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….Suddenly, overhead, using the same projection technology as before in the queue, Hermoine appears and throws floo powder on you, spewing a tiny plume of green fog into your face, sending you flying  up into the air and through the floo network, emerging into the Astronomy Tower. I hate to say this, but the floo network sequence is HORRIBLE. It is very obviously a projection, and a bad one at that, with the edges of the projection visible to all of the riders and the motion of the seats, although smooth, feeling very inorganic. Additionally, the floo network itself is video-game quality CGI, which only adds to the unbelievability. The whole effect, including the lackluster fog at the beginning, is not very well done. Why they couldn’t have it appear as though you are entering a fireplace, even if doing so sideways, and THEN flying through the floo network after getting consumed by green flames, is beyond me, but they needed to (and if at all possible, need to think about reprogramming/updating to include that) because what they have now is laughably BAD. Out of the floo network, you emerge into a practical themed area which is the Astronomy Tower, a surprisingly immense and beautiful space that acts a anchor to the reality of what you are about to encounter, complete with an enormous armillary sphere and blue sky beyond the pillars of the astronomy tower. From here, you fly left to a concave screen of Harry and Ron high above Hogwarts, both of who greet you and quickly whisk you down closer to the castle where you suddenly meet Hagrid and Fang who ask if you’ve seen a dragon, menacingly producing an enormous chain with nothing attached to the end of it…

Harry and Ron disregard him and fly underneath the bridge and on towards the Quidditch pitch, but suddenly, the dragon flies up and begins to chase the boys as well as you, bumping you down away from the screen and into the bridge (as featured prominently in the Prisoner of Azkaban). The Bridge/dragon sequence is hands down the most thrilling and best part of the entire ride. It is done entirely through practical effects and is actually kind of scary for a few seconds. Once inside, you fly through the covered wooden bridge at a dizzying pace as the dragon’s wing appears menacingly in front of you beyond the bridge, flapping as flaming rips tear through the roof of the bridge. Suddenly, there is a roar and the crash of splintering wood and suddenly, you are faced with the broken bridge, falling down into its support beams where the dragon is waiting for you. Coming within inches of each other, the dragon spews flaming fog into your face, propelling you back down into the Forbidden Forest. (Just as a side note, that dragon head is a practical effect as well, and it is SPECTACULAR, a fully-operational animatronic that is frightening to behold and unnerving to literally come within inches of. Just so you know!). Now in the dark and misty Forbidden Forest, you see the thin thread of spider silk surrounding you as spiders drop from the trees, spitting venom at you as you delve deeper into Aragog’s layer. Suddenly (and if you blink you’ll miss it), you come face to face with Aragog himself, the dark, blind Acromantula that inhabits the grotto of the Forbidden Forest. He is terrifying, especially considering how close you are to him, but he is lit very poorly and you speed past him in a flurry. If you close your eyes at the wrong moment (or, if you’re arachnophobic, at the right moment) you’ll miss him completely, even though he’s literally right in your face and even spits on you, so keep those eyes open! Trust me, you’ll regret it if you don’t!

The entire Aragog sequence is very, VERY dark and potentially terrifying to severe arachnophobes. None of the animatronics are very complex or advanced, and truthfully, beyond the unnerving hissing noise that they feed into the benches, the atmosphere itself is a bit barren, but just like Disney’s DINOSAUR, this is one place where a dark room, some loud noises and couple of carefully placed ‘startle’ moments really turn an otherwise boring sequence into something that was, surprisingly, talked about after the ride.

Flying out of the grotto, you are greeted (rather randomly may I add…hmmm…) by Hermoine who, for some reason, appears in a hole in the side of the grotto telling you to quickly head towards the Quidditch pitch (which makes absolutely NO SENSE, seeing as we are muggles and have no clue how to get out of the Forbidden Forrest, much less make it to the Quidditch pitch, but I digress…). From here,  you emerge into a giant room that is very obviously a metal warehouse room that houses the enormous Whomping Willow. This is the first place in the ride where the magic is broken a bit, as you can clearly see the room containing the ill-tempered tree, despite it being very dark, and the tree itself does not move save for two separate branches, one of which flings randomly in the air overhead and the other of which ‘slams’ down onto the flying benches. Unfortunately, you can clearly see where these branches connect into the trunk of the tree with no blending of the static and dynamic occurring themeing wise here. Lastly, a sharp burst of air blasts you as are ‘hit’ by the bulbous tree branch.

