Friday, August 12, 2016

Movie Review - Pete's Dragon (2016)

Before I start this review, I must preface that the original classic musical version of Pete's Dragon is one of my favorite Disney films of all time. For me, it is up there with Mary Poppins itself. So, needless to say, I did not warm up to the idea of a non-musical dramatic remake.

Let's be clear. This film isn't a musical. It doesn't have bumbling white slaver hillbillies. It doesn't have a lovable drunkard lighthouse keeper. There isn't a flamboyant snake oil man and his equally lovable drunkard assistant. And it doesn't have Helen Reddy. In fact, the only similarities is that there is a boy named Pete and his friend dragon Elliott and, one day, Pete is taken in by a young woman who has an eccentric father.

Instead of taking place in idyllic turn of the century Passamaquoddy, Maine, the film takes place in early 80s Millhaven, Oregon. Pete's (Oakes Fegley) parents are killed in a car accident and he is adopted by Elliott, a dragon of legend in the nearby forest, who has protected him for the last 5 years. Pete lives in bliss, unaware of the outside world, until a showdown between lumberjacks and forest rangers reveals him to the public.

It's interesting because I noticed that the original 1977 film seems to hold a special place to many people, particular men, around my age (the mid to late 40s range). I'm not exactly sure why we love the movie so much, but we do. But, for me, I think it might be in part to being around the age of Pete at the time and wanting to have a dragon of my own. So, with that, I went into the new Pete's Dragon by deconstructing it to that level - a boy with a dragon.

And, with that, I loved it. And, that's because I believed the relationship between Pete and Elliott. A big part of the success of this film is Oakes Fegley who plays Pete. His performance reminded me of Neel Sethi as Mowgli in this year's remake of The Jungle Book. He was just perfect. I not only believed his relationship with Elliott, but that he survived in a forest for 5 years. His smile is just infectious. He can make you either laugh or cry with just one look.

As for Elliott himself, I thought he would bug me because he was so different from the original. His wings are dragon sized and he looks more like a classic dragon. But, fortunately, he still has the same kind of lovableness and charm as the original. It took some adjustment, but, sooner rather than later, I believed in him. 

Truth be told, I'm not the biggest fan of Bryce Dallas Howard. But, I enjoyed her in the film. She plays Grace, the soft spoken forest ranger with a heart of gold. There is a moment between Grace and Pete where Pete begins to trust her that simply made me cry. And, that was due to both of their performances. 

Oona Lawrence's Natalie, the daughter of Grace's fiance Jack (Wes Bentley), was a nice addition to the film. Natalie serves as another touchstone for Pete...somebody to relate in this brave new world he's entered. Wes Bentley's Jack is fine, but not really a necessary character. On some levels, neither is Robert Redford's Meacham. But, hello, it's Robert Redford playing an eccentric man who holds the legend of a dragon and who believes in magic.

Karl Urban plays Gavin, Jack's brother, who serves as the villain of the movie. He's a foreman for the lumber mill run by Jack and feels he has something to prove. He discovers Elliott in the forest with his minions and wants to hunt him down for fame and glory. It's quite a departure from Jim Dale's fabulous Doc Terminus. But, I think Urban's Gavin makes more sense given the context and tone of the film. And, I think Urban does a nice job of making Gavin a jerk, but not necessarily evil.

Now, I've been asked which version I like better. First of all, there's nothing that can make me not love the original. Again, its such a special film to me. But, I can say that I did enjoy the new film and thought they did a good job. It makes me a little sad that this will be the Pete's Dragon to another generation, but, at least I can say I'm a fan of both.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Movie Review: Finding Dory

When they first announced the sequel to "Finding Nemo," I was a little wary. First, "Finding Nemo" is one of my favorite Pixar films which, I felt, had a finite ending. But, as we've seen, Pixar's track record for sequels has been spotty, more recently leaning to the mundane and less inspired side. But, I have to admit that "Finding Dory" is a lot of fun. 

Before I start, there are SPOILERS AHEAD.

