‘Big Hero 6’: Disney’s AwesomeLand

Remember how “Modern Family’s” Phil Dunphy invented AwesomeLand in this season’s Halloween episode? No? Well, basically, he put everything he thinks is Awesome on the front lawn of the Dunphy’s home.

That’s what Disney’s latest animated picture, “Big Hero 6,” feels like. Taking place in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo (Yes, a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo. Why? Because it’s awesome.), “Big Hero 6” is about 14-year-old boy-genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his band of “Avengers” — Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Go Go (Jamie Chung) and Fred (T.J. Miller).

Loosely based on a 2008 Marvel comic, “Big Hero 6” is another superhero origin story.

Raised by his enthusiastic Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and his older brother, Tadashi (because it wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the parents weren’t either absent or dead), Hiro wastes his potential winning loads of dough in illegal robot fights. That is, until Tadashi (Daniel Henney), introduces him to his acclaimed robotics university, the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and his life’s project, Baymax (Scott Adsit) — a portable and personable inflatable medical robot.

To apply for admission to SFIT, Hiro pitches his microbots: tiny electromagnetic legos that can do anything the mind tells it to.

“If you can think it, microbots can do it,” says Hiro, echoing the words of Walt Disney. “The only limit is your imagination.”

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That seems to be the limit of Disney’s latest 3D animation as well. Like the fusion city, “Big Hero 6” is held together by imagination (and hundreds of animators and visual effect artists).

The film — by nerds for nerds — pays homage to others in its genre. Baymax wears an Iron Man-esque armor. His Hulk-like strength protects Hiro from danger. Hiro keeps a dalek on his bookshelf. Stan Lee’s portrait hangs on the walls.

“Big Hero 6” feels like a Pixar film (like how “Brave” felt like a Disney film). The animators have inserted dozens of hidden Easter eggs, including a basement filled with comics and action figures. Hans’ (from “Frozen”) mug shot hangs on a “wanted” poster at the police station; “Wreck-It Ralph’s” featured on a billboard over the city.

Directed by Don Hall (whose credits include “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tarzan” and “Winnie the Pooh”) and Chris Williams (“Bolt,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Mulan”), “Big Hero 6” is a safe feel-good movie — filled with Disney’s perfected formula of both funny and poignant moments. Watching Baymax and gang in “Big Hero 6” is the perfect medicine for a bad day.

“Big Hero 6” was written by Jordan Roberts, Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Duncan Rouleau, Steven Seagle, Paul Briggs and Joseph Mateo. The film was directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. 

‘BoJack Horseman’: Netflix original comedy reining in the fun

bojack-horseman

He looks like a horse, but acts more like an ass (who can also be a pig and a snake). He’s BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), the surprisingly sympathetic star of the Netflix original adult cartoon about a wash-up ’90s sitcom actor.

BoJack’s claim-to-fame was as the parental figure of “Horsin’ Around,” a ’90s family sitcom about an anthropomorphic young stallion who adopts three adorable human orphans. The show’s about “good likable people who love each other, where, no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s going to turn out OK,” BoJack drunkenly tells Charlie Rose in a TV interview.

In contrast, “BoJack Horseman’s” the antithesis of the traditional family sitcom. His life since the show’s cancellation takes place in his bachelor pad in his secluded Los Angeles mansion (you can see the Hollywood sign from his window). His three kids are replaced with Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), his lazy freeloading roommate; and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), his cheerful frenemy who starred in a spin-off sitcom with a similar premise.

While being a celebrity certainly has its own benefits, we don’t know if everything’s going to turn out OK at the end of these 30-minute episodes. His “Horsin’ Around” co-star Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) just checked into rehab. The show’s creator, Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci), is dying of cancer. And when first we meet BoJack, he’s no longer a stud.

BoJack’s approaching 40 and suffering through an existential crisis. This means watching reruns of himself on TV, getting drunk on his couch, sleeping with his agent/on-again-off-again girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), eating a lot of carbs and trying to write a tell-all memoir to make people like him again.

