Sunday, February 27, 2011

Favorite Oscar Memories by B.E. Kerian

When this year's Oscar nominees were announced at the end of last month, I thought I would decide to share some of my favorite memories from past awards shows. And even though I obviously haven't seen every awards show there was since 1928-29, I've been able to watch various videos on You Tube as well as recall what I remember most from the shows I watched growing up. "Heeeeeeeeeeere's Oscar!"

1998- The first time I remember watching Billy Crystal as host. The above quote occured in a hilarious opening montage with parodied nominated films from the year 1997, including Titanic, As Good As It Gets, and The Full Monty. Crystal did hilarious impressions of Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Nicholson, and a whole bunch of brilliant gags, as well as a great stage entrance on the deck of the Titanic!

1999- Flik and the gang from A Bug's Life presented the award for Best Animated Short Film (which went to Chris Wedge's "Bunny").

2000- Crystal is host once again, and in another opening segment he's virtually incorporated in a montage of many, many films from the beginning of cinema. Parodying verything from Taxi Driver to The Godfather to West Side Story, and my favorite, E.T.

- Crystal and best supporting actor nominee Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) presented Woody and Buzz Lightyear (whose Toy Story 2 was nominated for Best Original Song). Add Duncan's John Coffey effects and some great gags from the Toys themselves, and you have another enjoyable Oscar moment.

2004- "The Return of the Host". Just as he did in the last two shows he hosted, Billy Crystal delivered arguably his best Oscar show yet, with another hilarious opening montage (and spoof) of various 2003 nominated films, despite a few risque moments. And let's not forget that this was the year that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was every single award it was nominated for, tying with 1959's Ben-Hur and 1997's Titanic as the most Oscar-winning films. It was also the year when the show was moved a month earlier than generally aired.

- "There is no greater weapon in a director's arsenal than a strategically-placed song." Jack Black and Will Ferrell delivereda brilliantly-funny send-up to the music that is typically played in the case of a winner's very long acceptance speech. "Did you know it actually has lyrics?"

2007- Black and Ferrell returned to the stage (again, through song), only this time humorously criticizing the Academy for not considering box-office comedies as Oscar contenders. They even considered "fighting the nominees," from Leonardo DiCaprio to Mark Wallberg (Ferrell's future co-star from The Other Guys), and even poked fun at Best Actress contender Helen Mirren-until John C. Reilly interrupted, joined in, and convinced Black and Ferrell that a solution to an Oscar recognition was to do dramas and not just comedies.

2010- The year 2009 was, in many ways, a redeeming year. There were interesting movies that came out, many of which I haven't yet seen. And considering complaints over films that were snubbed the previous year, the Academy decided to expand the nominees for Best Picture from five to ten. One of the nominees in the category was Disney-Pixar's Up, which also became the second animated film in the Academy's history to receive this accolade. (1991's Beauty and the Beast was the first.) They even expanded the number of animated films that year from three to five. All five films (Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, Up) represented different forms of animation--stop-motion, hand-drawn, and and CGI--making 2009 a very special year for animated feature films. (The year 2010 was no exception as well.)

- Co-hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin delivered, in my opinion, the best Oscar show since Billy Crystal last hosted in February 2004. The opening segment in which Martin and Baldwin riffed on just about everybody in the room (one which ignited a comical stare from George Clooney) provided a unique approach to a unique year.

- The acceptance speeches from top winners Monique (Best Supporting Actress, for Precious), Jeff Bridges (Best Actor, for Crazy Heart), and Sandra Bullock (Best Actress, for The Blind Side) were very big standouts, as well as enlightenments in their own special ways.

It's been a few years since I've watched an entire Oscar telecast (since 2007, to be exact). This year has another interesting list of nominees, some of which will be no-brainers, while others may be surprising. More news coming soon after the telecast tonight.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why I Don't Generally Watch Horror Movies (and Why You Should Consider It)

I can honestly say that I'm glad I am generally not a fan of the horror genre. Considering the "Saw"/torture-porn/never-ending, creatively violent horror culture we're in today, I'm glad I'm not part of it. This isn't to say that I don't have any knowledge of it. I'm the kind of person who rather appreciates good suspense-thriller with actually good plots and stories, and characters you understand and believe. Movies like "The Sixth Sense" and Hitchcock's "Rear Window" and "Vertigo" understand this. They also raise some really good questions about certain things, such as the distinction between what is real and what is fiction (or fantasy, depending on your perspective). "Scream" is another film that falls under this category.

