Big Hero 6 review

After the Boston Christmas Craft Festival this past Saturday, 8 November 2014, Janice and I went to the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Dedham, Mass., for lunch at B. Good Burgers and Big Hero 6. We liked the animated superhero movie, which is one of the best since Incredibles.

Big Hero 6
Disney’s latest animated success

Plot

Loosely based on a title published by Marvel Comics, Big Hero 6 follows Hiro Hamada, a teenage underachiever who spends his time in underground robot fights in the city of San Fransokyo. A visit to his older brother Tadashi’s university impresses Hiro, who applies his genius to designing “microbots” to gain admission.

Tadashi has been designing Baymax, a cuddly android intended to help with medical emergencies. Hiro gets help from his brother and new friends at the university, but his successful demonstration is marred by the rivalry between Prof. Robert Callaghan and entrepreneur Alistair Krei and a devastating fire….

As you may have seen from the previews, Hiro and friends soon work with Baymax to defend San Fransokyo from a supervillain….

Cast

The voice cast includes a few celebrities, but they weren’t readily identifiable or distracting, and the characters are well-developed in both voice and visual design. Ryan Potter is a typical adolescent as Hiro, with moments of stubbornness and sentiment. Scott Adsit is cheerful and surprisingly insightful as Baymax.

Other actors include Jamie Chung as daredevil student GoGo Tomago, Daon Wayans Jr. as big control freak Wasabi, and Maya Rudolph as Hiro and Tadashi’s loving but distracted Aunt Cass. Star Trek: First Contact‘s James Cromwell lends gravitas as Prof. Callaghan, and Firefly/Serenity‘s Alan Tudyk is Alistair Krei.

Direction

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams wisely decided to set Big Hero 6‘s San Fransokyo in a pocket universe rather than the live-action Marvel cinematic universe. While there are many nods to conventional comic books and anime, Big Hero 6 stands on its own.

Like Pixar’s Incredibles, Big Hero 6 presents superhero and science fiction tropes in an energetic way, with tragedy outweighed by the responsibility and fun of doing good. I was also pleased to see young scientists portrayed in a positive way. The story feels fresh, even if it the final act is predictable.

Cinematography

The character faces will be familiar to anyone who has seen recent Disney/Pixar films such as Ratatouille or Brave, but that’s no different than the house styles used by Aardman, DreamWorks, or Sony.

As each animated movie tries to top its predecessors for “eye candy,” Big Hero 6 stands out in the design of Baymax, who exhibits a surprisingly wide range of emotions despite looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, not unlike Wall-E.

The other area in which Big Hero 6 is noteworthy is its design of San Fransokyo and the nascent superhero team. Animators have been wisely avoiding the “uncanny valley” with cartoonish characters, but the hyper-realistic settings and frenetic action surpass most recent live-action movies. Big Hero 6 resembles a video game, but in this case, I don’t necessarily mean that as a putdown.

Soundtrack

Composer Henry Jackman combines traditional movie music with pop styles, aided by the track Immortals by Fall Out Boy. The score also keeps up with the action and raises the emotional stakes when needed. Even though Big Hero 6 isn’t exactly a Disney/Marvel flick, there is a cameo after the final credits.

Rating

I’d give Big Hero 6, which is rated PG for action, 7.5 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. While The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls, and The Book of Life were arguably more original, I found that this Disney movie did a better job of capturing the fun of superhero comics than, say, Man of Steel or X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Big Hero 6 beat Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar at the box office, but I hope to see the latter film with Thomas K.Y. and friends next weekend. Speaking of the uncanny valley, I’ll probably skip Paddington and Penguins of Madagascar, but Minions does look amusing.

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Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself “Star Lord” after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos’ minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel’s cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they’re not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community‘s Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana’s comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista’s bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers
Disney/Marvel’s latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill’s piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they’re recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora’s blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who’ll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn’s love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy‘s light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous “Easter eggs,” or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I’m glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and ’80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill’s mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today’s visceral reactions.

Rating: I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel’s savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.

Captain America: the Winter Soldier review

On Saturday, 12 April 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Beruk A., and Ken N. at the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge, Mass., for Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier. We all enjoyed Disney/Marvel’s latest superhero sequel, as well as dinner with Matt J. at Summer Shack afterward.

