow down the momentum of the film in some places.

Marc Nobleman’s quest also seems to suffer a bit from the filmmaker’s overuse of his fanaticism for Batman as well. A few instances that could be simple little mentions, are fleshed out a little too much in certain areas.

With some tighter editing, the film could have clocked in a little shy of it’s one hour and thirty-five minute mark, but I feel it might have been a little stronger if these changes had been made.

Even so, much of the documentary was very intriguing, as we start with a number of puzzle pieces, and slowly, we see them come together.

Of course, it’s a sure bet that this documentary will not be for everyone. There will be those fervent fans who will stand by Bob Kane’s word over the years, and say Bill Finger was not the man whom Nobleman and others claim him to be. However, I for one believe them, and though the film is not one of the best entertainment-related documentaries out there, it has enough amazing insight and storytelling, to keep you entertained, and maybe, make you a believer too!

*Note: At the time of this review, this documentary is only accessible through the Hulu channel and digital app.*

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Final Grade: B (Final Thoughts: “Batman and Bill” is the little documentary that blows open the doors to a secret that could have been buried forever. It’s chronicles of how author Marc Nobleman helped Bill Finger’s family and legacy, is one that is definitely entertaining, albeit largely ‘safe’ in it’s multi-generational story of an entertainment legend that struggles to become fact. The editing at times does get a bit loose, but overall, a very entertaining and informative film.

Movie Review : Your Name (Kimi no na wa)

Rated PG for thematic elements, suggestive content, brief language, and smoking

As much as I may say a film’s story or it’s emotional aesthetic should be a litmus test for how good it is…sometimes, money does talk, and makes people like me take notice. Especially, if the films are animated, and not easily accessible within this country.

That was the case in 2001, when word came that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, had become one of the most successful anime productions in Japan.

History seemed to repeat itself almost 15 years later when last year, word came of a new animated film, that was electrifying the Japanese box-office. Titled Your Name (or Kimi no na wa), it finally made it’s way to US shores this Spring, courtesy of Funimation Films.

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After watching a brightly-colored comet streak through the heavens, we find ourselves focusing on two teenagers: Mitsuha Miyamizu (Moni Kamishiraishi), and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki).

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L to R: Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki), Mitsuha Miyamizu (Moni Kamishiraishi)

The two have never met, with Mitsuha living in a small village in Central Japan’s countryside, and Taki growing up amid the skyscrapers of Tokyo. However, over the course of several weeks, circumstances will bring them together, in the most unbelievable ways.

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Writer/director Makoto Shinkai is quick to thrust us into a story where it soon becomes apparent, that we’ll need to use our brains, in order to decipher just what is going on in the lives of our two main leads.

It is notable how we also see a contrast in the lives of these two teenagers. While Taki is used to the big city, Mitsuha looks upon it with wonder, as she comes from a village where a dentist office or even a cafe are non-existent. Plus, we even see how the cost of living differs between them (a meal in a Tokyo cafe, costs as much as she could spend on a month’s worth of food in her village!).

The filmmakers also attempt to add in some risque humor in a few instances. While they don’t turn the film into an overtly-sexual teen romp, a recurring joke in regards to Mitsuha, feels like they should have stopped after the first few times.

There are also some nice little instances of ‘body language’ added to the animation, and some minor storypoints in regards to pronunciation of certain words. I will admit, this kind of stuff might go over better with the original Japanese viewers (I can only wonder how the little verbal differences were handled in the English dub, as I preferred seeing the film with it’s original Japanese dialogue).

The film also dabbles in thoughts regarding the spiritual realm, as well as the world of dreams. The concept of ‘memory,’ also becomes an underlying layer as the film progresses as well.

A number of people online, have also compared this film to some of the works of Hayao Miyazaki. However, I think such comparisons are mainly in regards to the rendered environments we see throughout the film.

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Make no mistake: the imagery in this film has the kind of detail that, like in a Ghibli film, you’ll want to fall into and just immerse yourself in.

Though Shinkai based the film’s screenplay off of his originally-published story, I am curious as to the embellishments he may have made. Unfortunately for the flow of the film, it feels like he tends to overdo the use of visuals in a few areas.

Most striking to me, is how he gives the film an intro, almost reminiscent of the manic types of openings one would normally find in an anime television series. It shows us our main characters, before their more ‘looser’ introduction within the story of the film, when we could get a better chance to start getting to know them.

Plus, we get a small music video-style montage 1/4 of the way through the film. I will admit to getting caught up in the catchy music of the soundtrack’s band Radwimps (yes, you read that right), but it feels like this bit seems to stop the film cold for a few minutes.