Normally, this might be an enhancing effect to an otherwise lackluster event-room in the ride, but the pneumatic compressors used to produce the blast of air are so painfully loud that they overpower the soundtrack and are even audible upon first entering the room itself (which is NEVER a good thing- the audience should never see or be aware of an effect before they reach it).  Following this blast of air, you are thrown upward/sideways into another concave screen (all of which I should add are hidden VERY well, not at all suffering from the same ‘blending’ problem that plagues the screens of The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman that is just across the Islands lagoon)   where you are confronted by Harry who whisks you off into the throes of a Quidditch match alongside Ron. Like the other moments in front of the screens, the flying bench moves very smoothly, (in my opinion unnaturally so, but many who have ridden actually like how smooth it is, so there you go!).

After only minutes in the match, zipping around the field, a dark funnel cloud swirls down from the sky from which pour a deluge of Dementors. Harry, naturally, flips his lid and pulls you down into the trench run of the Quidditch pitch with Draco Malfoy tailing you like the obnoxious little git that he is…until, suddenly, a Dementor flies in front of you and the bench is knocked backwards into a dark cave. In a flash, a Dementor vaults from the dark and into your face, its ghoulish breaths filling the air around you.  Now, almost nothing on this ride up to this point made me recoil or feel even the slightest twinge of fear, but this part scared the willies out of me…it is so unexpected and so quick, you literally have no time to prepare for it and before you know it, that soul-sucking beast is within inches of your face! I was startled, freaked out and simultaneously proud of Universal for being smart enough to engineer a scare like this! It was strangely refreshing in a way (What does that say about me as a person? Hmmmm….oh well, I’m weird, you all know that by now…)

Unfortunately, this bright moment is quickly snuffed out as a continuous barrage of Dementors attack you in the cave. While the first Dementor was well planned, well placed and adequately hidden, the rest are visible long before you ever reach them and many, even, are still interacting with the car in front/behind you! Clear as day! Now, this may not seem like much, but it ultimately destroys the entire surprise factor. Couple this with the fact that the Dementors’ hydraulic arms (including limited-edition accessories of green LED indicator lights and fabulous electrical cords) are not even attempted to be hidden and you have yourself a hot, Dementor mess. However, apart from that initial one, when you get a good look at these things, which are supposed to be the single scariest thing in all of the Potterverse (according to JK Rowling) then you begin to see that they appear to be nothing more than standard, garden-variety Halloween decorations. Their black capes actually looked like shreds of old cheesecloth and their heads, which could have been organic and dynamic and terrifying to behold, looked like oversized Nerf footballs covered in pantyhose….they were so poorly done and so obviously animatronic that it was laughable by the end of their scene.

However, in the middle of the Dementor sequence, you emerge into a spectacular space and truly one of the best scenes of the ride (visually speaking): The Chamber of Secrets. This room contains all of the fixings of the film version of the legendary vault of Salazaar Slytherin, including a giant, carved portrait of a man (whose mouth you fly through…enough said…), stone snake heads and perfect rockwork/lighting. The space is immense, interesting and like the rest of the scenes on the ride, doesn’t last long enough for you to truly take it in. After flying sideways through the agape mouth, you are confronted by a final Dementor who leans in close and sucks your souls from your body, portrayed rather comically by an LED light in the mouth of the Dementor and a smoke screen displaying a picture taken of your bench earlier in the journey.

Now, this effect is fun, funny and a great way to make you feel a part of the magic…when it works, that is. Altogether, I rode this 4 times over the course of a week and the effect only worked properly once, with the smoke screen (think Davey Jones on the Pirates of the Carribean) failing to cover enough space for the projection to work twice and one time, the Dementor that does the ‘soul sucking’ never even moved… it wasn’t good. Particularly seeing as this is the final big thrill of the ride as you are then propelled into another concave screen where you see Harry shout ‘expecto-patronum’ and blast away the Dementors attacking you. The moment could have been  (and SHOULD have been) the climax of the entire ride with a blast of practical effects and slew of animatronic Dementors flying back as you charge through them in a flurry, but instead, he shouts the famous spell with about as much gusto as Snape on bath day. The next part, made me cringe in shame…. Harry yells “it’s caving in” and the bench follows the movement of the screen as CGI rocks fall from the ceiling, almost crushing Harry before he valiantly escapes and emerges out above the grounds and flies back to Hogwarts. This concept is not inherently bad (though certainly not original either) and it could have provided a much needed traditional thrill to the ride with the benches suddenly plunging down (as in a REAL hill, just like a rollercoaster would do)  as the rocks just barely miss the riders as they descend only to suddenly spring back up and out over Hogwarts (which could have been a separate screen at the top of the next supposed hill). This would have been thrilling and unexpected, but no such luck. Instead, you get a few seconds of motion simulation before you are thrown back into the Great Hall where you are greeted by all of Hogwarts, clapping and waving through the doors of the halls. The moment is neat and the practical themeing surrounding the screen is very, very well done. Flying again to the right, you reach another doorway and another screen, where Dumbledore says thank you, proclaims that you are always welcome back and to tuck in your elbows as you are flung once more into the Floo Network (UGH…it’s SOOO BAD!) and finally descend back onto the loading dock to disembark. Thus ends your Forbidden Journey through Hogwarts!