The Winter Soldier wallpaper
Captain America 2

Plot: The Winter Soldier mostly takes place after the events of the 2011 Captain America film and The Avengers, both of which should be seen to understand this movie. Super soldier Steve Rogers is still a man out of time but has adapted enough to work for covert ops agency SHIELD thwarting terrorists. His patriotic idealism is tested, however, when he learns of a scheme to pre-empt crime that is hijacked by an old enemy….

Marvel Comics readers will recognize much of the story from Ed Brubaker’s strong run, while more casual viewers will notice the change in tone from the World War II heroics of the first movie and the superhero team-up of The Avengers to an action/thriller in The Winter Soldier. I’m pleased to see Marvel showing its range, from straightforward costumed crime fighters to cosmic comedy (Thor 2, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy).

There are some minor plot holes, such as why would Washington, D.C., rely on just one agency for security or why more of the other Avengers aren’t mentioned during crisis situations, but the direction and pacing move quickly enough to ignore most of them. ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, which has suffered in comparison with Arrow and other shows for much of the current television season, is affected by continuity changes from The Winter Soldier.

Acting: Comic book movie veteran Chris Evans continues to do solid work as Rogers/Capt. America, who is both weary of still fighting after decades (some of which were spent on ice) and resolute in his defense of truth, justice, and the American way (even if that’s another hero’s catchphrase).

He is joined by Scarlett Johansson, who gets a decent amount to do as fellow Avenger Natalia Romanova/Black Widow. As the Lucy preview showed, it’s about time a superheroine leads a feature film — don’t get me started on WB/DC’s foot dragging with Wonder Woman.

Samuel L. Jackson shows some vulnerability as superspy Nick Fury, supported by Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. It was nice to glimpse Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Stan Lee as a Smithsonian guard, and Jenny Agutter as World Security Council member Hawley.

Robert Redford, who starred in some of the best political thrillers of the ’70s, brings smarmy gravitas as council leader Alexander Pierce. Like the character Rhodey in the Iron Man movies, Anthony Mackie represents African-American heroes and is (we hope) more than a sidekick as Sam Wilson/Falcon.

I have many fond memories of Captain America fighting villains alongside the winged Falcon. The cameos by Batroc the Leaper and other villains are also amusing for those in the know. I won’t “spoil” the identity of the so-called Winter Soldier, but note that this movie serves more to introduce the cybernetic assassin as an antagonist than to resolve that plot thread.

Direction: Shane Black, whose Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang helped revive Robert Downey Jr.’s career, does a good job juggling comic book, espionage, and action elements in The Winter Soldier. The dialogue is rarely stilted, and he successfully introduces or reintroduces an ever-increasing number of characters.

The stealthy infiltrations and fight choreography with Capt. America or Black Widow are nicely done, although I do wish that some of the scenes on the helicarriers (no “spoiler” there; they’re in the trailers) were clearer. The visual effects were pretty good, and it was refreshing to see a major cinematic battle in which an entire city wasn’t trashed for a change.

The opening and closing credits were decent, and the soundtrack was also good, if not as memorable as for other superhero movies. Overall, I’d give Captain America: the Winter Soldier, which is rated PG-13 for violence and occasional language, four out of five stars, an 8 out of 10, or a B+/A-. I still like Captain America: the First Avenger and The Avengers more, but this is another solid Disney/Marvel superhero flick.

Iron Man 3 review

On Sunday, 5 May 2013, Janice and I met Beruk A., Sara F. & Josh C., fellow blogger Ken G., and Ken’s friends Carly and Nick for Iron Man 3 at the Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Mass. We all enjoyed the superhero sequel. I’ll try to avoid “spoilers” in this review, but note that some of the links enclosed below may lead to story details.

Iron Man 3 desktop
Men of metal

Plot: Iron Man 3 picks up shortly after the events of The Avengers, Disney/Marvel’s blockbuster team-up movie. Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, inventor Tony Stark is still tinkering on his suits of armor and has a steady relationship with Pepper Potts, but storm clouds are gathering on the horizon.

A flashback to 1999 shows us Stark’s more narcissistic ways, as well as the roots of some of his current problems. He hooks up with scientist Maya Hansen but ignores her research, as well as Aldrich Killian, the then-geeky founder of Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM). The pseudoscience is based on Warren Ellis’ “Extremis” storyline from Marvel Comics.

In the present, Stark is suffering from panic attacks after fighting aliens in The Avengers. A mysterious man calling himself “the Mandarin” takes credit for terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. (These were uncomfortable to watch so soon after the Boston Marathon bombings.) Hansen’s Extremis technology is involved, as are the Mandarin, AIM, and a plot to attack Air Force One.

