Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hooked on a Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Have Gunn, will travel

By Ben Mk (

You could say that space, for Marvel Studios, represents the final frontier. Although they've taken the superhero movie to new heights with characters like Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America, all of their films thus far have been predominantly earthbound, save for the occasional intergalactic tease. That all changes now that James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth pic in the studio’s ambitious and imaginative cinematic universe, is upon us. And with it, the studio has finally taken that next giant step, crossing the threshold into a vast and starry expanse from which there’s no turning back.

Brash. Temperamental. Quick to violence. Those are just a few choice words that can be used to describe the Guardians of the Galaxy: a rag-tag group of misfits, whose members include a thief named Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), a green-skinned assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a marauder known as Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and bounty hunters Rocket Raccon and Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel).

When the film — which is based on the 2008 revamp of a 45-year-old Marvel Comics property — was first announced two years ago, there was some skepticism about whether Gunn could pull off a box office hit with such an unconventional band of heroes. After all, Rocket's a smart-mouthed, gun-toting raccoon and Groot's a walking tree. But happily, Gunn has not only quashed such concerns, he's pummelled them into submission by delivering a rip-roaring pic that, at times, channels the serialized, Saturday morning swagger of Star Wars and, at other times, is an edgy send-up of the sci-fi/superhero genre.

After opening in 1988, with the abduction of Peter's nine-year-old self from Earth by Yondu (Michael Rooker, a Gunn regular) and his band of space pirates, the Ravagers, the film wastes little time, leaping ahead 26 years to the abandoned planet of Morag, where we bear witness to Peter's liberation of a mysterious orb (whose importance shall soon be made apparent) from its resting place amid the ruins of some cavernous temple. It’s a rollicking scene — made even more enjoyable by the classic rock soundtrack played through Peter's vintage walkman, a gimmick that Gunn uses to great effect throughout the film — that pays playful homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, quickly establishing Peter as a rogue and a scoundrel who's cut from the same cloth as another iconic Harrison Ford role, Han Solo.

And from there, things only get crazier... Furious that Peter would dare exclude him from the profits that might result from selling the orb, Yondu places a bounty on Peter's head, drawing the attention of Rocket and Groot, who track Peter to the planet Xandar, where they attempt to literally stuff him into a sack and claim their reward. Coincidentally, that's also where they encounter Gamora, who's been simultaneously dispatched to Xandar to retrieve the orb on behalf of the film's big bad, Ronan the Accuser (a growling Lee Pace, clad in armor and warpaint), a zealot devoted to the ancient ways of his people (the Kree) who will stop at nothing to annihilate their sworn enemies, the Xandarians. A brief skirmish ensues and all four are apprehended by the Nova Corps (think of them as the galactic police) and thrown in the Kyln, an intergalactic prison. There, they cross paths with the literal-minded warrior, Drax, who desires nothing more than to exact brutal vengeance on Ronan for the slaughter of his wife and child.

After staging a daring — and impromptu — prison break, the motley crew make a beeline for Knowhere, a port of call carved out of the severed, floating head of a giant celestial being, where they try pawning the orb off on The Collector (Benicio Del Toro, reprising his role from Thor: The Dark World's post-credit sequence). Up until this point, the Guardians are driven by revenge and money, but when they learn the true power of the orb, all plans go out the window, as they arrive at the conclusion that the universe is better served by them preventing the artifact from falling into Ronan's villainous clutches.

Admittedly, that's a lot of storyline to digest. Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman unapologetically lay it on thick, overloading the first act of the film with a galaxy's worth of plot exposition and alien-sounding names and places. But for those viewers who are able to keep it all straight, the payoff is well worth it.

Pratt does an impeccable job of translating the comic timing he's honed on Parks and Recreation to his new gig as a buff action hero, and the rest of the cast follows suit, exuding just the right amount of charm to bring their oddball characters to life. Bautista (a former wrestler) gives his most endearing performance to date, as a muscle-man (and occasional comic relief) with a soft spot, while Saldana is at her usual best as an alien femme fatale who carries the extra burden of being the last of her species. Surprisingly, however, it's Rocket and Groot who end up being the heart of the team (and the film). Thanks to bleeding-edge visual effects and pitch-perfect voice work by Cooper and Diesel, the pair come across as authentic as any of the other characters and not merely visual gags.