The story is rather simple. Instead of trying to find Nemo, this film has Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) trying to find Dory's parents and where she originally came from. It turns out she comes from an Aquarium in Morro Bay, California and, with the aid of Crush (Andrew Stanton) and Squirt (Bennett Dammann), the trio are transported there via the California Currrent. Dory manages to get separated from Marlin and Nemo and finds herself in quarantine at the Aquarium where she meets Hank (Ed O'Neill), the "septopus" since he has seven legs. Hank wants her tag which will allow him to stay in the Aquarium rather than being released into the ocean. Dory agrees to give it to him if he will help her navigate the Aquarium to get to her parents. During this journey, she meets (or gets reacquainted with) Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a near sighted Whale Shark, and Bailey (Ty Burrell), a sonar challenged Beluga Whale. In the meantime, Marlin and Nemo try to break in and find help in friendly California Sea Lions Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West) who enlist the help of a loon Becky who flies them in via bucket. Madness ensues and all the animals end up free with Dory reunited with her parents.

The movie borrows heavily in plot from the original in terms of an adventure from home to another place (although, this tends to be the plot for most Pixar films). And, what is it with friendly predators who have accents. Ironically, the fact that the California Sea Lions had British accents made no sense at all, but...hey, I love Idris Elba and Dominic West. So I was able to let it go. But, there was also enough of a difference. Instead of taking place in the sea, we get to see a fish eye's view (pun intended) of what it's like to be in an Aquarium. One of the funniest moments is when Dory and Hank end up in the touch pool where kids are allowed to hold the sea life. I have actually wondered what the starfish and sea cucumbers that usually end up in these pools feel. And, so, it was quite entertaining to watch and, I have to admit, will make me think twice when I touch the animals. Another hilarious gag was Dory's thinking she was being guided by Sigourney Weaver, who provides the narration for the Aquarium.  I loved the new characters, particularly Hank who's slow and cooler personality contrasts well with Dory's high energy frenetic personality.

All the voice actors were great, but a big part of the success of the movie is Ellen DeGeneres as Dory who brings her scatter brained antics to the character and keeps us laughing throughout.

Is "Finding Dory" a groundbreaking film? No. But, I was thoroughly entertained throughout and would watch it again. It's one I would own on Blu-Ray and/or Digital HD. Be sure to stay through the credits for a fun little scene.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Easter Eggs at Disney California Adventure's Marvel Meet-And-Greet Area

I tweeted about this earlier this month, but I thought I'd collect all the Easter Eggs I found at the new Marvel character meet-and-greet area at Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort. At first, I was a little wary of the new area, but was pleasantly surprised by the Easter Eggs, including some really obscure ones. Let's explore!

On a mailbox you pass in the queue area, there are a couple of references. One comes in a sticker of a skull on fire. This is, obviously, a reference to Marvel's own Spirit of Vengeance - Ghost Rider!

Also on the mailbox is a reference to Marvel Legend Stan Lee's catch phrase - EXCELSIOR!

Toward the end of the queue, there is a wall with a few wheat paste posters. One of the posters is for the Stark Expo 2010 which was featured in Iron Man 2.

Also on the wall are posters for a Steeltown Rockers concert. This has to be the most obscure Easter Egg and it made me giggle to see it. It's a reference to the 1990 Marvel 6-issue limited series "Steeltown Rockers" by Elaine Lee and Steve Leialoha about an actual rock band. I knew it right away because, at one point, I owned the run of the series. LOL!

And, then, finally, the Hand of the King refers to the Infinity Gauntlet being sought by Marvel cosmic villain Thanos who has made cameo appearances in several of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The Captain America meet-and-greet takes place in front of the 15th Precinct. A patriotic themed area, the 15th Precinct actually has a connection to Marvel's grittier side of town. It is the major Police Department in Hell's Kitchen often seen in Netflix's Daredevil series.

At the Spider-Man meet-and-greet area, we see the Daily Bugle where Peter Parker works. Spider-Man poses in front of a sign for BP Power Co. who's slogan is "Your Service Is Our Great Responsibility." This, of course, is a reference to Uncle Ben's words of wisdom, "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility."