I decided to view this movie after reading a chapter in a book on worldviews in the movies, and "Scream" happened to be in a chapter on postmodernism. The author, Brian Godawa, explains how self-aware the 1996 movie is, in terms of how its characters know the conventions and cliches that horror movies are known for. For instance, the main character, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campell) is asked why she doesn't watch scary movies. She responds, "What's the point, they're all the same. It's some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl-who can't act-who's always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It's insulting." This is just one of many clever moments in the film that generally satirizes the very genre it's representing. Even more clever (and ironic) are moments that take place in a video store (regarding the horror film section) and at a night party where one of the students explains the "rules in order to successfully survive a scary movie," such as 1) "You can never have sex; sex always equals death," 2) 'Don't drink or do drugs . . . The sin factor. It's an extension of number one," and 3) "Never, ever, ever, under any circumstances, say 'I'll be right back,' cause you won't be back."

Indeed, while serving as a social commentary and satire on the horror genre, it also manages to be a very effective and truly terrifying film-that is, until it turns into a climactic bloodbath between three or four characters. (Sorry bout the spoiler.) After all, director Wes Craven was responsible for the so-called teen slasher category, with began with "A Nightmare on Elm Street" in 1984. Which brings me to my next point: Another thing horror movies are about today is how to amp up the amount of violence with every new installment and/or franchise. Just look at the "Saw" movies. I've only seen the first movie but have not (nor do I plan to) see(n) the sequels.

I give screenwriter Kevin Williamson (also the writer for this year's "Scream 4") credit for cleverly satirizing the horror genre and creating self-aware characters that provide commentary and manage to serve as victims themselves. The film raises some interesting questions regarding influence, as well as where to draw the line between reality and fiction. One of my favorite lines is when Sidney says to her suspecting boyfriend, "This is real life. This isn't a movie." He responds, "Sure it is, Sid. It's all a movie. Life's one great big movie. Only you can't pick your genre." But the level and amount of violence puts the film out of bounds for me to recommend.

Like I said, I'm more of an admirer for the occassionally, good suspense-thriller, like Hitchcock's classics "Rear Window," "Vertigo," and "The 39 Steps." These are more clever and lack blood and such, regarding the context.

By the way, the text referenced in this blog is Brian Godawa's "Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom and Discernment." I highly recommend it to film buffs and anyone who shares similar feelings for movies.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Comic Book Movies of the 2000s and, Coming Soon 2011 and 2012

2008 will long be remembered as a summer of superhero movies (or, as I prefer, comic-book film adaptations). Five such films included the hugely entertaining Marvel-produced Iron Man, the Will Smith vehicle Hancock, the Dark Horse-based Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the well-done Incredible Hulk (also a Marvel character), and the runaway blockbuster The Dark Knight. According to Box Office Mojo online, three of these films earned over $200 million, consisting of Iron Man's domestic gross of $318 million and TDK's domestic gross of $533 million (not to mention its $1 billion plus gross worldwide). Even more, these films (particularly IM and TDK) have garnered phenomenal audience and critical praise. But more importantly, they represented (and currently remain) the coming of age of the superhero film genre.

According to PluggedIn senior editor Bob Smithouser,

With the success of the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, Hollywood rediscovered the public’s hunger for comic book superheroes. But subsequent flops proved that audiences don’t care about empty computer-generated effects or mind-numbing action sequences. They want smart, character-driven stories with a moral core. Batman Begins understands this, and should appeal to the same crowd that propelled a certain web-slinger to big-screen success. (http://www.pluggedin.com/videos/2005/q2/batmanbegins.aspx)

Indeed, since directors Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi brought their visions to the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, the essence and quality of storytelling in the comic-book film genre took a new direction and led to some of the best films ever released to this day. In other words, they weren't just or merely movies with razzle-dazzle special effects or villains emphasized, but just good stories overall. In my opinion, the two best superhero/comic-book film adaptations by far are Spider-Man 2 (2004) and The Dark Knight - althought there are different reasons for what makes them worthwhile. In these films, we have not merely characters who are identified or questioned as heroes, but we are presented dramatic stories of these characters' conflicts and the effects of their choices on those around them. In contrast, S2 deals with Peter Parker's personal relationships, whereas TDK emphasizes the effects of Batman's persona on Gotham City.

