Experience The World Of Avatar

By now everyone, especially tourists and sci-fi fans, have heard of the recent opening of Pandora-The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This land devoted to James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar has been gestating for several years and puzzled many people. After all, why would Disney pour so much resources into creating a new themed land based on a film that came out last decade? Worldwide, Avatar is the highest grossing film to date, but it has not resonated deeply with most of the general public. Theme park and Disney fans wondered about the quality of the land and its attractions; for some time, The Walt Disney Company has faced criticism in recent years for neglecting its theme parks in the U.S. and Universal Studios has stolen Disney’s thunder with its hugely successful Harry Potter lands. Last month, the company formerly announced a slew of new rides and attractions for its parks and Pandora, which opened on May 27th of this year is the opening salvo.

pandora entrance

After finally being able to visit the land and experience the attractions, I can honestly say that it was worth the wait. Pandora-The World of Avatar is so deeply immersive and stunning with details and it is the best themed land in Walt Disney World. The Disney imagineers have taken great pains to recreate the primordial world of Avatar and their efforts have paid off. Part of the appeal in this land is the land itself. It will take several visits to truly take in everything and the land’s nooks and crannies are begging to be examined in detail. Huge and beautiful alien plants are intermixed with our Earthly flora and the landscaping is highlighted by the jaw-dropping Hallelujah Mountains that seemingly float over our heads. It is fun trying to figure out how the imagineers pulled off this trick, but to be honest, I’d rather not know since the revelation will spoil the illusion. These mountains are a bonafide engineering marvel and what makes them so imposing are their majestic beauty and roaring waterfalls that cascade down their sides.

Hallelujah Mountains Pandora world of avatar

Completing the immersive experience are the attractions themselves. There are only two of them in Pandora, but they are absolute must-rides. The best one is Flight of Passage, which everyone fortunate to ride will attest is one of the best rides ever created, even contending with classic theme park rides like the Spider-Man and Harry Potter rides in Universal. How should Flight of Passage be described? Basically, it is a simulator experience that is more immersive than most simulators since riders are given individual ride vehicles that are mounted like motorcycles.  The ride’s story is that you are linked to a Nav’i avatar that is riding the flying animals called mountain banshees. Thanks to state-of-the-art 3D and well-timed movements, I felt like I was actually riding a mountain banshee as seen in Avatar. The scenes in front of you are panoramic and the motions trick you at many times into thinking you’re diving through Pandora’s tropical forests, mountain ranges and beaches. Yes, there are many instances where you fly over the alien world’s seas, which provide distinct clues as to the sequels’ content. The ride even features new alien animals to marvel over and hope they appear in the Avatar sequels. As I flew over Pandora on my banshee, I actually wished James Cameron would hurry up with the followup films!

Comparing Flight of Passage to Nav’i River Journey is unfair. The former ride is a genuine thrill ride and worthy of being designated an E-ticket attraction. Nav’i River Journey is decidedly more tranquil and relaxed. It is a short boat ride taking you along Pandora’s river at night. Wondrous and unworldly sights and sounds surrounded me and made me feel like I was navigating the waterways of this alien world. The bioluminescent flora and fauna really pop out and my group and I had a joyous time picking out them out. Do not be put off by some reviews about the gentle ride. After the intensity and excitement of riding a banshee vicariously through a Nav’i, this boat trip is a nice way to settle down.

navi shaman

The complaints are probably due to the long wait times for the Nav’i River Journey, which can be more than an hour. Flight of Passage has even longer wait times (I’ve seen times posted as long as five hours during the day!), but since it’s a thrill ride many feel this justifies the long wait. Personally, I would never spend so much time just to get on a ride. If you are unable to get a FastPass and you are not staying on Disney property the only decent option is to arrive at Disney’s Animal Kingdom an hour before it opens. This guarantees that you will be able to get on the rides and be done in less than an hour. Or wait until the hoopla dies down, which probably will be when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens in two years.

