zondag 27 maart 2016

Today's Review: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

It's been a while, but I finally wrote another review for FilmTotaal. And this time, for a particularly big blockbuster movie, my first for this movie site:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - recensie

FilmTotaal is the biggest movie website in the Netherlands (no, really!), and in its case, users actually respond to critics' reviews. Often not in the most gentle manner, as there's quite a few trolls and/or generally loudmouth, obnoxious people haunting the site. Reviewers posting their opinion of overhyped blockbuster films like this one usually know they can expect to be firmly hated upon. However, for BvS, I gotta say there's only a few posts illustrating strong disagreement - to put it mildly - with what I wrote about the film. In fact, it seems the majority of users agrees with me: BvS is rather a disappointment. Not entirely bad (it still looks great and there's some good performances and lovely action, you know), but definitely a letdown.

Maybe the cause of its shortcomings is its director, Zack Snyder. He's been known to favour heavy topics surrounding flawed, traumatized characters living in unpleasant worlds filled with violent death. Even though he usually flavours said realms with a visually appealing, grandiose style of filming and fabulous artistry and dressing. Man of Steel, the movie to kick off this new DC Cinematic Universe which is meant to deliver some heavy competition at Marvel's doorstep, fit that bill perfectly, making the generally colorful and optimistic Superman a brooding alien refugee given near omnipotent power over his new neighbours, the human race. I liked Man of Steel. It made this God like character that much more identifiable by focusing on his lacks rather than his strengths. In its many philosophical moments, Man of Steel felt less like a superhero movie and more like a character study of a God living among man and contemplating his relationship with those who in all respects are so obviously inferior to him. Of course, that relationship is still explored in BvS, as the world now needs to cope with the existence of this powerful presence, a potential saviour to man. However, another type of hero has already been active for decades, it turns out.

For in BvS, the DC universe is supposed to be up and running for decades already. No starting from scratch here, as was the case for Marvel. For every character introduced, there is a long backstory that is teased, which in many cases frustrates more than it intrigues. Ben Affleck's Batman has been fighting crime for twenty years, and it has only made him darker. Crime has not been reduced, while his war on bad guys preying on the everyman has cost him dearly. No wonder he's grown so angry he's not averse to maiming and even killing criminals left and right. The Batman we've grown accustomed to was never a true killer, but Snyder's Caped Crusader has no such moral qualms anymore. And now there's this all powerful extraterrestrial policing the planet. A being Batman holds responsible for the invasion that laid waste to Metropolis and cost him employees and real estate. Affleck does a fine job portraying the sombre, disillusioned vigilante, but it cannot be denied that his explicit aim of killing Superman, who has since amply demonstrated he's on the side of justice, just feels wholly unjustified.

Meanwhile, as if the lethal rivalry between both tormented good guys was't enough to fill a two hour movie, Snyder introduces a younger version of classic villain Lex Luthor to pester them both. This evil tycoon, too, is haunted by a trauma involving his father, which is not enough to fully explain his demonic machinations in this film. What's more, Jesse Eisenberg's performance in the role is devoid of the 'wow' factor we would have hoped for. Applying a typical neurotic hyperactivity, Eisenberg is basically playing a nefarious version of his own Mark Zuckerberg. It doesn't make for a convincing baddie. Nor does Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman leave a lasting impression, which is also due to a lack of screen time (though 151 minutes certainly makes for a long piece already). Again, a shady past is implied but not explored. And so she leaves us confused by her transformation from uncaring socialite to warrior princess fighting for good.

Of course, with a subtitle like 'Dawn of Justice', adding more spice to your duo of core characters for a broader context is expected. So we also get this evil genius and a strong female heroine. But wait, says BvS, there's much more yet. A number of other super heroes is teased. But for ow, we simply cannot care. Worse, the still fairly investing story line of the titular protagonists is hindered by awkward attempts to set up bigger things to come, including an Apocalyptic nightmare of Batman wherein he's plagued by visions of a ruined world ruled by Superman (including insect warriors, I kid you not). Succeeded by a scene in which that same Batman is confronted with a temporal vortex and a warning from the future to stop someone doing something, totally out of the blue. Pointless material, as we already knew Batman was out for Superman's blood and this doesn't motivate him any more. Despite all the useless interruptions provided by DC's self-advertisement for coming attractions (to which we simply are not attracted), it's amazing we still at least care about the two iconic superheroes battling each other.