Overview:

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a fun, innovative and generally well-conceived ride that, with some tweaking, will stand out for years to come. It does have flaws though, and the flaws that it has are fairly major ones that did draw notice and criticism from other riders beyond myself. Universal, once it gets a handle on the ridiculous crowds, needs to go back in and redo a number of things  on the Forbidden Journey during the off-season, including (but not limited to): entirely new/reworked floo network sequences, new Dementors (or at least new heads…Creepier/more realistic please!) , retooled Whomping Willow scene, a fix for the hit-or-miss soul sucking Dementor, and finally, a re-imagined ‘expecto-patronum’ moment at the end. All of these fixes are well within Universal’s capability and budget, it is just a matter of willingness on the part of Universal Creative (who, admittedly, may have bigger fish to fry with the looming end of the Marvel contract which was bought by Disney just this last year).

Overall, the Forbidden Journey is a fun, magical but flawed experience that is great for fans and newcomers alike. Don’t expect huge thrills or scares and you won’t be disappointed by what Hogwarts has to offer!

The Good: Dragon Sequence, AWESOME queue line, Chamber of Secrets scene, smooth ride motion, Great practical themeing.

The BAD: FLOO NETWORK ( YES. It really is THAT bad.), Dementors, Whomping Willow, Cave-in moment.

WWoHP: Review Part I

WWoHP: Review Part II

WWoHP: Review Part II

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Courtesy of IMDB.com

3. Casablanca

Director: Michael Curtiz

Productions Designer: Carl Jules Weyl

This 1942 cinematic legend proves that while color can certainly help the visuals in a film, black and white can be just as stunning. The visuals in this film draw their impressive quality not from CGI (which of course didn’t exist), elaborate sets or even abnormally inspiring costuming (although the costumes are beautiful), but rather from the simple way it is filmed and how it tells the romantic tragedy of the two most famous lovers in cinematic history. As with most films of the time, the camera movement is slow, but calculated and unlike today, every single shot is used to convey some aspect of the story line, with the care taken to establish the frame and actors in each scene apparent from the very beginning. All this considered, you don’t see many films like this today with the level of visual excellence and production design of Casablanca. Yes, it is slow, yes, it is black and white, but if you can put away your cinematic inhibitions for a bit, you may just be surprised by Casablanca‘s abnormally modern look and feel, especially considering when it was made.

3 Scenes to Watch


Courtesy of IMDB.com

4. The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Production Designer: Dennis Gassner

The Golden Compass, based on the book The Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman, the first installment in the His Dark Materials series of books, is one of those rare exceptions where few liked it, but those who did, LOVED it (myself included). It failed financially (domestically) due to heavy protesting by American conservative Christians and a dramatic, fatal last-minute edit by New Line, who feared the film was too dark and that the ending was too sad for a film aimed at children. The result is a film that is too short for the subject matter, disjointedly edited and wholly unfinished feeling at the end. If you don’t know how it ends, I won’t ruin it for you, but suffice to say it takes about 30 minutes longer than the film currently ends, the bad guys get away, a main character dies and Lyra is left in a situation that to say is bleak would be a horrible understatement…and no, that is not giving away much at all. Visually though, the film is probably the single most impacting of any on this list. A mixture of steampunk, art nouveaux and victorian aesthetics make this fantasy a visual piece of candy. Mix this with CGI (particularly the Magisterium zeppelin, the Alethiometer and Iorek Byrnison) that is mind boggling and some of the coolest costumes ever seen in a movie (designed by Ruth Myers) and you are set for an experience, that while not emotionally fulfilling, will leave your brain’s occipital lobe abuzz.