In many ways, Pandora-The World of Avatar is a good primer for Disney in crafting the next generation of immersive lands and attractions. Even if you are not able to get on the rides or are a fan of Avatar, it is worth visiting the newest land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom just to take in the ambiance. Plus, it gives us an idea of how Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be like when it is finally unveiled. Regardless, Pandora-The World of Avatar and its Flight of Passage and Nav’i River Journey are definite must-dos for your next visit to Disney World, they already are for me.

José Soto

The Dark Tower Film Adaptation Aims With Its Hand

After decades, we’ve finally gotten a live-action adaptation of Stephen King’s epic novels of The Dark Tower. Unfortunately, as many of us feared The Dark Tower is a pale and hollow adaptation. Actually it is not even a faithful adaptation (never mind the casting of Idris Elba as Roland the last Gunslinger, he was superb as the Gunslinger) but a mish mosh of the seven novels in the series. As you can expect, it is impossible to do the sprawling storyline any justice with a paltry 90 minute screen time.

For those who don’t know the background, The Dark Tower novels are about a lone, Jedi-like Gunslinger from another dimension who is pursuing his arch foe, the Man in Black. This bad guy  wants to destroy the mythical construct called the Dark Tower, a nexus point of sorts that connects and separates all the universes. Destroying the Tower will unleash chaos across dimensions and obliterate reality. Part Western, part fantasy, part sci-fi and part horror, the novels were some of King’s best works and actually revealed that all of the Stephen King works are interconnected. The wild and wonky storyline was complemented by memorable characters. Not just Roland but the small band of Earthlings from different time periods who join his quest. Too bad only one of them makes it into this film, young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor).

Roland and Jake

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect this one movie to cover the entirety of the novels, but as an introduction to this rich mythos, The Dark Tower cannot adequately do it. There is a popular line in the books “I do not aim with my eye, he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.” This film commits the sin of aiming with its hand not its eye or heart. On the whole, the entire film is a barebones adaptation that lacks the nuance and for the most part, the epic scope of the novels. It does a just an average job of enticing viewers to want to learn more about Roland and his quest. We never feel the animosity Roland has with the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who is not well developed. The film just moves along so quickly we don’t have time to absorb any of the information given to us. And with the rushed editing and running time, there isn’t enough in the film to win over non-fans or satisfy die-hard fans of the novels. In fact, many of them will be enraged with the missed opportunities and the thin surface details.

Idris Elba as Roland

This does not mean that the film is a disaster, but a rather frustrating watch because there are nuggets of wonder that struggle to get through the film’s banal tone. For one, the actors in the film are quite good and it has several fine moments. We get glimpses of why Roland is to be revered as he wields his guns with near-supernatural precision. For Stephen King fans, there are more than a few Easter eggs of his other works and overall, the film is not dull. It’s just that so little time is spent on these highlights because the film is so intent on getting from point A to point B and in the end, we cannot enjoy the ride. The bottom line is that fans know that the source material is rich and enticing and most of that is missing in the film. This is beyond annoying for fans who have waited so long after so many false starts for a film adaptation. These novels have such sprawling stories with off-the-wall imagery that they deserved a film or a film series that would adequately adapt them. Unfortunately, this film does not accomplish this goal and instead of being a monumental film experience it is just your standard summer film.

The sad thing about The Dark Tower is that it will wind up being forgotten and unlikely to be a hit film. Meaning, that it is doubtful that future films will follow that will better explore Roland’s world and his epic quest. There are plans for a TV show that will tie-in to this film but who knows if that will ever come and the film’s reception will probably mean that it will be a long time before fans get a proper adaptation.