In a sense, the comic book/superhero movie has come of age. And the anticipation for more such films continues this summer and especially next year. This summer marks the release of Thor (May 6), X-Men: First Class (June 3), The Green Lantern (June 17), and Captain America (July 22), while 2012 will probably be the most anticipated summer with the releases of The Avengers (May 4), The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3), and The Dark Knight Rises (July 20). Here's to two anticpated summers ahead.

More info coming soon,
B.E.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Pixar Memories by B.E. Kerian

Finding Nemo (2003), I think, was the first animated movie I responded to emotionally. To be more honest, I can't think of any film prior where I have had that kind of emotional reaction or feeling while watching a film. It's amazing to look at and is truly breathtaking.

Essentially, I was in favor of more "pop-culture"-related CGI films like Shrek and Shark Tale at the time of their release. The Incredibles, released in 2004 (the same year as the latter film, as well as the former's record-breaking sequel), was, for sure, a completely different direction for Pixar, in terms of branching out and not merely "staying the course" with success like so many other films, franchises, or studios do. Although, Nemo broke new ground in terms of mature storytelling while progressing in the use of computer technology. More importantly, the story and tone of The Incredibles was arguable something that was outside the usual "kiddie" fare. But as I look back on it, the exact reasons for the film's uniqueness and branching out are the exact same reasons it stands above the other animated films released in 2004.

But it was 2007's Ratatouille that made me appreciate the animation medium as an adult, in addition to showcasing director Brad Bird as one of the most unique, visionary, and important filmmakers working in animation and in Hollywood today. (It will be interesting to see what he does with the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, whcih he's currently directing, and will be released later this year.)

It was also during this same period up to the present that Pixar films really became something special while coming of age. 2009, for me, was a redeeming year for many, many films, not to mention animated. That same year reignited a new love between myself and Disney, harkening back to the glory days of hand-drawn animation. Since the fall of 2009, I have been working on-and-off a favorite animated films list, which will not be released for another few months.

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

Thoughts on the Disney Animation Studio

Just as Pixar's famous hopping lamp symbolizes the studio's, quote on quote, "optimism and determination," the Steamboat Willie version of Mickey Mouse (especially in the Walt Disney Company's Animation Studios logo) represents a restoration and sustainance of the Disney legacy - magic, charm, entertainment, hope, enlightenment, unity - as well as a new era of Disney animation.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Animation Filmography: "Tangled" (2010)

Tangled marks its place in film history as the fiftieth animated feature the Walt Disney Studio has ever made. And its celebration and landmark is well-deserved. The fairy-tale fantasy surprisingly brings back the magic and essence of classic Disney animation, echoing the studio’s golden ages of such films as Snow White (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Beauty and the Beast (1991). And while Tangled is the third entry in a list of fairy-tale features that have been released within the last five years (the other two being the 2007 live action-animated Enchanted, and the hand-drawn The Princess and the Frog from last year), it captures a level of astonishment and authenticity those films - as good as they were - did not. 

The story opens with a drop from the sun, which creates a magic flower that has the power to heal and also to reverse age. A wicked witch named Mother Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), who first observed the flower’s growth, proposes to keep it to herself and remain youthful forever – that is, until the kingdom’s queen falls ill and the palace guards are sent out to find a cure. The flower’s cure, as a result, brings health to the pregnant queen, who gives birth to a baby daughter she names Rupunzel. In effect, the daughter possesses hair that carries the same form of healing and life sustenance. The only disadvantage (especially for Gothel) is that the hair will wither, turn brown, and lose its power if it is cut off. So Gothel kidnaps the girl one night and raises her as her own in an isolated tower.

Rupunzel's tower

Now approaching 18 years of age, the grown Rupunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore), who’s been under house arrest for her entire life due to her “mother’s” constant mentioning of the world being dangerous and manipulative, dreams of going out into the world and living a free life, if only to see the floating lanterns that emerge from the nearby kingdom every year on her birthday. What do they mean? What are they for? Do they mean something for her? Enter Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi), an escaped convict who happens to climb into Rupunzel’s tower and into his own hiding. Rupunzel eventually strikes a deal with Rider for him to take her to see the floating lanterns the following evening and return her home safely, in exchange for the mysterious trinket he has stolen from the kingdom.