“This book is my one shot in preserving my legacy,” says BoJack. “I’m a joke and if this book isn’t good, I’m going to be a joke forever. Everyone thinks I’m just this washed up hack, but actually… Oh God, what if they’re right?”

Banking on a success, Penguin (comedian Patton Oswalt) helps BoJack enlist successful ghostwriter Diane Nyugen (Allison Brie) to follow him around for the next 9 episodes. Like Diane, we’re there to witness BoJack steal muffins from a Navy SEAL (who’s literally a seal) on leave from Afghanistan; and we watch BoJack sabotage Todd’s attempts at a rock opera.

Sure, the hay’s a little stale. Like “30 Rock,” “BoJack Horseman” pokes fun at the industry. The Golden Globes are a “totally necessary awards show.” And character designer Cody Walzel creates anthropomorphic caricatures of Hollywood counterparts. Director Quentin Tarantino is a tarantula; Cameron Crow, known for his rock movies (“Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire”), is a raven who looks like a crow.

While “BoJack Horseman” is witty at times, the animated show spends a lot of time beating a dead horse. There’s some pretty bleak conclusions.

BoJack Horseman Meme“The universe is a cruel uncaring void,” Mr. Peanutbutter tells his girlfriend, Diane. “The key to being happy isn’t the search for meaning. It’s just to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead.”

While binge-watching distractions like “BoJack Horseman” won’t ultimately make you happy, writer and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s writing achieves what BoJack wants from story: to connect with people.

And as Netflix renews the show for a second season, it looks like it did.

“BoJack Horseman” was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. 

Hurray for the Riff Raff: singing against the grain

“Like an old sad song/ you heard it all before,” sings 28-year-old Bronx native Alynda Lee Segarra. That’s certainly true about Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s single “The Body Electric.”

The song’s beautifully simple repeating melody reinforces it’s haunting lyrics — allusions to the murder of 14-year-old African American Delia Green.

We’ve heard this sad song sung as ballads from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan; however, Hurray for the Riff Raff retelling (like Maurice Ogden’s famous poem “The Hangman”) questions the injustice and encourages political discourse.

Perhaps that’s what NPR‘s Ann Powers gravitated toward when she declared Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “The Body Electric” as the “political folk song of the year.” 

The song certainly has a hook. “Said you’re gonna shoot me down/ put my body in the river,” Segarra sings over the strumming of a guitar. The mysterious pronouns immediately places us into the murder-mystery (which might also explain the success of “This American Life’s” immensely popular podcast, “Serial”).

Or perhaps protests just fire us up. The Mike Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions brought millions to the streets all across America. Meanwhile, “The Hanging Tree,” the political rebellion song penned by Suzanne Collins, scored by The Lumineers’ Jeremiah Fraites and Wesley Schultz, and sung by Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” movie, was played more than 2 million times and downloaded more than 200,000 times within the first full week of its release. 

Segarra and her New Orleans-based band does what the narrator of “The Hangman” failed to do. Her voice cries out against the atrocities — from the murder of Delia Green to the death of Trayvon Martin. The only questions is: will you do the same?

You can donate to Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Body Electric Fund here: http://bit.ly/thebodyelectricfund

Money collected will be donated to The Trayvon Martin Foundation, the Third Wave Fund and other charities. 

‘American Horror Story Coven’: addictively bewitching

The third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s sensational television drama “American Horror Story” returns with a new haunted house, but familiar faces and friends.

There’s the evil narcissistic queen from Snow White (Jessica Lange), searching for eternal youth and beauty. There’s Romeo (Evan Peters) and Juliet (Taissa Farmiga) — only these star-crossed lovers meet at a frat party where they get only a few hours rather than three days.

Like season one and two of “American Horror Story,” Murphy and Falchuk take familiar stories and weave them into a coherent narrative. This one follows Zoe Benson (Farmiga), who finds out she’s a witch when she accidentally kills her boyfriend, Charlie (Kurt Krause). Zoe’s sent to Miss Robichaux’s Academy in New Orleans, a Hogwarts for young witches. At its helm is Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulsen), the daughter of coven leader Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange). Her young charges includes D-List movie star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), clairvoyant Nan (Jamie Brewer) and human voodoo doll Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe).