C.S. Link and Lewis T. Grove

The True War For The Planet Of The Apes Is Within Caesar’s Soul

war for planet of the apes poster

The third film in the Planet of the Apes reboot/prequel, War for the Planet of the Apes, is a fitting conclusion to this unexpectedly great film trilogy. The film series follows the emotional journey of Caesar (motion captured by Andy Serkis), the super intelligent chimpanzee capable of speech who fights to defend his kind, while while he grapples with intense moral questions. In this film, Caesar is an embittered and weary leader who finds himself fighting a very different kind of war.

Taking place 15 years after the first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this film opens with Caesar and his band of super smart apes besieged by human military forces in the thick forests of the west coast U.S. During the trilogy a deadly virus wiped out most of humanity and apes rapidly evolved to have human-level intelligence. Both humanity and apes are in dire straits. Caesar only wants his kind to be left alone, while the desperate humans see the apes as a threat to their dominion of the Earth.

Tragic events lead to Caesar undergoing a dark metamorphosis where he has come to hate humanity as vengeance rules his heart. He sets out on his own to hunt down the human responsible for his misery, a crazed soldier known as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) that leads a rogue military unit. However, his closest compatriots, which include the gentle and wise Maurice (motion captured by Karin Konoval), an orangutan,  refuse to leave his side. During their journey, they come across two new and interesting characters, Nova (Amiah Miller), a young mute human girl, and Bad Ape (Steve Zahn in a motion capture performance), a nearly hairless and humorous chimpanzee who is also able to talk. Both characters in their ways represent the downfall and promise of both species. While both Nova and Bad Ape’s arcs were fascinating to watch, Caesar’s emotional turmoil is the heart of this film and that is where the real war rages.

maurice and nova

Without giving too much away, the film’s title is misleading. War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t an action-packed military film with epic battle scenes boasting large armies. There are some well choreographed battle scenes, but this film is more of a meditative drama that makes viewers think about the moral complexities facing Caesar. It is disheartening to see Caesar’s arc from the wide eyed and innocent ape in the first film to an angry and dark soldier in this film. He is not some bloodthirsty savage and deep inside he is a good being. It is just that sad circumstances have challenged Caesar and he questions how he has changed for the worse. That is the true war in this film, where his soul is the battlefield and prize and it is not clear how this inner battle will conclude. This spiritual conflict define Caesar and makes him seem so…human and is the true highlight of War for the Planet of the Apes.

Of course, the film has so much more going for it than Caesar’s soul searching. The other characters are just as engaging as the lead ape. The Colonel is a truly frightening beast of a man who wants to ensure the survival of his species. What is disturbing to us is that we can relate to his point of view and wonder if we would be as desperate as him if we faced the same dilemma. Unlike the past films, there is less emphasis on the humans as the apes dominate the film. So as a result the human characters are not as nuanced as in past films. There are some other drawbacks to this film; mainly that the plot features some biblical allegories that are a bit heavy handed and telegraph how some stories will play out. But the film’s merits make up for the flaws.

The film boasts the best special effects of all the Apes films. By now, the CGI apes look flawless. There were many instances where it is easy to believe that real apes were used. The motion capture and the special effects are completely convincing. The film is beautifully shot with rich colors and perfect composition as we witness a richly textured post-apocalyptic world that is being reclaimed by nature and the apes.

war-for-planet-apes-poster-caesar

However, these merits would not mean anything without the brilliant performances of Serkis and the others. It is a crime that Andy Serkis has not won an Academy Award for his work and he certainly deserves one for this film as it’s his best work. The Academy just has to get over its hang up about motion capture and recognize its powerful artistry, which is this film exudes.

So, how does War for the Planet of the Apes compare with the other films in the trilogy? It is hard to say at this point, but this film holds its own compared to the earlier films, although Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the best one in the series. Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes is a powerful and thoughtful finale to this trilogy that should not be missed.