Of course, most surprising was that almost halfway through the film, one assumes it will zig in a usual manner, but instead, zags in a most surprising way.

 

There are also a few areas, where we are given a lot of information, but it almost becomes a bit too much. Some scenes felt like a muddled sensory overload of information, when a less-is-more approach probably could have made them ‘read’ as more emotional.

As I watched the film, I found myself sitting upright in rapt attention for some parts, but most surprisingly, the emotional resonance of some scenes, just wasn’t sucking me in. I think this is one of the director’s faults when it comes to the execution of the film: at times, it feels a bit too ‘clinical,’ in trying to be ’emotional.’

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While some are apt to think of references to Studio Ghibli, Your Name’s tone and atmosphere, reminded me a bit of the works of author Haruki Murakami, as well as an anime titled, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. There’s also a South Korean film from 2000 that I’d throw in as a reference too, but if I did, I might release a major spoiler.

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Final Grade: B (Final Summary: “Your Name” gives us a science fiction/romance/comedy, that manages to do it’s own thing, and takes it’s storytelling to places that are not as pedestrian as  most animated teenage love stories. However, it feels like writer/director Makoto Shinkai could have tightened up his story in certain places. Some of his uses for visuals gets a bit too over-the-top in places, and a few gags that may have been funny in a smaller dose, are milked a bit too long in other places. However, some character-building scenes and the film’s stunning imagery, will probably overwhelm even the most jaded of audience members.)


Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

‘Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images

Of all the animated features that were released during my youth, Beauty and the Beast is one of those that is at the top, when it comes to animated features that made me consider pursuing a career in animation.

I was enthralled by Glen Keane’s designs for the Beast, the wonderful songs and lyrics of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and a story that delivered on a satisfyingly emotional level, that I hadn’t yet encountered in animated films at that time.

Of course, when it comes to turning animated features into live-action movies, I approached the studio’s recent take on Beauty and the Beast with some trepidation. I had been intrigued by what Kenneth Branagh brought to Cinderella in 2015, but felt little need to see Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book adaptation last year.

Of course, being the glutton for punishment that I am, I bought the ticket, and decided to ride the ride, to see what a live-action version of this “tale as old as time” had in store for audiences.

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In the small provincial town of Villeneuve, resides Belle (Emma Watson), and her artistically-inclined father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). Of those living in the village, Belle is seen as an anomaly amongst the townspeople, though entrances a former army captain named Gaston (Luke Evans), who wishes to make her his wife.

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The Beast (Dan Stevens)

One day on a trip, Maurice stumbles upon a snow-shrouded castle, and plucks a rose for his daughter, enraging the castle’s Beastly owner (Dan Stevens). Belle willingly trades her life for her father’s, and soon meets the castle’s enchanted servants (played by Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and many more), who hope she can break the spell they are under.

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From the early word and trailer imagery, Disney made few attempts to hide that they were attempting to translate the 1991 film (and some of it’s successful Broadway stage adaptation) to the big-screen.

The live-action film doesn’t stray far from it’s roots, and like any adaptation these days, attempts to fill in the blanks, and embellish the story we know so well.

Did you ever wonder just where Belle and Maurice came from? How about what led the Beast to be such a pompous jerk in the first place? We get those answers here, as well as some vague motivations surrounding the Enchantress who cursed the Beast and his servants.

Composer Alan Menken returns to the world he helped create, but has brought on Tim Rice (whom he worked with on Aladdin), to make a few alterations to the film’s music. Some lines are changed from previous works, and a few songs add in bits from the original demo tracks of the animated feature (which were co-written by Menken’s former collaborator, the late Howard Ashman). The Beast even get his own solo (much like in the Broadway production), but none of the newer musical pieces seemed to enthrall me. We even get Celine Dion back, singing a song at the end, that feels more like an afterthought.

When it comes to behind-the-scenes names, Director Bill Condon should be familiar to many when it comes to musicals-on-film. He wrote the adapted screenplay for Chicago, and directed the film adaptation of Dreamgirls back in 2006.

One would assume his pedigree with adapted musicals would be a slam-dunk for this production. Unfortunately, BatB seems to suffer from some ‘speed issues’ when it comes to holding it all together.

I haven’t seen enough of Condon’s filmography to pass proper judgement, but with this film, he really seems to step on the gas-pedal, when the film has to shift into it’s musical numbers, or require a lot of visual effects. Some of the numbers fly by so fast, I was struggling to figure out where my eye was supposed to be focused on (this was most problematic during the Be Our Guest number, which felt like he was trying to ape Baz Luhrmann’s manic Moulin Rouge numbers).