But for all its zany characters (including Doctor Who's Karen Gillan as the bald, blue-skinned, cybernetically-enhanced assassin, Nebula) and head-spinning sci-fi plot points, what it ultimately boils down to is a fun time at the movies. Because while there's a definite pathos underlying the story and its characters, Guardians of the Galaxy isn't defined by it, which places it in stark contrast to the grim-n-gritty Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the "other Marvel movie" to have been released this year). Even The Avengers, which previously held the title of being the most tongue-in-cheek Marvel movie to date (thanks to writer/director Joss Whedon), pales in comparison.

The Bottom Line

The Marvel Cinematic Universe can hardly be called stale, but after nine films focusing on the same core group of characters, it's definitely due for some new blood. And Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly the kick in the pants that it needs. Blending swashbuckling space opera action with a barrage of whip-smart quips and an anthemic soundtrack full of classic tunes from the 70's and 80's, it's the Marvel movie we never knew we wanted — but now that it's here, it's impossible to imagine living without it.

Review Score: 4.5 out of 5 (Not to be Missed)

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Bioroid's Blu-ray Review: Appleseed: Alpha

Olympus has (not) fallen

By Ben Mk (

Appleseed is a title that’s near and dear to the hearts of diehard manga fans everywhere, but its popularity may escape those who are only acquainted with the oft-mentioned Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Created by the man who brought the world Ghost in the Shell, Masamune Shirow, and first published in 1985, it has since gone on to spawn spin-offs in film, television and videogames. And now the latest entry in the Appleseed franchise, Appleseed: Alpha, is upon us, just in time to celebrate the manga's thirtieth anniversary.

Arriving ten years after director Shinji Aramaki’s first Appleseed film, which was released in 2004, Appleseed: Alpha marks Aramaki’s third foray into Masamune Shirow's post-apocalyptic, futuristic universe. But unlike 2007’s Appleseed: Ex Machina, Alpha is a prequel — one that takes place before the story’s two main protagonists, Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires, came to be the defenders of Olympus, a utopian city that's risen from the ashes of the death and destruction caused by a Third World War.

Scripted by Marianne Krawczyk, whom some viewers may recognize from her work penning the stories behind Sony’s bestselling God of War videogame series, Alpha is a film made first and foremost with Western audiences in mind. In fact, the movie features no Japanese voice acting whatsoever — a first for the franchise. Instead, the primary English voice cast from the first two films — Luci Christian as Deunan and David Matranga as Briareos — reprise their roles.

Dispensing with much of the mythology established over the course of the earlier films, Alpha sets things back to square one, joining Deunan, a soldier, and Briareos, her cyborg partner and former lover, as they navigate a decimated New York City, carrying out jobs for its de facto leader, a cyborg warlord calling himself Two Horns (voiced by Wendel Calvert), to whom they are indebted. Tired of doing Two Horns’ bidding, Deunan is seriously considering leaving their current line of work behind them and seeking out the fabled city of Olympus. However, during their last assignment, she and Briareos encounter a mysterious girl named Iris (Brina Palencia) and her cyborg protector, Olson (Adam Gibbs), and become embroiled in a conflict involving a villainous organization named Triton, its cold-blooded leader, Talos (Josh Sheltz), and a dangerous prototype weapon — a massive, walking fortress — capable of laying waste to an entire city.

Although Alpha’s story serves as a precursor to 2004’s Appleseed, its visuals are leagues ahead of that film’s cell-shaded CG art-style, bringing the franchise into the same realm as Aramaki’s recent directorial efforts, 2013's Space Pirate Captain Harlock and 2012's Starship Troopers: Invasion, with a sleek, videogame-inspired look-and-feel. And given Krawczyk's work in the game industry, it should come as no shock that the film unfolds very much like a series of videogame cutscenes as well.

But while that means viewers can expect fairly thin character development, it's not entirely a bad thing, as the movie functions quite well as a svelte sci-fi actioner. Aramaki and Krawczyk keep the action exciting and inventive, avoiding repetition throughout the feature's brisk 90-minute runtime by putting a different twist on each of the film's numerous action sequences: from hand-to-hand combat and gunplay to mech-inspired mayhem, culminating in a climactic battle with an epic scope worthy of Akira. It all adds up to an entertaining standalone adventure and — considering that the film requires no preexisting knowledge of series lore to be enjoyed — makes for an excellent entry point for newcomers to the beloved franchise.

