Monday, January 31, 2011

The Disney Timeline: The Last Five Years (2005-2010)

January 31, 2011

Animation historian Jerry Beck released a book in 2005 titled "The Animated Movie Guide," which chronicles just about every single animated feature ever made from the early days of Snow White up to Pixar's The Incredibles in 2004. Given the popularity of CGI films and the presumed decline of 2-D animation since then, it's safe to say that things have changed in the last five years. And with amazing effect.

When the Disney studios bought Pixar in January 2006 by means of a $7.4 billion acquisition deal, new CEO Bob Iger made Pixar co-founder John Lasseter (director of Toy Story 1 & 2 and Cars) the Chief Creative Officer of both studios. Beginning in 2007, Lasseter has had a hand in serving as the executive producer of almost every animated feature released, beginning with the entertaining Meet the Robinsons and the widely-acclaimed Ratatouille in 2007. In addition, on of the goals under Lasseter's leadership was to revive hand-drawn animation, which many have feared dead since the 2004 release of Home on the Range. Thus, Disney veterans such as directors John Musker and Ron Clements, as well as animators Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, and James Baxter, were brought back into Disney for the hand-drawn form. What resulted were the releases of 2007's Enchanted (a live-action/animated hybrid, paying homage and parody to the Disney classics of the early days) and The Princess and the Frog (the studio's first animated fairy tale since 1991's Beauty and the Beast). And with the current release of the CGI Tangled and the upcoming summer 2D release of Winnie the Pooh, I believe we may be in another golden age of animation a la the Disney Renaissance.

The following is a short video interview with John Lasseter from late 2009 regarding the Disney-Pixar acquisition, as well as the medium of animation and what makes is so great.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Films Can Get Overwhelming or, For Your Consideration

I would like to put on record (and, hopefully, I'm not alone in this) that movies do overwhelm me at times. Everytime I come back to my "100 Favorite Films of All-Time" list, I just get lost in different titles, scenes, lines, opinions, lines, etc. As much of a film buff as I am, I have to convince myself that I won't see every movie there is. In addition, I probably will never finish my Top 100 list, as I come back to it and find it not only hard to narrow down my choices, but also hard to avoid or restrain favoritism. I sometimes compare it with a person or relative, if that makes any sense. One more thing I should note: As much as movies can be influential, they should not be classified as a Gospel or Bible. Spiritual health and living cannot derive or be refueled by the arts and media alone. There has to be a greater source. A more worthwhile source. An honest source. A more pure source.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar Nominees 2011

The Oscar nominations were announced at 5:30 this morning. The King's Speech and True Grit lead the bunch with 12 nominations, including best picture, best actor, and best director for each (respectfully). Jeff Bridges received his sixth career Oscar nomination, while newcomer Hailee Steinfeld won her first nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Golden Globe-Best Picture winner The Social Network received eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Jesse Eisenberg), Best Director (David Fincher), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin). Christopher Nolan's mind-bending thriller Inception got eight nominations as well. Nolan received two nominations in the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay categories (but not a Best Director). Pixar's mega-hit Toy Story 3 and Darren Aronovsky's dark fantasy Black Swan each received five nominations. Natalie Portman is a high contender for Best Actress for her role in the latter film. Toy Story 3 became the second film in both Pixar and the Academy's history to be nominated for Best Animated Feature and Best Picture, as well as the third animated feature in history to receive the latter nomination (following 1991's Beauty and The Beast and last year's Up).

This is also the second year there are ten films nominated for Best Picture, including all seven films mentioned above. The other three nominated are David O. Russell's The Fighter (with Christian Bale as a high contender for Best Supporting Actor), the lesbian comedy-drama The Kid's Are All Right (with Annette Bening in her fourth Oscar-nominated role), and Danny Boyle's 127 Hours (with Best Actor-nominee James Franco as the real-life Aron Ralston).

I can't really comment too much on these films, since I haven't seen all of them. I've had my concerns about past Oscar shows, specifically due to the fact that many of the films that have been nominated don't come out until the end of the year. I will say, however, that last year (2009 films), as well as this year (2010) have had a lot of interesting nominees and films out - again, not that I've seen every one of them. The nominees this year, in large part, seem very unique that it must be hard for Academy voters to decide who will take home the trophy in the respective categories. I will say, also, that I do have just a couple predictions - just a couple. For one thing, I'm rooting for Christian Bale for Best Supporting Actor for his phenominal performance in The Fighter, and Colin Firth may likely get Best Actor for his role in The King's Speech (which I have yet to see and cannot wait to see). As for the Best Picture nominees - yet again, not that I've seen all of them -, I would narrow it down to The Fighter, The King's Speech, The Social Network, and Toy Story 3 as high contenders. (This is tentative, and is likely to change.)