It isn’t until the halfway mark, that the film seems to finally catch it’s breath. In those moments, Condon shows that when he slows down, he can really get to work on making us focus on the characters and their development.

Deep down, I feel that if the film had been more like 2015’s Cinderella, and been less of an adaptation of the animated feature, it would have been more palatable, and stronger in it’s emotional resonance.

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Belle (Emma Watson)

The ‘palette’ of the film, seems to derive itself from 19th century French landscapes. I will admit during the early bits in the village, as we see the landscape surrounding it, I found myself making note of the soft color palette of the backgrounds, almost as if the filmmakers were attempting to make it look like the characters had stepped into a painting.

The film also attempts to pay some small homages to it’s roots. The village is named after the original author of the tale, and, Maurice attempts to bring Belle a rose from the Beast’s garden, which was part of the original story.

However, much  like the story here, the characters can be rather give-and-take as well.

Sadly, Emma Watson did not enthrall me with her singing voice, but she can deliver in certain moments when it comes to emotions. There is an added character point, that Belle is a forward-thinking young woman in the eyes of her rather mundane village, but it just feels like an afterthought as the story goes on.

Dan Stevens as the Beast, has the task of working through motion-capture, that works ‘most’ of the time. The live-action Beast is a bit like the early concept of a ‘man with a beast head,’ rather than the more animalistic creation of master animator Glen Keane. The concept works some of the time, but mostly in the quieter moments.

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Gaston (Luke Evans), and LeFou (Josh Gad)

Luke Evans’ take on Gaston is different from the muscle-bound lothario we all know. A war veteran who seems to satiate his lust for war by hunting, this take on the character is a bit less hunky, and more mental in several of his decisions…though not by much.

One of the highlights of the film regarding comedy, is Josh Gad as LeFou. Every other word out of his mouth just made me and the audience chuckle, and unlike his animated counterpart, he’s given a bit of character growth. I have a feeling many will find Gad just as entertaining here, as he was as Olaf in Frozen.

When it comes to the enchanted objects of the castle, I was hoping they would enthrall me as much as their animated counterparts did, but that was not the case here.

There are no cartoonish features, or large white eyes to draw one’s attention. Instead, the designers try to take an object’s parts and decoration, and make them into faces (or in the case of Lumiere, just make a miniature man holding candles, with another atop his head!). This may look good in close-ups or when a character is being still, but once they start moving around, I found it maddening, trying to keep track of where an eye or a nose is!

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Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci)

A prime example, is Maestro Cadenza, who has been turned into a harpsichord (and played by Stanley Tucci). His keys and music stand are meant to stand in for his mouth and facial features, but I found myself struggling to figure out where his eyes were, let alone his nose and moustache when the camera focused on him ‘talking.’

There is a sliver of an attempt to give the enchanted objects a bit more characterization, but many of the group scenes feel rather poorly staged, and some that involve dozens of other CG-created objects moving about, feel too busy with motion, for us to figure on where to focus our attention.

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Almost 25 years ago, at a swap meet in San Diego, CA, I picked up a book that would change my life forever: The Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast.

The book has been a part of my life since then, and has been in the hands of (and signed by!) several persons associated with the animated Beauty and the Beast.

At the end of the book, the final pages tell how the next generation of Disney animators (in 1991), screened the film for their predecessors (several of whom had worked with Walt Disney himself). After the screening, instead of high praise, word was the new generation was met with: “Eh, it’s kind of like what we did.”

That line was in my head tonight. As the film went on, a number of names I had memorized from that making-of book, popped into my head. Looking at some scenes, I was thinking things like, “Glen Keane did that better,” or “Nik Ranieri made that characterization read so much clearer!”

The film definitely doesn’t skimp on the effort, but it sadly feels like another adapted production, that could have been much more solid, had it not been tied so closely to it’s animated counterpart.

The film seems to try and fly by moreso with it’s visuals and putting Emma Watson front-and-center, when what it needed more of in my opinion, was a story that could be just as emotionally involving today, as the animated feature was to me and millions of others, once upon a time.

Final Grade: B-

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Holiday Special Review: Rapsittie Street Kids – Believe in Santa

Back in December of 2002, I recall going on the messageboards for Animationnation (where a number of industry people hung out), and hearing about a special that had just premiered on The WB television network.

The posts told of a show that had many aghast. Bad animation, horrible dialogue, and this was being touted as a Holiday Classic by the network!