And their fight proves quite spectacular. Brutal, despite a lack of blood (PG-13 rating and all). But oh so dark and serious. Even Nolan's Dark Knight films, also not particularly light, optimistic fare, never lost sight of the need for a bit of humour and witticism. But Snyder tells such a gritty tale, there's simply no space left for those elements. Unfortunately, after the epic Batman/Superman throwdown, he however feels there is space left for another half an hour of three good guys battling an ugly digital monster. But this climax never feels near as climactic as the fight we expected to see and at least felt somewhat gratifying. As is usual for his approach, Snyder goes over the top much further than we would like him to have gone. Maybe he's not fully to blame for BvS' many shortcomings, a fair bit of it can likely be chalked up to DC interference for setting up the future. But that future does involve Snyder to a great extent, as he's already working on Justice League. We better hope he takes the failures of BvS to heart and lightens up a bit. There's gotta be more to the DC universe than angry heroes beating each other up...

dinsdag 22 maart 2016

Jurassic Park: Dinosaurs 2: (Ultra) Pteranodon

Year of release: 2004

Description: measuring almost 50 centimetres in wing span, this flying giant is undoubtedly the largest Pteranodon figure of all the JP toy lines. Because of its size there’s also room for a broader range of actions and sounds, making it a highly playable toy. It also has a pair of poseable legs to match. Action feature wise it’s not particularly imaginative: it's mostly the usual Pterosaur options. First, there is the biting beak: pressing the crest makes the beak open as if the animal is snapping at some poor piece of prey. Second, there is the wing flapping mechanism. Third, the fold-in wings: the outer half of each wing can be folded inward (outward too, but that just looks silly), as if the creature is adjusting its flight style. It looks very much like the Pteranodon is diving towards its victim when the wings fold inwards. Additionally, there are the sounds, four in total. The attack screech can be heard when activating the biting action by pressing the beast’s crest. The wound noises are produced by pushing the button in the dino damage wound (located on its right flank, revealing four white ribs and red muscle tissue). The other two sounds can be made by pressing the button on the back which makes the wing flap. Pressing it once and releasing it, or pressing it several times over, produces flapping sounds, while pressing it a bit longer activates a swishing noise, as if the Pterosaur is swooping down on its prey.
The main colour for this large Pterosaur figure is a greenish beige, which can be found all over the body, except for the very top of its back, which looks to be more light grey. Dark red stripes and shapes of various sizes cover this main colour, mostly rather diffused to make it feel more natural. Most obvious are the lines on the wings, while obvious concentrations of red are found around the legs and on the head. White colouring is located on the lower part of the wings (on both sides). The pins in the poseable parts of the wings, just under the fingers, are painted black. The top of the crest on the head is painted light yellow, while spots of the same colour are found right under this, running from half way of the crest to the nostrils. The Pteranodon has small yellow eyes (with black pupils), a pink tongue and a black JP III logo on its left wing.

Analysis: apart from the T-Rex, another big prehistoric creature returns for JP Dinosaurs 2. This fabulous Pteranodon sculpt might have been neglected for Camo-Xtreme, but at least it didn't remain totally forgotten. It's still one of Hasbro's best works, very large and rather detailed, as well as equipped with various cool action features and sounds. Aside from the paint job, it offers nothing new of course, but with a sculpt this good, that can be forgiven. The new paint scheme is quite original and imaginative. The overall pale colour adorned with dark red gives the flying beast a touch of death, underscoring the danger of a Pterosaur this big (certainly compared to the small Hasbro human figures, which look minuscule in comparison to this critter!). The way most of the red paint is applied, in rather vague smears instead of the more usual definite lines and shapes, gives it a more naturalistic, authentic look instead of the obvious artificiality of the usual paint job. The white colouring on the lower side of the wings feels redundant though. It seems such an odd place for extra colouring, unlike the yellow on the crest which could indicate the animal's social status, willingness to mate or age (though it seems unlikely Hasbro actually considered such realism).
Even the best Hasbrosaur has a few downsides though, and this figure sadly does too. Most obviously there is the annoying dino damage wound which can't be covered up, making this Pteranodon scarred for life (literally). More attention could have been given to the claws on the toes and fingers, as well as the inside of the mouth, though it's acceptable as it is. The most lousy thing are the screws that hold both halves of the wings together, right under the creature's hands. They should have been coloured to match, but were woefully ignored, making them feel hideously out of place. Overall, this is a fine, solid paint job, but there's just a few irritable little things. It's an excellent figure regardless and definitely worth your while if you don't own this sculpt yet.