Soon, Tony must deal with personal attacks on him and those closest to him, including Pepper, security chief Happy Hogan, and Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine/Iron Patriot. The armored Avenger must rediscover his strengths and stop his enemies.

Acting: As in the previous Iron Man films, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the cocksure Tony Stark is the big draw. Downey’s high-strung, wisecracking persona is nearly indistinguishable at this point from Stark’s. He is ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow as the cool executive Pepper Potts, former director Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and Don Cheadle as stalwart Rhodey.

They are joined by newcomers Rebecca Hall as troubled Maya Hansen, Guy Pearce as the sketchy Aldrich Killian, and Ben Kingsley sporting an odd accent as the Mandarin (who has been altered from a racist Asian stereotype to an Osama bin Laden-like figure). Ty Simpkins plays a bratty youngster who helps Tony when he’s at his lowest. The supporting characters’ motivations aren’t completely explained, but who’s good and who’s bad does become clear.

Direction: I enjoyed Shane Black’s noir comedy Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which helped revive Downey’s career. He allows the cast to trade witty banter and relax into their roles, despite the dire circumstances the characters find themselves in.

A few reviewers recommended approaching Iron Man 3 as a comedy that happens to involve superheroes rather than as a straight superhero movie. I agree — if you’re able to enjoy the relationships and not worry too much about political commentary or plot holes, you’ll like Iron Man 3.

The pacing flags a bit when Stark must rebuild his machinery and track down his enemies, and the movie becomes more predictable about two-thirds of the way through. On the other hand, the end and postcredits coda are still satisfying. I haven’t seen the China-only footage (no doubt designed for major audiences and investors).

Visual effects: Adi Granov’s designs for Stark’s suits see several variations, and the attacks on Stark’s California mansion and Air Force One are impressive, even if they’ve been spoiled a bit in trailers and commercials.

The final battle — between Iron Men, Iron Patriot, and Extremis-powered goons on an abandoned oil rig — is explosive, but it suffers from length, too many parties flying around too quickly, and the fact that it takes place at night (as with many other superhero flicks, so that computer-generated imagery is less noticeable).

Score: The soundtrack is decent, and like the 1970s-style closing credits, it harkens back to the previous Iron Man films. There isn’t a memorable theme, but Iron Man 3‘s music does heighten the suspense.

Rating: I enjoyed the quieter character-driven moments and some of Downey hamming it up more than the set-piece scenes, even though, as a comic book fan, I would want to see him suited up more often.

Overall, I’d give Iron Man 3, which is 130 minutes long and rated PG-13 for violence and innuendo, an 8 out of 10, three and a half stars, or a B+. I liked it more than Iron Man 2, if not as much as the first Iron Man or The Avengers.

I’ve been pretty busy for the past few weekends, but I’ll report on them separately. In the coming weeks, I look forward to Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel (the latest Superman movie, not to be confused with Iron Man). As Stan “the Man” Lee says, Excelsior!

The Force is strong with the Mouse House…

By now, genre entertainment fans may have seen the news that Disney is buying Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion. I’ve already seen lots of snarky comments online, but this purchase might be good for the franchise, and by extension, space opera.

Disney buys Lucasfilm
George Lucas and Walt Disney’s creations

I have no love for megacorporate deals, some of Lucas’ more stilted dialogue, or the “nerd rage” of many fans. Get over Jar Jar Binks already — yes, the character is unintentionally offensive, but most small children I observed loved him as previous ones loved R2-D2, Yoda, or Ewoks.

My sources have hinted that Disney has been interested in Lucasfilm for some time, for much the same reason it recently bought Marvel Comics — as intellectual property to mine for profitable ideas.

On the other hand, the fact remains that the Star Wars movies and multimedia helped rescue science fiction from obscurity in the late 1970s, and Lucas handing off his creation to the next generation of directors isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

Lucas has shown greater wisdom when collaborating with other writers than when tinkering with his earlier works, as the excellent Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Star Wars: Clone Wars demonstrate.

The “expanded universe” of Star Wars novels, comic books, games, toys, and TV shows has generally maintained consistent quality (notwithstanding the occasional cheesy Christmas special). As much as I love other franchises from my youth, such as Doctor Who, Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, I’ve become more of a Star Wars buff.

We’ll have to wait and see if Disney’sEpisode VII” and other sequels continue the dreams born from a kid in California watching old Flash Gordon serials or whether the worst fears of hypercritical fans are again realized. May the Force be with us — always!

Gene the Christmas Jedi
As a Jedi, Christmas 2009