Happy Memorial Day from Castles, Capes & Clones!

Happy Memorial Day to all of those who've served our country and to those who've laid down their lives. Thank you for protecting our country.

Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Before I start this review, I want to warn THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS.

So, where to start with this review of X-Men: Apocalypse. I had to really ruminate on it before writing this. But, the more I've thought about it, the less I like the film.

The film begins in ancient Egyptian times with En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), the first mutant, going through some ceremony to transfer his soul into another mutant with healing powers. Suddenly, there is an attack which results in the deaths of not only the marauders, but Apocalypse's four lieutenants (or horsemen). Also in the process, Apocalypse is entrapped deep within the Earth until he is freed by worshipers in 1983.

In the meantime, Charles Xavier (James McEvoy) has realized his dream of the Xavier School for Gifted Children along with Hank McCoy, aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult). They've just been delivered a new student in the way of Scott Summers, aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), by his First Class alumni brother Alex, aka Havok (Lucas Till). Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), has become a crusader rescuing mutants from abuse. And, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has taken on the guise of a metal worker in Poland, happy with a family. When Apocalypse is freed, though, a wave of energy reverberates all over the world. This results in Magneto being discovered and his family accidentally being killed in the process of his arrest, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) seeing the end of the world in her nightmares, and Mystique bringing Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to Xavier's school after rescuing him from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy).

To identify what was going on with the energy wave, Xavier visits Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) with the CIA, whose memories of him he wiped during First Class. She tells him about the research she's done on Apocalypse. Xavier brings her to school to discover Raven there asking for his help to reach out to Magneto who has, along with Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel, have become Apocalypse's new four lieutenants. When Xavier tries to reach out with Cerebro, he catches the attention of Apocalypse who arrive at the school to kidnap him.

This results in a bunch of madness that includes the Xavier School blowing up but not before Quicksilver being able to rescue all the students, a few of the characters being kidnapped suddenly by William Stryker (Josh Helman) and brought to a military facility, and Wolverine, as Weapon X, being freed. The latter allows the kidnapped people to escape only to realize Apocalypse is now using Xavier's mind to communicate with the world and his four lieutenants helping remake the world for Apocalypse to take over. Lots of fighting ensues with Xavier working with Jean Grey to reach her maximum potential by releasing what looks like the Phoenix Force which is enough to weaken Apocalypse enough for everybody, including his lieutenants, to attack and defeat him.

After all is said and done, Magneto and Jean use their powers to rebuild the Xavier School and Mystique stays on to train a new era of X-Men under a newly bald Xavier.

If I could sum up the film, it would be a flimsy, inconsistent story strung along by some cool moments. Now, truth be told, I haven't really been a fan of this latest trilogy mainly for the same reasons. But, of the three, this is probably my least favorite.

So, first the good part. There are some really fun action sequences in the film. Once again, Quicksilver steals the show by displaying his super speed in similar style as exhibited in Days of Future Past. A cage match featuring Angel and Nightcrawler is pretty fun to watch. Psylocke dressed in her comics inspired costume using her psychic knives was pretty cool. A berserker Wolverine donning the similar helmet and wiring seen in the comics clawing his way through the military base is a total geek out. And, seeing the Phoenix Force manifest in Jean Grey was exciting.

But, these moments feel few and far between all the questions I kept asking myself during the film. There were so many things that didn't have to happen in this film and I think it took away from our getting to know some of the newer characters. I think about Captain America: Civil War and how well they balanced all these characters so nobody was doing things out of character and everybody had their own motivations. While I felt they did a beautiful job in showing us Magneto's motivation for becoming one of Apocalypse's lieutenants - revenge for his family, once again at the hands of humans who feared him - I didn't get why some of these characters were in the film. For example, I didn't really get why Storm, Psylocke and Angel just suddenly surrendered themselves to Apocalypse and why he picked them specifically. And, while I was excited to see Jubilee (Lana Condor) in the movie, she disappears half way through never actually displaying her own powers. In essence, she was an over glorified tour guide for Nightcrawler.