Repaint: yes. This is a first time repaint of the JP III Ultra Alpha Pteranodon figure. The creature would be repainted again for JPD3.

Overall rating: 8/10. This is still one of Hasbro's finest sculpts, impressively sized and loaded with playability features. The new paint job is quite different, yet pretty appealing. Like the other big JPD2/3 electronic dinosaurs, this figure was common a few years back, but now it's running out fast. With luck, you can still find one for a decent price, but this may very well change in the not too distant future.

zaterdag 5 maart 2016

Today's Review: Alias Maria

The number of reviews written for FilmTotaal still grows:

Alias Maria - recensie

Director José Luis Rugeles has nothing but the best intentions with Alias Maria, but he tries a little too hard to show the full horror of being a young girl growing up in the FARC guerrilla movement. Of course there's little joy to be had and mostly despair to feel, but ninety minutes of watching nothing but misery without offering the tiniest shred of hope makes the audience equally miserable. We can do nothing but sit back and cry injustice about the horrors inflicted upon both women and children in the Colombian jungle, so we end up numb to the entire issue by the time the credits start rolling.

Part of our inability to feel for the plight of Maria, the young female protagonist who ends up pregnant in a society where babies are forbidden save for those of the man in charge, is first time actress' Karen Torres own inability to properly emote. It's laudable Rugeles opted for realism by using people who have lived through some of the same ordeals as their characters, but in terms of acting, it simply backfires. Torres' continuing stoic gaze and the few lines bestowed on her character throughout the piece, don't aid us in rooting for her or her unborn child. Like ourselves when watching this film, she simply undergoes everything that happens with little hope of changing her situation for the better. She and the other FARC guerrillas are like the ants Rugeles highlights throughout the piece: little soldiers with no discernible will of their own who fight and die for the only thing they know. In what few moments of reflecting upon their life Rugeles offers Maria and her fellow drones, contemplating a life outside the terrorist movement never seems to be considered a realistic option.

And their lives doesn't count for much as it is. Children are not allowed to be children here. If they can carry a gun, they are soldiers and so they fight. Same rules apply to them as to their older brothers/sisters in arms. Whoever refuses is shot on the spot, no matter their age. Needless to say, we witness quite a lot of death in Alias Maria. Rugeles doesn't go for excessive gore and violence, but there's still a few moments that show or at least suggest enough to make our stomachs turn. Children are obviously not spared. You'd think an organization that sees its losses mount on a daily basis would be happy with whatever new recruits babies eventually offer. But that's not the case, as baby noise proves to great a risk, even in the dense jungle. Rugeles' point that the FARC has no future, and nor do those who grow up in it, is hammered home quite adequately for his purposes, but at the end, we have simply grown as tired of all the suffering as Maria must be. But lucky us, we can simply leave all her misery behind us and go home...