3 Scenes to Watch

(Left: Any Scene Involving the Alethiometer. Center: The Sky Ferry/London Sequence. Right: Lyra in Oxford)

Casablanca and The Golden Compass, and their images, are the property of Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Pictures respectively.

What are your most visually stunning movies of all time?  Leave a comment and tell me below!

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Photo is Property of Paramount Pictures

Racebending.com needs to walk the walk

It is the summer season and now is the time for butt-kicking blockbusters and good, no-nonsense fun at the movie theatre. But this season’s glut of Blockbusters is plagued by a movement that has reared its ugly head just this last year, a movement that seriously needs to take a look at itself in the mirror and ask what it is TRULY fighting for… Racebending.com.

This site and grass roots movement was born out of rage from Asians and Asian-Americans concerning the casting for M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount Picture’s film The Last Airbender, and has since spread to Disney and Bruckheimer’s new film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.  The interesting subtext to the criticism of both of these films is that they are: 1. Two of the most expensive movies of the year and 2. Based on pre-existing, popular material. For those who don’t know, I’ll elaborate.

The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is an action/adventure/epic based on the first installment of the wildly popular video games series Prince of Persia. The Last Airbender is also an action/adventure/epic based on Nickelodeon’s television series, Avatar: The Last Airbender (Avatar was dropped from the title so as to avoid confusion with James Cameron’s film), and was created by Michael Di Martino and Bryan Konietzko.

Both films are based in fictional realms, with Prince of Persia taking place in a romanticized and fantastic version of ancient Persia and The Last Airbender taking place in a wholly  fictionalized realm with Asian/Nomadic/Western influence driving the storyline, but primarily Asian culture influencing the aesthetics of the world.

Both films have been lauded as visually capturing the aesthetics of their respected worlds, so where does the controvery come from? Simply put: Casting. Now before I continue, I should note that what follows is purely my own opinion based on the information that has been presented to me, unlike my counterparts at Racebending.com, I do not claim to know the minds of the creators/filmmaker/cast/producer and will do my best not to make any assumptions heretofore beyond what has been confirmed by either Paramount, Shyamalan, Marshall (producer) and/or Konietzko/Di Martino.  Despite this disclaimer, I realize my own fallibility and biases, I must and do recognize this for the sake of professional fairness.

Racebending.com’s general qualm with both of these films is that, put simply, since they are influenced by Persian and Asian culture respectively, they should have cast Persian/Asian actors in the lead roles. The logic in this argument is sound, you would be a fool not to recognize it. However, just because the logic of the argument is sound, doesn’t mean the argument itself is sound. Which it isn’t.

Racebending.com asserts that since both films are confirmed by their respective creators (for the record, all of who are caucasian in both camps, but this argument I realize holds no water, it is a point, though, that I feel needs to be acknowledged) as being heavily influenced by Persian and Asian culture, art, mythology and theology. This fact is incontrovertible, as Racebending.com recognizes and tauts. The problem with Racebending.com’s argumentation comes with the WORDING of this fact, namely, ‘influence’. The whole of Racebending.com’s argument is based on the confirmed fact  (and blatantly obvious representation) of these respective influences. They assert that since a film/world/etc. is based on a culture or aesthetic, then the corresponding people who are usually (and mostly stereotypically) asso0ciated with the specific culture/aesthetic in question are the only people suitable to fill the roles of the stories taking place in the worlds in question.

This is where the problem lies with Racebending.com. To say that simply because a film/story/world is based upon a realm/culture in the real world they (the filmmakers) should cast individuals who sometimes correspond to the aesthetic presented is, in and of itself, completely and utterly racist. Especially in today’s world of acceptance and understanding, saying that because Persia and/or Airbender have Buddhist/Hindu/Asian/Middle Eastern influences constitutes the restrictive casting of individuals who are racially connected to these influences is not only a contradiction of its own proclaimed message, but it is the very definition of racism.