Of course, by the time I heard about it, it had already come and gone, with the network covering up all traces of it’s existence.

A few people like myself wrote about the short, using the scant amount of knowledge we could find. Sources included the poorly-made webpage telling how the Rapsittie Kids were going to become just as endearing as Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, and a short clip that ended up on Youtube, looking like a middle-school project on learning how motion graphics work.

Then, in September 2015, I was informed that a copy of the special (all 45 minutes of it!), had been obtained by The Lost Media Wiki. And with that information, I soon found myself sitting down to watch Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, made by the creative geniuses at Wolf Tracer Studios (makers of that other hit animated short, Dinosaur Island!).

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Rick E (Walter Jones) has a crush on one of the most popular girls in his class, named Nicole (Paige O’Hara). However, Rick E doesn’t have enough money to give her a Christmas gift.

He then decides to give her his teddy bear, which was given to him by his mother. However, Nicole is not impressed by Rick E’s gift ‘from the heart,’ and throws it away.

It is only afterwards does she realize the significance of the teddy bear, and with a few of her friends, attempts to get it back.

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So, after watching this Holiday Special, is it truly as bad as those messageboard posts I read back in 2002 made it out to be?

Yes…yes, it is!

The images in this review are no joke: they are actual screen-captures from the ‘finished product!’

Since it’s release, noone from the production has ever stepped forward to give their side of the story, on why the special looks the way it does. Word was that the show was completed in 4 months. And frankly, I can believe it.

rap-2Most of the backgrounds look like they were rendered on-the-cheap, and we see a number of clipart images rubber-stamped over-and-over in certain places.

Plus, just look at the fine craftsmanship on the sign outside of Rick E’s school (see right).

Characters also move around like they’ve been pasted onto background plates. Some shots linger too long on nothing, and the faces…their horrible, horrible faces!

Most of the characters look like their eyes are in serious danger of popping out of their sockets, and the computer-generated characters, almost make me wish the creators would have attempted something closer to the flat, 2-D look of South Park. At least if they went in that direction, I assume the characters wouldn’t look quite as grotesque.

Rick E is meant to be our main lead, giving off hip-hop vibes with every other line he says. Once we get to his school, we meet a number of other characters and their subplots…most of which can barely hold our interest.

It also doesn’t help that most of the other kids, are little more than one-dimensional bullies. Even Nicole is quite condescending, putting down her friend Lenee’s talk about Santa Claus, leading to a minuscule subplot of Lenee questioning her beliefs.

Even the adults are largely useless. The kid’s teacher comes across as constantly annoyed, and does nothing to keep order in her class. We see her letting kids throw things at other kids, and even dismissing sexual harassment by students (“that means he likes you,” the teacher tells one girl, who is annoyed at one boy touching her!).

rap-3And then, there’s Rick E’s Great Grandma.

It’s crazy enough that we see her wandering around outside without a coat in one scene, but when she starts talking…well…it sounds like Rick E is just trying to ignore that his caretaker might need some medical attention.

Maybe this was some strange way of trying to make Great Grandma reminiscent of the unseen adults talking in the Peanuts specials, but if so, why is it that she is the only adult who sounds like her audio is getting eaten by the tape player?

Speaking of voices, what may make some people do a double-take, are the list of known voice-actors they got for this. Some of the big ones include Mark Hamill, Jodi Benson, Paige O’Hara, and Nancy Cartwright. My guess is someone just offered them a quick pay-day, they read through their lines in a few hours, and then never had a second thought about what they had done voice-work for.

Paige O’Hara and Jodie Benson each get a chance to sing, but their songs are hindered by bad lyrics and stilted animation. It doesn’t help when most of the songs are largely based on repeating a number of the same words over and over again.

rap-4Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, shows that there are plenty of badly-made Holiday specials, that most have never heard of. The story contained here, makes the animated Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer actually look like a Holiday Classic! Heck, the $60 million atrocity known as Food Fight, even looks competent next to this thing!

The production values look like one of my college’s Team Animation groups, trying to stretch out their 3-minute project to feature-length, but without the necessary talent or tools to do so.

The story of Rick E’s bear is a decent jumping off point for a story, but the special’s ‘good intentions’ are quickly buried in a landslide of bad animation, one-dimensional characters, and a production that was mainly interested in making their final product ‘faster,’ and ‘cheaper.’

At the end of Believe in Santa, a cutesy voice tells how the Rapsittie Street Kids would be back, in A Bunny’s Tale. As it stands now, we’re still left wondering just what horrors would have awaited the Easter Bunny, from Wolf Tracer Studios.

Final Grade: D

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