New Orleans is the perfect tapestry, full of creole culture and history. Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) is part of that history, a wealthy bigoted slaveowner who allegedly tortured 150 slaves. Cursed by Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), Madame LaLaurie’s immortal and buried alive in an unmarked grave. That is, until Fiona digs up LaLaurie, reviving a feudal war between her coven and Marie’s witches.

Once again, Murphy and Falchuk brew a powerfully addictive potion. They fill their dialogue with witch references (and there are a lot of them) from “Sabrina: the Teenaged Witch” to “Charmed.” They draw from a vast amount of sources from historical ones like the Salem witch hunts and Hurricane Katrina to fictional ones like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Natalie Babbitt’s “Tuck Everlasting” and Josh Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

This makes “American Horror Story Coven” read like a YA novel — punctuated with the tried-and-true formula of love triangles, betrayal and cliffhangers — while dosed in mature themes and images (a lot of sex and blood). When you wake up from Murphy and Falchuk’s spell, you’ll wonder how you binged-watched all 13 episodes in one sitting. If anything “AHS: Coven” will make you lose track of time.

De Palma’s ‘Untouchables’

Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” (1987) opens with an aerial shot of Italian American mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro) in a hotel room barber chair; media personnel form a half circle around him, ferociously scribbling in their notebooks as Capone feeds them soundbites. Capone certainly looks and sounds presidential; he’s in an ornate rotunda which makes you think of the oval office. He’s the king of the Chicago booze dynasty, blatently defying Prohibition laws while evading the feds.

In contrast, newly appointed U.S. Treasury Department agent Eliot Ness (a young Kevin Costner) is introduced quietly. The camera steadily pans out from the date on the wall (September 15, 1930) to a woman (Patricia Clarkson) packing lunch in the kitchen for her husband. As the camera turns down the hallway, we see the back of a man, sipping coffee while reading the paper. There’s little fanfare. Just a wife’s loving touch as she wishes him good luck on his first day of work.

The excellent camerawork (filmed by award-winning cinematographer Stephen H. Burum; edited by Jerry Greenberg and Bill Pankow; and directed by De Palma) is one of the reasons “The Untouchables” is a worthwhile study.

Another, is its moment in history. The story is based on Ness’ memoir, co-written by sports reporter Oscar Fraley. Ness and his secretive team of “untouchables” are known for bringing down Capone. Accompanying Ness include Irish beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), Agent Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) and rookie recruit Agent George Stone (Andy Garcia).

The real star, is the camera, who becomes another character. De Palma crafts many memorable scenes, teasing us with long one-take shots full of slow weaves and pans. In one such scene, we’re outside the home of a police officer, looking through the eyes of his would-be killer. The subjective camera lens shows the officer’s through a second story window, panning over brick walls. We see the killer’s hands on the window and door, as he creeps in. It looks like a scene from a first-person shooter game.

That’s not the only gimmick De Palma employs. He borrows western themes. Ness is the cowboy sheriff who rides into the seedy streets of Chicago, charged with avenging the children and women lost to the Prohibition war (Costner even somewhat resembles Alan Ladd’s “Shane” with the fedora doubling as a cowboy hat).

Alan Ladd (left) and Kevin Costner (right)

Alan Ladd (left) and Kevin Costner (right)

In one scene, we see a long sweeping shot of mountains panning to men on horseback. De Palma even incorporates a horse chase and shoot out (the Western saloon’s replaced by the public steps outside Chicago’s Union Station).

While De Palma certainly embellishes real-life events, “The Untouchables” is unforgettable. It’s not just the blood and gore and violence that you can’t get out of our head. It’s how De Palma painstakingly sets up the scenes (written by playwright David Mamet) before knocking everything down like a game a dominos.

“The Untouchables” is directed by Brian De Palma and written by playwright David Mamet, based on Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley’s book.