And then, some of the characters demonstrate great power and then call it in later. For example, Quicksilver can move so fast that he rescued a whole school from an explosion, yet he wasn't fast enough to react to a pulse weapon being used by Stryker. Maybe it was a budget thing, but it felt like one moment he was powerful and the next not so much. The same goes for Storm. She has these amazing powers to control the weather, but, at one point in the movie, she kind of hid in the shadows.

My biggest question in this film was why Stryker was in the film at all. Why did he kidnap them and bring him to the military base when he clearly didn't have any plans for him? And, when they get to the school, he hand picks a few people to be taken (who coincidentally were the main characters) and tells him men to leave maybe 30 mutant children learning to use their powers. Keep in mind, he tried to kidnap all these children in X2. And why did he decide to take Moira MacTaggert when she isn't even a mutant? Oh, I know why all this happened. To add a totally unnecessary scene featuring Wolverine as Weapon X escape in bloody fashion. Again, it was fun to watch, but, I couldn't figure out why it was in there outside of adding a gratuitous cameo.

Speaking of Wolverine's transformation to Weapon X, one of the biggest inconsistencies between this movie and Days of Future Past is how Wolverine ended up with Stryker. If you remember, Wolverine was extracted from the river by Stryker, who was actually Mystique in disguise. So, how did he end up with the actual Stryker?

I actually had no idea why Moira MacTaggert was in the movie at all outside of Xavier giving her memories back to her and implying they should get back together again. Nothing against Moira, but, in an overstuffed movie, I felt her place could have been filled by some other interesting mutant character.

And, why is Mystique a good guy? I get that Magneto is the Malcolm X to Xavier's Martin Luther King, Jr. and is more ambiguously a bad guy. But, I don't recall Mystique being that good of a person, especially taking over teaching duties. I get that its Oscar award winning Jennifer Lawrence, but I'd think, as an actor, it would be a challenge to play somebody who is inherently evil, but with whom you can still relate.

Other things that didn't make sense were Hank MacCoy at a school teaching kids to embrace their mutant abilities, yet was still taking drugs to keep him human looking.

I also had a problem with Apocalypse himself. I love Oscar Isaac, but I did not like him as Apocalypse. This might be because I picture Apocalypse to be much larger and more ominous. In my mind, his comic book counterpart sounds deep and loud and threatening. I felt Isaac's performance was too understated. He always sounded like this exhausted person. I also felt he was too powerful, especially at this juncture, especially given the younger class. He should be like Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He's been around for the last 6 years, making an eventually appearance here and there, but, when he does attack, we also get a sense that the heroes will know how to fight him.

Did I think X-Men: Apocalypse to be the worst movie I've seen? No. But, in this day where super hero movies are becoming more common place with great films such as both Captain America: Civil War and Deadpool most recently in our minds, you can't help but feel that Apocalypse could have been much better. The X-Men universe features so many amazing characters that continue to be ignored. I know other X-Men movies are coming down the line. But, for now, I can't really recommend this film unless you are a hardcore comic book fan that can enjoy the geek out moments.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Phil Coulson and Peggy Carter: The Glue in the MCU

I got into a conversation with somebody the other day about how the Marvel television shows on ABC seem disconnected from the Marvel Cinematic Universe despite the fact that #ItsAllConnected as it was heavily marketed (and hashtaged).

This got me thinking about the two characters in the Marvel television shows on ABC who've also been in the films. They are basically looked as the glue in the films. The characters that bind some of the narrative together. First was the introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) who appeared at the end of Iron Man ringing in the age of the Avengers.

Coulson would show up in various movies, including Thor, Iron Man 2, The Avengers and a couple of Marvel One-Shots. While Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury might have been in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson was the most important field agent to build the team eventually to become the Avengers.

And, then, Coulson dies in The Avengers. His death is the thing that actually inspires the Avengers to work together for the greater good. And Coulson dies a hero.