vrijdag 4 maart 2016

Jurassic Park: Dinosaurs 2: Electronic Velociraptor with Micro Velociraptor

Year of release: 2004

Description: this Raptor figure stands in a dramatic pose when boxed, showing all its primal predator prowess, its body straight upwards, its legs wide apart and its vicious claws ready for battle, while its head faces upwards and is turned to the right, jaws wide open (incapable of being closed). The tail is bent in a sort of 'S' shaped fashion. This sculpt has proto-feathers on the back of its head, following the design change of the Jurassic Park III Velociraptors as compared to the Raptors seen in the first two Jurassic Park movies. Accordingly, it has one nasal ridge on each side of its head. A dino damage wound is located on the upper base of the tail, revealing some of its tail bones and red muscle tissue. Inside the wound a button is found: when pressed this produces a snarling sound. On its back this creature has a small brown lever, activating the slashing claw action feature. This also produces an eerie shrieking noise.
Blue is the colour of choice on this Velociraptor. A light blue colouring covers most of the head, neck, flanks, arms, legs and side of the tail. Its underside (throat, belly and front half of the tail) is painted greyish beige, while hints of this colour are located on the fingers, palms of its hands and around its eyes. A reddish brown stripe runs from the snout over the head, neck and back all the way to the end of the tail, while the same colour is also found around the nostrils, on the upper legs and on the feet. The proto-feathers are painted red, while a pair of red stripes runs over the brown colour on the back, and a third red stripe runs from the dino damage wound to about half way of the tail. Red is also found on the brown spots on the upper legs just above the knees. The inside of the mouth is dark brown and/or pink (it's hard to discern), while the creature has a pink tongue and white teeth with black specks on it as if it has dirty, rotten teeth. Additionally, the Raptor sports red eyes with black pupils and black eye liner, and black claws on both hands and feet. It also carries a big black JP logo on its right upper leg.
The Micro Velociraptor stands in a stalking pose, its right arm and leg stretched outward and its head raised upwards with its mouth open, as if it means to jump on something. The tail is raised upwards and bent leftwards at the tip. Most of this figure is coloured black, except for its throat and belly, which are painted reddish brown, and the very top part of the neck, back and base of the tail which is bright red and ends in a fork motif right above the cat like yellow eyes (with black pupils). The Raptor is equipped with a series of grey stripes, spots and dots of various sizes all over the black parts of its body. Both the claws and inside of the mouth are unpainted. The creature has white teeth and a white JP III logo on its left upper leg.

Analysis: another Electronic Hasbro Raptor with an original paint job sees the light of day. Its colour scheme is rather inventive, since blue isn't used that much on JP dinosaur figures, and certainly not on Raptors. It looks pretty decent on him, though blue and brown don't mix as well as blue and red, or red and brown. The detailing on the figure is okay, especially the dirty teeth are a nice touch, though in all fairness they can also be attributed to poor paint quality. The same can be said for the vague greyish beige colouring around the eyes and hands, which are either suggestive details or the result of sloppy repaint work. You better decide for ourself what Hasbro designers were doing here. The beige on the throat is rather poorly done because of the way the head is attached to the neck, creating a rather artificial looking triangular blue shape appearing in the neck. The figure's slashing jaws and sounds work as well as they did before, but unfortunately this Raptor still carries a big nasty wound you can't cover up and simply remains a huge nuisance. And of course it's still poorly balanced and tips over easily when not posed upright enough.
The Micro Raptor looks quite familiar, doesn't it? It's the Lava Raptor from Camo-Xtreme being paired with a bigger sculpt instead of with a JP III miniature figure for a change. It's almost identical to its predecessor, though it seems the teeth are a little more detailed. It's a lazy addition to the electronic Raptor, and despite these figures both being Raptors there's little coherence or consistency between the two figures considering the hugely different paint jobs. The little Raptor might as well be prey for its larger counterpart.

Repaint: yes. Both figures are repaints of JP III dinosaur sculpts. The Electronic Raptor was originally the Alpha Velociraptor of the JP III line: it has been repainted before for Camo-Xtreme, and would be repainted again for JPD3 and JP 2009. The Micro Raptor is not a repaint but a reuse of the Camo-Xtreme Lava Velociraptor from the Lava two-pack. Its first incarnation came with the JP III Alan Grant figure, while other repaints of it are scattered all over the Camo-Xtreme, JPD2, JPD3 and JP 2009 toy lines, making it one of the most often repainted (and least popular) JP figures around.