Concept art of Flynn Rider, Rupunzel, and Maximus
What follows (don’t worry, no spoilers) is an adventure of mishaps, pitfalls, peril, comic sidekicks (Pascal the chameleon and Maximus the horse provide great comic relief), romance, and beauty that makes Tangled a near-perfect addition to the Disney canon. It is arguable the studio’s best animated feature in recent years, and the best Disney fairy-tale since Beauty and the Beast. It is to the credit of animation supervisor and Disney veteran Glen Keane (also the film's co-executive producer with John Lasseter), and directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno (who also made the entertaining Bolt), that the film recalls and sustains the classic Disney magic while staying true to contemporary audiences. At the same time, I’m respectfully glad they didn’t go the Shrek route, even though the tone and quality have been modernized slightly. Part of this essence lies in the strength and authenticity of the film’s lead characters. Mandy Moore (in what is probably her work in a while) beautifully embodies the innocence and spirit of Rupunzel that makes us thoroughly cheer for her. Zachary Levi (TV’s Chuck) is engaging and comically swashbuckling as Flynn Rider, exceeding any expectations of being a lame leading male and, in fact, becoming quite convincing. Donna Murphy’s bedazzling and often frightening Mother Gothel proves to be one of the most effective Disney villainesses in recent years, standing alongside the Queen from Snow White, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, and Ursula from The Little Mermaid. These characters are perfect and well-developed overall. In addition, it's a relief in how to see how much screen time is devoted to each character and to each of their stories. And Rupunzel's is one of the most convincing, along with her developing affections and love fro Flynn (and vice versa).

The other high point of the film lies in how it uses the computer technology to carry a hand-drawn quality that many other CGI films lack. One might wonder is this film would have been better or just as great in 2D. I can’t really say myself, because after seeing the film, I can honestly say that you don’t really mind that much. Tangled is a beautifully visual experience with wonderful set pieces from Rupunzel’s tower to the surrounding forest, to the tavern, to the kingdom, and to the floating lanterns over the lake. Best of all, like all the great animated features, the technology is used very wisely and effectively and helps tell the story without drawing attention to itself. It’s simply breathtaking and irresistible.


The breathtaking and beautiful "I See the Light" moment

Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater’s score and songs (while not memorable) fit the story nicely, combining elements of folk, rock, and fantasy. The “I’ve Got A Dream” number recalls the wit and hilarity of “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast, and Gothel’s number, “Mother Knows Best,” along with its reprise, is a creepy and controlling addition to such villainess songs as, say, Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid. The Oscar-nominated song “I See the Light” may have my winning vote this year, simply because it’s such a beautiful song in a beautiful highlight scene (no pun intended) involving the floating lanterns. I’m a little disappointed, though, that the Academy didn’t nominate five animated films instead of three. Tangled certainly was one of the best of 2010, alongside Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon.

Tangled is another great example of a film that should not merely be defined by its medium or technology, but simply by the fact (and by use of said technology) that it’s a wonderful story with endearing characters, heart, humor, adventure, and love. As Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss quotes, it “gradually achieves the complex mix of romance, comedy, adventure and heart that defines the best Disney features,” and Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times notes it’s “a gorgeous computer-animated look that features rich landscapes and characters that look fuller and more lifelike than they have in the past.” And considering how much Disney has been progressing over the last five years, I couldn’t agree more.

Overall: 4.5/5 stars (Highly recommended without reservation!)

Written February 3, 2011

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Interpretations of Story

A story can be many things.

To a producer
        it's a property that has box-office value.
To a writer
        it's a screenplay.
To a film star
        it's a vehicle.
To a director
        it's an artistic medium.
To a genre critic
        it's a classifiable narrative form.
To a socialogist
        it's an index of public sentiment.
To a psychiatrist
        it's an instinctive exploration of hidden fears or communal ideals.

To a moviegoer
        it can be all of these and more.

~ from Louis Grannatti's "Understanding Movies" text (pp. 372; my line breaks and bold marks)