More info and updates soon to come.

Sincerely Yours,
B.E.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Inspiration for Transition Story

One of the challenges in writing a good story or article or essay is figuring out and deciding what the most interesting things are, also the most unique, the most important. I first developed an idea for a story as far back as my senior year in high school, centered on students who were going to be graduating soon. It started out as a cartoon series, having made two previous cartoon series myself. This time, I figured, since it was the last semester of my senior year at the time, I would devote my new series to that time and illustrate characters who had different struggles in terms of what would happen or what they were going to do after graduation.

I watched several teen/high school-related movies within the past two years, and have come to the near- conclusion that three of them are the most resourceful for my current story (which I've been shelving and updating on-and-off for the last six years): American Graffiti (1973), Breaking Away (1979), and The Breakfast Club (1985). To me, these are films that contain unique characters, a unique setting, and a specific time duration.

American Graffiti is set during the course of one night before students head off to college. It takes place in and around the town of Modesto, California. Its cast of characters includes between 10 to 15 students entering (while some are fearing or questioning) adulthood, all representing distinct cliques or sorts - jocks, "populars," outsiders, etc. Breaking Away is set in Bloomington, Indiana, during the course of one summer - about a year after a few characters (refered to as "cutters" - that is, a slang for local townfolk) have finished high school and are in no hurry for the next direction in life. Other characters include students at the local university, as well as the parents of one central character. The Breakfast Club occurs during one Saturday detention period at the fictional Shermer High School in Shermer, Illinois. The five main characters represent different cliques - the brain, the princess, the athlete, the criminal, and the basket case. Eventually, they discover that they have more in common than they believe.

Another challenge in writing an original story is avoiding what's been done before (e.g., best moments in high school, graduation celebration, and so forth). The present setting I have for my piece ("Colleagues," as the working title) is the last semester of the senior year in High School. It is also set within the first few years of the new millenium, as to illustrate and present a more up-to-date version of high school life. What I wish to avoid is showing a graduation story and (I'm presently debating) flashbacks from a present time to a past event or situation. One strong choice is to show certain events in pictures or dialogue, as a way to avoid overt sentimentality and such. Don't get me wrong, I believe in the power of emotion in film, but there's a certain line that you can't cross or only cross over so far when it comes to authenticity and believability.

Because it's a coming-of-age story (or, as I prefer, a "transition" piece), it's important to have characters go through real emotions and situations. I said that I started this concept with a series of cartoons (and believed the story could be told through animation, as a form of authenticity), but I'm debating if I should go for a live-action take.

More notes coming soon from yours truly,
B.E.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Films of 2009: "Where the Wild Things Are"

Maurice Sendak’s 1964 Prize-winning children’s book Where the Wild Things Are contains 18 illustrations and ten sentences. Only four of those sentences, divided, occupy 17 pages altogether. Director Spike Jonze’s film version of the book is over an hour-and-a-half, requiring more in-depth characterizations and thematic material.

Unlike past adaptations of children’s books, which seemed more about expanding the story than telling it (Cat in the Hat, anyone?), this film version does likewise, except that it creates a level of childhood innocence and angst that expands the scope and structure in a very sophisticated, poignant, and quite intense way. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but recall the emotional struggles and alienation of the character Elliot from E.T. Like Elliot, Max (played by Max Records) struggles with ignorance from his mother (played by Catherine Keener) and sister. Also, a father figure is missing in his life. On top of that, and unlike Elliot, Max’s angst in terms of reckless behavior and play is startling at times, even before he runs away to the land of the Wild Things.

Some of my friends and colleagues have told me that they didn’t like this film version. One of them quoted it had “terrible values,” while another said it was good but “different.” I would agree on the latter note, in terms of the tone and environment that Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers (who also penned Sam Mendes’ Away We Go) chose. As other reviewers have noted, even though this film is based on a children’s book, it is not necessarily a children’s movie. Its level of angst and intensity may likely make some viewers scratch their heads. On the other hand, no film in recent memory has taken a short book and given it a mature level of storytelling, complexity, characterization, and environment that is both unique and creative. I, for one, thought the overall tone and quality was intriguing and visually-poignant; not to say that I wasn’t startled at times (I was).