Overall rating: 5/10. The Raptor looks okay, sports an interesting (though not necessarily appealing) colour scheme and is fairly detailed, but otherwise hardly different than before and still far from the best Raptor sculpt around. The Micro Raptor unfortunately offers nothing new at all, being a simple reuse. Its paint job still isn't very good. Like the other JPD2/3 electronic dinosaur figures, this two-pack was very common a few years ago, but has since become increasingly hard to find, despite not being a very popular set. If you really need one, patience is most likely required.

woensdag 2 maart 2016

Oscars 2016: The Results

So now that annual Oscar ritual is over and done with for another year, let's see how many of my predictions turned out more than just a hunch.

Best Film:
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Also incorrect. But apparently, the same goes for most other people who figured The Revenant would come out on top. Few guessed correctly that the underdog Spotlight would take home this particular trophy. It seems that in an overly conservative mood, the Academy decided against going with the flow of what's popular (which I generally applaud) and gave the Award to this conservative drama piece. A good film to be sure, but simply not noteworthy by most accounts. Solid drama, some damn fine acting, a topic that still shows social resonation... but hardly a piece of cinematic innovation or exploration that will haunt audiences for years to come. People who complain about Oscar snubs will cry foul at the sight of this one for a few years. I'll get over it a lot sooner.

Best Actor:
First Choice: Correct. This feels like making up to predictability now. Everyone opted for Leo, so Leo won, almost as if by popular demand. The Academy always throws in one or two of these to keep the masses contented. But hey, few will consider his work on The Revenant as unworthy of this praise. Not me at least, as I, too, was part of Team Leo.
Best Actress:
First Choice: Incorrect. Don't be such a Blanchett fanboy, guy...

Best Supporting Actor: 
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Correct. Past success again proves to be no guarantee for present results.

Best Supporting Actress:
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Incorrect. This was a tough one. To be honest, I'm a bit mad at the Academy for nominating Vikander for the disappointing The Danish Girl rather than the terrific Ex Machina in this category. She did a heck of a job in both films, but I reckon it was harder to pull off for the movie that didn't get the nomination here (what with all the CGI and such). Danish Girl turned out to be a letdown in every way but the acting. Seems that saved the day for Vikander here. It pays to play in more than one film each year.

Best Director:
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Incorrect. Also a choice I hold umbrage against. Inarritu already won last year. Miller is 71 years old and has much shots at the gold left. This ought to have been his moment to shine. Whine whine, nag nag... This is another time the Oscars prove life sometimes just isn't fair.

Best Screenplay:
First Choice: Correct. I may not think Spotlight was the year's best film, but I never said it wasn't well written.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
First Choice: Correct.

Best Animated Film:
First Choice: Correct. Well, that one was a no-brainer.

Best Foreign Film:
First Choice: Correct. Also no real competition here. He said not having seen any of these films...

Best Cinematography:
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Also incorrect. Dang it, I knew I should have gone with Inarritu after Birdman! What was I thinking...

Best Editing: 
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Correct. Another tough one.

Best Production Design:
First Choice: Correct. I told you, seeing is believing on this one.

Best Costume Design:
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Correct. Man, I really thought those dazzling Disney dresses would do the trick again. Guess the Academy doesn't fall for those anymore...

Best Hair and Make-up:
First Choice: Correct. Obvious.

Best Score:
First Choice: Correct. My ears served me well on this one. It was just too beautiful to be anything else.

Best Song:
First Choice: Correct. Good title for a song, it turned out!

Best Sound Mixing:
First Choice: Correct.

Best Sound Editing: 
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Correct. The times Star Wars dominated the galaxy of sounds have ended. A new order has risen. Oh well, better luck next year, Star Wars!

Best Visual Effects:
First Choice: Correct. Because even the Academy thought Alicia Vikander was a Visual Effect in this one. Apparently, they considered her acting the same, otherwise they would have nominated her for this film. But all's well that ends well.

Best Documentary: 
First Choice: Incorrect.
Second choice: Correct. Indonesian genocide is so 2012, Amy Winehouse is all the rage today. And never again.

Correct: 11
Second choice: 5-4.
Incorrect: 9

Blast, these results are worse than last year... (Correct: 14, Second choice: 5-2, Incorrect: 7, FYI). Plenty of glaring obviousness again this year, but some major surprises and snubs. The Academy never makes things easy for both gamblers and movie insiders. Or people with a blog and too much time on their hands.