Appleseed: Alpha hits Blu-ray with an A/V presentation that mostly does justice to the film’s direct-to-digital presentation, though sharp-eyed viewers are sure to take issue with certain aspects of the hi-def image. First, the good news: the film's art style translates into plenty of photorealistic environments (the grimier, the better), textures (including metal, stone and fabric), colors (featuring drab military and earth tones, punctuated with more vibrant hues like that of a bright blue sky or the reflective gold surface of Talos’ visor) and effects (such as explosions, fire and smoke), all of which are rendered with exceptional clarity and richness. And it's always easy to pick out the most miniscule of mechanical details of the movie’s cyborg characters and the most delicate of facial features on its human/bioroid characters. On the downside, the image suffers from a moderate amount of aliasing; and while it doesn't often detract from the picture, it's especially noticeable in scenes bereft of fast movement, manifesting as jagged, sometimes shimmering, edges.

Thankfully, there are no such qualms when it comes to the disc’s action-packed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, which is sure to make an impression on viewers, especially during the film’s many heated battles. The sound of automatic gunfire, ricocheting bullets, explosions and the like is consistently bombastic and engrossing, and the European-inspired score by composer Tetsuya Takahashi — which is supplemented by pulsing tracks from international electronic recording artists like Skrillex — comes across loud and clear.

Sony’s Blu-ray release includes an UltraViolet digital copy of the film, as well as a feature-length audio commentary by director Shinji Aramaki, producer Joseph Chou and Tony Ishizuka of Sony Pictures. The centerpiece of the disc’s special features, however, is the 52-minute documentary, The Making of Appleseed: Alpha. Divided into eleven chapters (The Beginning, The Backstory, Design, Characters, Modeling and Backgrounds, Motion Capture, Animation, Facial Capture, Effects, Compositing and Music), this comprehensive making-of documentary touches on everything from the film’s conception and the design of its visuals to the factors that contributed to its realistic look and the composition of its music, and features behind-the-scenes footage, film clips and interviews with the filmmakers, including a number of staff members from SOLA Digital Arts, the computer animation studio behind the movie.

While Appleseed: Alpha doesn't come close to delivering the same depth of story and character as its manga inspiration, it's still a worthwhile and entertaining romp, bolstered by eye-catching visuals and exhilarating action. Fans of the franchise and newcomers alike should find value in the film, just as they should find value in Sony's Blu-ray release, which boasts an impressive (though not quite perfect) A/V presentation and insightful bonus features. And in the end, that makes Appleseed: Alpha on Blu-ray ripe for the picking.

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  ★★★½
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  ★★★★
Special Features  —  ★★★½

Review Score: 3.5 out of 5 (Recommended)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Spotify comes to (a few) Vizio smart TVs

Despite the popularity of its music service, Spotify's presence on connected TV platforms is still spotty. It's on Apple TV via AirPlay, Roku, LG and Samsung, but not Xbox, PlayStation or Chromecast (officially). We can add on one more today, as Vizio says it's coming to their VIA Plus enabled TVs. The only bad news? That list is currently limited to just a few models consisting of the 2014 E- and M-series TVs, and you'll need Spotify Premium to tune in. If you don't have Spotify Premium you can try it free for 48 hours -- check out some favorites from our editors if you need musical suggestions.

New Apple TV game brings the 'Dance Party' to your living room

Apple's set-top hobby has come a long way since its major refresh in 2010, thanks largely to a variety of services bringing different content to the platform. When it comes to gaming, however, the Apple TV isn't exactly a powerhouse, despite being able to support it through AirPlay features -- something similar to what Real Racing has done in the past. Another developer that's made use of this particular second-screen kind of experience is Rolocule Games, and it just announced a new free title (with in-app purchases) dubbed Dance Party.

Unlocking the Full Potential of a Film Review: Lucy

Besson on the brain

By Ben Mk (

The last time Luc Besson named one of his movies after its central protagonist, that character's name was Léon, and he was a professional hitman. Simply retitled The Professional for North American audiences, Besson's 1994 film — revolving around a one-man killing machine who goes up against a corrupt DEA agent and his cronies to protect the life of a young girl — was an action masterpiece. And now, it appears that Besson has once again returned to familiar action territory with Lucy, whose titular heroine is also a formidable force of one. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.

In the film, Scarlett Johansson is Lucy. We never learn her last name, and we barely learn anything else about her other than that she's a twenty-something-year-old American student living in Taipei, has questionable taste in men and comes from a loving home. The rest is immaterial, because Lucy is more of a proxy than a character — a representation of an idea. Before we meet her, however, Besson reminds us that our earliest human ancestor also goes by the name Lucy, establishing an allegory that the writer/director reiterates throughout the movie — for Johansson's Lucy is about to become the first of her kind as well.