It should also be noted that the puppetry and facial animation of the Wild Things is pulled off very well. The Jim Henson-esque puppet suits are a perfect representation of Sendak’s classic illustrations, and their characterizations are quite convincing, especially Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), whom Max identifies with the most, and KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), an independent female Wild Thing who is considering leaving her clan.

Overall, Wild Things the film plays better to a Juno crowd of teens and adults rather than to the Pixar crowd. (Although, come think of it, Up had some pretty heavy themes in it as well.) Therefore, this is a definite case where the PG-rating should be taken seriously. Yet, apart from the book (and maybe even better), it creates a more emotional resonance and carefully-handled sentimentality that leaves you enlightened and empathetic for the characters and for a time of childhood innocence that we all once had.

Overall rating: 4/5 stars

Animation Filmography: "Pinocchio" (1940)

One of the famous shots in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) involves the multiplane camera techniques that were pioneered in the 1930s (including the first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) as well as in Fantasia (released in 1940, as well). Only here, the camera doesn’t just move forward, it also moves horizontally, creating a dimension and scale in the town village. This is just one of many moments that exemplifies the brilliance and innovation achieved in this timeless classic. (In fact, I have read that many of these techniques were never repeated again.) Such a dimension and scale owes much to the episodic nature of Collodi’s original “Pinocchio” stories (published in Italy from 1880 to 1883), consisting of various elements that are astounding, frightening, breathtaking, beautiful, and entertaining.

But Pinocchio is more than a technical achievement, in terms of pushing the boundaries of animation and technology. It stands as yet another key example of the Disney staple of what animated films should be. As soon as the movie opens, we are drawn into the magic and wonder of this world. The characters are, respectfully, memorable, wonderful, and scary (Jiminy Cricket, in particular, steals every scene he’s in with his wise-cracking and contemporary dialogue, reminiscent of the seven dwarfs; and Figaro the cat and Cleo the goldfish provide lovable comic relief as well). The situations are beyond “cartoonish”. The music is unforgettable. (“When You Wish Upon a Star,” after all, became the Disney Studio’s anthem.) The grand-scale animation is simply astounding—without drawing attention to itself. And, not in the least, it tells a classic story. And what a grand story it is.

Part of Pinocchio’s journey as a character (with Jiminy as his “guide along the straight and narrow path”) includes the notion of bad things happening. This leads to the many forms of temptation and darkness he encounters—in this case, characters who embody said forms. The sly fox "Honest John" and the puppeteer Stromboli, for instance, see no value in Pinocchio except profit. The same goes for the coachman, whose job consists of capturing spoiled boys and turning them into donkeys for the same reason. These are villains who basically get away with anything, yet never receive their comeuppance. They can be seen, on the other hand (as mentioned above), as an embodiment of unapologetic and even satanic wickedness. (The coachman’s close-up grin at one point is one of the most horrifying moments in the movie.)

Indeed, like Snow White and Bambi, there are moments in Pinocchio that may be too frightening for younger viewers, including as Lampwick’s transformation into a terrified donkey, and the climactic chase sequence with Monstro the whale. Therefore, this is a film that parents of very young viewers who have not seen it may want to preview first.

Yet, all great stories are about conflict. It is to the animators’ and writers’ credit that the story excels in illustrating the consequences of Pinocchio’s actions, as well as the actions of other unfortunate characters. Therefore, these consequences serve as moral, universal lessons for the audience. And with conflict comes resolution, and a better understanding and appreciation for it. In the case of Geppeto, we get an image of a father’s unconditional love. And when Pinocchio goes to rescue him from the belly of Monstro, we get a powerful and endearing illustration of the Prodigal Son who proves his bravery, truthfulness, and unselfishness—for his father’s sake.

The animators, artists, and writers were certainly on a more ambitious journey themselves in making this film, even more than they’d done on Snow White. Even before the success of that film, work on Pinocchio was already being developed. And though the film wasn’t a financial success in theaters (partly due to the effects of the war at the time), their work certainly has paid off. Everything from the lighting changes to the water effects to the most subtle characters movements and expressions, this remains a film for the ages. As Jerry Beck describes, it is “a triumph on all levels, a wonderful wedding of animation technology and mature storytelling.”