José Soto

 

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming Brings Spider-Man To The MCU With Flourish

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a glorious celebratory homecoming for Marvel’s flagship superhero into the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Ever since the MCU took off nine years ago and grew, fans have pined for Spider-Man to join the MCU ranks. We got a taste of how the MCU would interpret the Wall-Crawler with his scene-stealing cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. Now, an entire film is devoted to him as Sony Pictures (who holds the film rights to Spider-Man) have joined forces with Marvel Studios. The result is the best Spider-Man film since the early Sam Raimi efforts.

om-Holland-as-Peter-Parker-in-Spider-Man-Homecoming

The film takes place shortly after Spider-Man’s debut in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has to go back to a humdrum life as a teenager in Queens, New York. Aching for the glory of a superhero and joining the Avengers, Peter has to contend with the usual teenage gripes like fitting in socially in high school. These aspects of Spider-Man: Homecoming are clearly influenced by the John Hughes teenage comedies and they work perfectly, by the way, this film has a great soundtrack evocative of those Hughes films. Thanks to Holland’s sincere performance, we are able to empathize with Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). The young cast in the film are for the most part engaging, though some may be put off with the unconventional casting choices, but it should not be a deal breaker. One of the reveals about a certain character near the end feels very forced and detracts from that character who was at that point one of the film’s quirkiest and memorable characters.

Speaking of casting, Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes/The Vulture is terrific as a working-class villain. The film takes the adequate amount of time to set him up and making him a bit sympathetic by showing him as being inadvertently pushed out of a lucrative living by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Instead of craving revenge like in an average superhero film, Toomes finds an inventive way of earning a living by scavenging parts and wreckage from superhuman battles. Then his gang turns these parts into futuristic weapons for the black market.

During the course of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the Vulture’s activities catches Spider-Man’s attention, and this leads to conflict between the two. On one side, Toomes sees the world with a cynical eye and just wants to take advantage of an opportunity to make some money. Parker, on the other hand, is a young idealist who wants to impress Stark and sees Toomes’ activities as being wrong. In the comic books, the Vulture has always been one of the weaker members of Spidey’s rogues gallery, but in this film he shines. He is actually one of the best villains ever featured not just in Spider-Man films, but in those of the MCU.

This Spider-Man film is clearly a film set in the MCU with its Easter eggs, references and character appearances. Despite the marketing, Iron Man is not a co-star of Spider-Man: Homecoming, though his influence is there with the constant name dropping and the high-tech Spider-Man suit that the title character dons in the film. The suit worn by Spider-Man is a true marvel with all of its gadgets and gimmicks, but it strays too much from the core of Spider-Man’s character that this film otherwise gets so right. Meaning that Spidey is more of an everyman, someone who is relatable to you and I and has the same problems we face.  Hopefully in the sequel they will address this and depower the suit. On a side note, this film proves what many fans have felt over the years: Tony Stark and Happy Hogan are a couple of dicks.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s emphasis on the hero’s hardscrabble roots and normal problems is why it’s so successful. Past Spider-Man films have shown this and were rightfully revered for doing so and this latest film continues that tradition. Not only that, but the film is a lot of fun and quite exciting at the right times. It zips along nicely without a dull moment since we are so invested in the characters when there aren’t any fisticuffs. Like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 there is some world building and set ups for sequels but unlike that film Spider-Man: Homecoming does not go overboard and as a result flows more smoothly and focuses rightfully on Spider-Man. The film does a great job of showing how Peter is still a novice at what he does, which led to some truly funny moments. Other times he gets in over his head and has to deal with the consequences. One interesting example is one scene where he crawls up a building that is higher than he’s ever scaled and when he realizes this has to deal with a fear of heights!

Now how does it compare to the Sam Raimi films? That is hard to say and will take some time to fully compare them, though the action sequences in the Raimi films were better filmed and on the whole those films were more evocative of the comic books. Also, the romances not just in Raimi’s, but in Marc Webb’s films were much better done as those actors had better onscreen chemistry than here. Still, Spider-Man: Homecoming feels more authentic and more grounded than the bombastic Raimi films. What this film has in common with the early films are the tributes and shout outs to unique Spider-Man moments and scenes directly lifted from the comic books. Remember that famous scene in Spider-Man 2 that was inspired by The Amazing Spider-Man #50? This film has another tribute to an equally famous moment from Spider-Man’s comic books, which will delight Spider-Fans.