Let me review (I realize the long-windedness of the previous, for which I apologize), 1. Confirmed Asian/Middle Eastern/Western influences. 2. Logically, Influence =/= Race.  Now, again let me reiterate that this is simply my opinion and mine alone, but Merriam-Webster (dating back to 1933) gives a chilling definition of racism, one that when considering Racebending.com’s argument, should send a sickening chill of familiarity down the spines of anyone who is reading:

Racism: 1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

Yikes. This is exactly what I thought when I first read Racebending.com’s doublespeak filled website. I was raised to believe that no human being is different from another and that any cultural differences we have as a species should be recognized, honored and respected in all instances, even when used fictional and/or humorous outlets (I believe in the ability to poke fun at and laugh at one another’s cultures, beliefs and stereotypes, including my own, but that is another blog and issue entirely). Essentially, I was raised to be colorblind, but not culture blind. The problem is most people believe that culture and color go hand in hand. For example, because I am white/caucasian, my primary language should be English, I should be Judeo-Christian in religious orientation, live somewhere in a westernized country and wear khakis and polos to work…ridiculous right? Insulting right?  While this is admittedly an exaggeration, it is the quintessential argument that Racebending.com is making.

If calligraphy, asian iconography and martial arts and the fact that some characters were drawn with darker skin, different eyes, different clothes, etc. means the film has to feature asian actors in its main roles, then by the same exact logic, films that occur in a fictionalized version of England can only feature pasty white/caucasian, tea-drinking, bad-teeth touting, english accented prigs in fancy hats/dresses? All because that is the cultural association? Insutling, isn’t it? Racist, isn’t it? This sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it is absolutely no different from what Racebending.com is asserting about The Last Airbender. If I were a member of the asian community, which admittedly I am not, I would be downright embarrassed by what the people who claim to speak for me are saying, much less willing to rally behind their cause. If you want to see  an example of racism wearing a different hat, look no further than Racebending.com.

Additionally, apparently the casting of multiple actors/actresses of Middle Eastern/African American/Asian descent or heritage in pivotal/key roles does not constitute a culturally/racially diverse film for the supporters of Racebending.com. Why? Because they are not strictly Asian, a point that is reiterated over and over again on the Racebending.com webpage (Don’t believe me? Go read for yourself: http://www.racebending.com). Not culturally diverse just because it does not exclusively cast asian/nomadic actors/actresses in the lead roles? That is racism at its ugliest if I have ever seen or heard it.

A few things to note:

I am very hard on Racebending.com, because I DO believe that while their intentions are noble, which they most certainly are, their views and methods are inflammatory and increasingly verging on libelous.  They also do this, in part, because many of them are fans of the original show, something we most definitely share as I followed the show since its very first season and it, its story of hope, love, friendship and quest for peace, has enriched my life. Lastly, I do recognize their frustration concerning the lack of casting of asians in films, as well as their point regarding the third-party casting agencies poor choice of words on their casting call, saying “Caucasian or any other race”, for which there is absolutely no excuse. However, these frustrations taken into account, going about it by boycotting films that increase awareness of asian influences/culture (despite the casting) and may possibly break ground for more films like it is not, in my opinion, at all the way to go about it. I equate it to the Christian community’s boycotting and protesting of The Golden Compass. Now the film’s inadequacies notwithstanding, the Christian community’s protest and eventual success (again, in my opinion) in ruining the financial success of the film did not do anything in the end for the Christian community. It did not increase the number of Christian/Christian-based films in the mainstream market, increase awareness of the Christian message and/or cause, and it did not stimulate conversation between believers and non-believers. At the end of the day, all that movement did was destroy the American box office success of a film that could have potentially stimulated questions and the opportunity for conversation/ministering to non-believers, not to mention unfairly discounting a story as “satanic” and ‘dangerous” that touts poignant messages of hope, courage and love. I am a Christian, and it was sad what my own people did to The Golden Compass, and I would really hate to see the same thing happen to The Last Airbender and by unavoidable extension (whether right or not) the Asian community.

I would never dare tell you what to think. I can only voice an opinion. You, my readers, must ultimately make the decision for yourself. I, nor Racebending.com, has the right to tell you that either one of is definitively right or wrong (who am I to judge?). What I can offer are my primitive observations and one seriously passionate opinion. In the end, it is your choice and that is the one thing no one can take away from you.

Thanks for reading and leave a comment below (disrespectful or hateful comments, directed at myself, Racebending.com, Paramount, or anybody else, will be deleted, at my subjective discretion, without warning or explanation, so please think before you write).

EDIT: For those who read my blog (all ten of you), note that I realize that this is not at all in tune with my normal pieces of writing and I will return to my normally light hearted writing. Regardless of what people think or say about the above entry, I just had to say something or I knew I would regret it. I’ll be back this week with more fun blogging! Thank You to everyone who reads!

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