Overall rating: 5/5 stars

Written by B.E. Kerian
January 8, 2011
UPDATED July 7, 2014

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Classic Films: "The Godfather" Trilogy

Francis Ford Coppola's classic films The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are considered by many to be two of the most influential films ever made. Part I was voted the second greatest film of all-time (behind Citizen Kane [1942]) by the American Film Institute in 2007, and Part II is regarded as one of the great movie sequels (along with The Empire Strikes [1980]). The 5-Disc DVD collection (released in 2001) of all three films, as well as bonus material with behind-the-scenes footage, is guaranteed ideal for many film buffs. Yet, the best way to rank it is to rank each film.

The Godfather (1972)
The first and best, superbly-acted and executed, with issues of justice, heritage, and power, as they related to a Mafia family dynasty in the 1940s, headed by Don Vito Corleane (an iconic performance by Marlon Brando). Creates many levels of Hitchcock-esque suspense and intensity, especially during the restaurant and hospital scenes. Other standout moments include the horse's head and the climactic baptism sequence (with Coppola's infant daughter, Sofia, at the time). That being said, one needs to be reminded that this is a violent film, as it is about gangsters and therefore violent men.

The best bonus feature is director Coppola's notebook, explaining the process of writing and adapting Mario Puzo's novel for the film adaption. (A must for film students and buffs.)

Overall: 4/5 stars

The Godfather Part II (1972)
Darker and more violent follow-up--and longer, running 3 hours 20 minutes--as it deals, this time, with issues of betrayal, revenge, and manipulation, as well as further issues of power and heritage. Michael Corleane's character is stronger and, in some ways, an improvement. The film is influential in the way it juxtaposes the continuing present story of Michael while also explaining his father Vito Corleane's background and history. In fact, the film's best moments take place in the early 20th century with a young Vito (one of Robert DeNiro's best career performances). The tracking shot between DeNiro on the rooftop and Don Fanucci on the streets is spellbinding. Also watch for a moment in the play scene that illustrates the idea of Corleane husbands closing the doors of their business from their wives (as Michael does to Kay [Diane Keaton] in the first film). The film begins and ends well, but ultimately descends into tragedy and blindness in terms of Michael's role and impact on those around him, including his family.

Overall: 3/5 stars

The Godfather Part III (1990)
Disappointing third installment unworthy to first two films (like most sequels). In this final chapter, Michael Corleane, as played by Al Pacino, tries to redeem himself of his past, but is pulled back into it, thanks in part to his trigger-happy nephew Vincent (an Oscar-nominated performance by Andy Garcia). Pacino is good, but fans have supposedly argued that it wasn't the Michael they remember from the first two films (as director Coppola notes on the DVD commentary). Garcia and Joe Mantegna have their worthy moments, too. In addition, Coppola's daughter, Sofia, was criticized for her performance of Michael's daughter, Mary. The issues of religion, politics, heroism, relationships, and redemption are a bit much, but the intensity in the second half is well done. However, there are moments in the film that are just too graphic for me to watch and recommend. (The violence here seems more Die Hard than Godfather.) Nevertheless, consequences (whatever they mean) are evident in characters, thereby concluding this violent and tragic trilogy.

Overall: 2.5/5 stars

Overall, The Godfather is what it is, but is not for everyone (for obvious reasons involving violence and crime and such). I don't consider myself a fan, but in terms of the first two films' technical and acting achievements, they will continue to be talked about in film classes, critics' "Best Films" lists, and so many others in years to come.

If you have any opinions on these films, good or bad, feel free to comment below. (After all, films aren't just for merely "watching".)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Philosophy on Film

My purpose and motivation in watching and reviewing films is not just for the sake of entertainment or escapism, or merely for the sake of doing so. My philosophy has to do with more than that.

Ask yourself, how is this film influential? What message is it conveying? What's good and/or bad about it? Is it enlightening, and how?

My challenge to you (actually, two challenges):
1. Go deeper than just watching a film. Talk about it. Be discerning and wise as well, in terms of content issues (depending on your beliefs).
2. As encouraging and influential as films can be, don't let them be your gospel.