Spiderman Homecoming in truck

After the misfire of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming successfully re-launches the franchise with this amazing (pun intended) entry. At the same time, this is a spectacular (another pun!) standalone MCU film in its own right that is another winner for the cinematic universe. Hopefully, Sony and Marvel Studios will keep this up in future films.

José Soto

 

Wonder Woman Rescues The DCEU

Alright people, especially you DC fans, breath a sigh of relief. The new film Wonder Woman is actually a rollicking great movie. Most fans know by now that Warner Bros./DC Studios’  DC Extended Universe (DCEU) had very public lately starting with last year and their weak cinematic entries Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. Many DC fans are in a state of near revolt at how badly the film studio have handled its superhero properties with the last good entry being 2013’s Man of Steel. After the embarrassing behind-the-scenes mishaps, everyone was looking to Wonder Woman to help right the ship for the DCEU. The only problem was that many doubted this new film could do that.

Well, those naysayers have been proven wrong. Wonder Woman is exactly what the DCEU and its fans need right now. Of course, it is not a perfect film. There are issues with pacing in the first half and the film overdoes the slo-mo shots, but on the whole, Wonder Woman is a fun and exciting jolt for moviegoers this summer season.

Diana Prince and Steve Trevor

Taking the best elements from Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, Wonder Woman takes those films’ fish-out-of-water scenario and period setting to create a joyous and unique adventure. Gal Gadot plays the title character of Diana, a super-powerful Amazonian princess raised on a mythical and secluded island populated by warrior women. One day a man washes up on its shores and it’s Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a Word War I soldier who introduces Diana to the outside world. Both characters go through the funny fish-out-of-water tropes, first with Steve on the island and later with Diana in war-torn Europe.

While these moments were amusing, the film kicks into high-octane and colorful action pieces midway through the film when Diana aka Wonder Woman fights in the war and never lets up. By that point, the action takes over and the film is a stunt and CG fest, but it’s not mindless. The filmmakers wisely gave us time to know the characters so that by the time Wonder Woman is racing through battlefields and taking out German soldiers audiences are fully engaged with her. Not to take away credit from the filmmakers, but Gadot deserves so much acclaim for pulling off this role. In many ways, the casting for Wonder Woman was more critical than other heroes like Batman or Superman. That is because in a field so crowded with male-led superhero films, the character had to grab us from the get-go and Gadot does that quite well. Now she joins the ranks of Christopher Reeve, Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey, Jr. as iconic actors believably portraying superheroes.

As mentioned before, the film has its issues. The villains are merely serviceable and this seems to be a common problem with recent superhero films that place so much focus on the main heroes. Zack Snyder’s influence is felt with the overuse of slo-mo shots, but the action and settings go beyond Snyder. For a DCEU film, Wonder Woman is much more colorful, vibrant and uplifting. But Snyder does deserve praise for seeing something in Gadot when he filmed Batman v Superman and she obviously was one of that film’s highlights. Warner Bros. should also be lauded for believing enough in the character to let her headline her own film.

Wonder-Woman-Gadot

Wonder Woman could not have come at a better time for the DCEU and everyone. Director Patty Jenkins has delivered a fresh and exciting superhero film and has helped restore confidence in the DCEU. It has some ways to go, but at least the bleeding has stopped thanks to Wonder Woman. Seriously, Marvel Studios made a huge mistake in letting her walk off Thor: The Dark World. Her cinematic eye, which is so evident in Wonder Woman, would have made the Thor sequel much more memorable than the standard muscle fest it turned out to be. Do not be surprised if this film’s success will mean that Wonder Woman, the character, will rightfully take her place among the headliners in the DCEU.

Waldermann Rivera