Then Marvel Television and ABC Studios announced that it would producing a show called Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which would feature Coulson as the leader of the team. Say what? I thought he was dead. Well, as we all learned Tahiti was a magical place and biff, bang, boom...Phil Coulson is back from the dead. It also involved some pretty intensive brain surgery and Kree blood as well.

One of the biggest conceits of the show is that both the Marvel Television shows are connected to the Marvel Studios movies. And, given that Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was being headlined by a character who had appeared in several movies and was basically the glue of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that there would be a lot of crossover. But, that promise didn't happen. Despite the fact that Agent Coulson, obviously, meant a great deal to the Avengers, they have kept his return from the dead a secret which seemed odd considering that Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye worked for the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization and, at the same time, Coulson was coming across characters such as Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) from the Thor movies who know the Avengers. You'd think somebody would have bumped into him or learned of his return through rumor.

At the end of the first season, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had an opportunity to show #ItsAllConnected. This corresponded with the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier which, interestingly enough, through the machinations of Hydra, took down the very organization the show is about. It made for some compelling episodes which ended with Samuel L. Jackson making an appearance as Nick Fury to name Phil Coulson the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. This is where things become strange because now you'd think, at the very least, Coulson would appear somewhere in the movies to let the very people he's admired and put together as a team what's going on with S.H.I.E.L.D. I mean, we get why Robert Downey, Jr. or Chris Evans couldn't show up on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it would make absolute sense for Coulson to crossover once in awhile. Especially since the advent of the Inhumans that he'd turn to the Avengers to help train their new enhanced humans. In fact, it would even make sense for Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennett) to appear in the movies because, in the comics, she has been an Avenger.

Anyway, its sad the glue that once binded the Marvel Cinematic Universe is no longer involved. It is nice, though, that he, Melinda May, and Fitz and Simons have become part of the Marvel Comics Universe.

But, take heart, there is another character that also serves as the glue in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Captain America's love interest, SSR Agent and Co-Founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. She made her first appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger and showed us that sistahs are doin' it for themselves. She was a no nonsense woman who refused to be talked down to, but not so stereotypically tough that she couldn't open her heart to Steve Rogers.

Peggy proved to be so popular and, I think, a favorite of both Marvel Studios Co-Presidents Kevin Feige and Louis D'Esposito. And, so, the Agent Carter Marvel One-Shot was born which showed Peggy living in a post-World War II era when men came back from war and women were expected to go back to being housewives. And, so, Peggy went to prove this sexism wrong by being smart, kicking butt and eventually being chosen to found S.H.I.E.L.D.

This One-Shot then led to Agent Carter getting her own show on ABC with Feige and D'Esposito being executive producers. Unlike Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter had some stellar hands on it, including Captain America (all 3 films) writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely as series creators and Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, and Chris Dingess serving as showrunners. I think this has allowed her to crossover in a way that Phil Coulson could not longer do.

We, of course, first saw her in her later years in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She was in her 90s suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. But, she had a beautiful moment with Captain America and it was clear that Steve still had in her in his heart even to the end when she passed in her sleep in Captain America: Civil War. While this is sad to see such a beloved character go, it also tells us that she had a very long career working for S.H.I.E.L.D. And, this opens the door to bringing her back for more stories in other movies.

One such appearance was in Ant-Man where we see an older Peggy Carter in the 1980s. She's still very much involved with S.H.I.E.L.D. What's interesting is that I've read some people saying that stories of Peggy Carter are over because of her death in Captain America: Civil War. But, to me, her appearance in Ant-Man says this is just the beginning. That there are so many stories to be told beyond the 1940s and I hope we'll be able to see her.

I'm saddened that Agent Carter was canceled and that we don't get to see her adventures on television. While I'm hoping we see her appear more often in the MCU, I want to see the early days of S.H.I.E.L.D. under her command which would lend itself better to a serialized approach. There is a campaign and petition to bring Peggy to Netflix where Marvel series seem to be flourishing. I am supporting it and hope it happens. Again, there are so many stories to be told. So, be sure to sign the petition and/or write Netflix individually to let them know how you feel!