After being duped by her sleazy boyfriend into delivering a briefcase full of a new designer drug — a crystalline blue compound called CPH4 — to a vicious underworld crime boss named Mr. Jang (Oldboy's Choi Min-sik), Lucy finds herself one of four unwitting drug mules forced to smuggle the valuable product out of the country. Jang is the kind of ruthless gangster who would brutally kill a man and then nonchalantly wash the blood off his hands with Evian water, so naturally he has no qualms about slicing Lucy open and surgically implanting a pouch of CPH4 into her lower abdominal cavity. But before she's able to leave the country, she's roughed up by some seedy characters, at which point the pouch inside her ruptures, releasing a massive dose of CPH4 into her system.

From there, the film quickly veers into some surprisingly heady (and head-trippy) territory. The drug — a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring chemical that aids the development of human fetuses, which one character refers to as "an atomic bomb for babies" — is so potent that its mere absorption into her body sends Lucy into gravity-defying spasms, causing her to writhe uncontrollably on the floor, the wall, and even the ceiling (Exorcist-style), before passing out. Instead of overdosing, she awakens transformed, gifted with access to the previously inaccessible neural pathways in her brain. This also translates into some uncanny new abilities, including superhuman reflexes and telekinetic powers.

As her brain function steadily climbs to 100% — enabling her to manipulate radio waves, visualize the life force flowing through living organisms, and even view the entire cosmic history of the atoms around her — she reaches out to an eminent brain researcher, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman), to help her comprehend what she's becoming. Although you really have to wonder: with her rapidly-developing intellect, is this not something she could easily figure out on her own? In any case, she soon realizes that without more of the drug, she'll die, prompting her to also enlist the help of Parisian police Captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), to track down the other three mules. All the while, Jang and his army of gangsters are in feverish pursuit, eager to retrieve their valuable product.

Had Besson made Lucy in the mid-to-late 90's, then surely Milla Jovovich, Besson's secret weapon for The Fifth Element, would have been tapped to fill the lead role. As it stands, Johansson is a worthy successor to Jovovich, and Lucy is a worthy modern update to Jovovich's Leeloo character from that film: a no-nonsense, super-powered femme fatale who doesn't need someone like Bruce Willis to protect her, because she's perfectly capable of handling her enemies on her own. And handle them she does: at first, Lucy subdues her aggressors with physical force and lightning-fast reflexes, but as she unlocks a greater and greater percentage of her gray matter, she becomes adept at neutralizing her opponents with a mere glance or a wave of the hand, all without so much as breaking a sweat.

Of course, this all but nullifies the hopes of anyone expecting to see Johansson slip into full-on Black Widow mode to vanquish the bad guys. Lucy has been billed as a sci-fi/action extravaganza, but while there are spurts of madcap action (including a giddy Transporter-esque vehicular sequence and a frenetic gun battle which culminates in a gangster using — what else — a rocket launcher to obliterate a locked door), Besson is primarily concerned with unlocking the potential of the story's far-out sci-fi premise, full of musings on metaphysics and human existence. In other words, the movie's DNA is more The Fifth Element than it is La Femme Nikita.

Despite the audaciousness of Besson's grand design, it all hinges on Johansson's performance as the intellectually-enhanced title character. Much like her portrayal of the slinky alien visitor in Under the Skin, the actress invokes an otherwordly quality for the role, coming across as one part alien, one part robot, as underscored by her deadpan delivery and Lucy's zen-like calmness in the face of adversity. But to Johansson's credit, she always keeps Lucy's humanity floating just beneath the surface, and it shines through on occasion, as in a tender scene where Lucy phones her mother as if to speak with her for the very last time. Likewise, when Del Rio asks her why she needs him at all, since she's more than able to fend for herself, Lucy replies with poetic soulfulness, "As a reminder."

And that's essentially what Lucy is: a reminder of Besson's potential as a filmmaker. After a string of lackluster projects, many moviegoers might already be content with writing him off as having scraped the bottom of his creative barrel, but this movie proves otherwise. It's imaginative and bold, and even though its final act may catch viewers off-guard with its sheer amount of metaphysical insanity, it's a testament to Besson's creative prowess that he's even able to pull it off at all.

The Bottom Line

Although you wouldn't know it by looking at it, Lucy is one of the year's most polarizing films, sure to leave some moviegoers scratching their heads and others grinning from ear to ear. It's a far cry from your prototypical action movie, nor is it your standard sci-fi fare. It is, however, enthralling through and through. And it's proof that Luc Besson still knows how to captivate an audience.

Review Score: 3.5 out of 5 (Recommended)