Monday, September 26, 2011

Ranking of Pixar Films by B.E.

The following is a list I made, prior to this past summer's release of Cars 2, consisting of my ranking of Pixar's films released so far. Better late than never, but I hope you enjoy. Each title (again, prior to the release of Cars 2) is ranked from number 11 to number 1.

11. Cars (2006) Often regarded as the weakest of Pixar’s films, it still manages to be an entertaining and fun ride, with wonderful characters (Mater steals the show), eye-popping animation (the reflections off the cars themselves is priceless), and a meaningful-though-conventional story. Oh, and it has made a fortune in toy marketing.

9. (tie) Monster's, Inc. (2001)
Another Pixar delight, this time playing with the idea of monsters who steal children’s screams as energy supplies. Billy Crystal and John Goodman are perfect as Mike and Sulley, and Boo is one of the studio’s most adorable characters. Great for kids, comedic for adults, and fun for everybody. Oh, can’t forget the emotion.

A Bug's Life (1998)
More technologically-complex and big than Toy Story, this film stands superb for its creativity and attention to detail, as well as its entertainment value. Not to mention a terrific cast of characters (Heimlich steals the show), action, and stunning places moviegoers have never been to before.

8. The Incredibles (2004)
Pixar’s most adult-oriented film at the time focuses on a family of superheroes who come out of hiding to save the world. Sounds conventional, but it goes deeper than that. Again, it’s more for adults and teens than for kids, but the action, visuals, and excitement pack a punch. Writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) began establishing himself as one of today's great animation directors, while also managing to push Pixar out of its comfort zone for more daring material.

7. Toy Story (1995)
The film that kicked off Pixar’s string of hits and timeless effect on Hollywood remains as relevant today as it was in 1995. For the record, when I watched it with my siblings a few years ago, I started to pick up on the adult-oriented jokes I never got as a kid. So that’s saying something.

6. Toy Story 2 (1999)
The rare sequel that’s as good as (and surpasses) the original, this film is stronger, funnier, and more emotionally resonant, especially in the case of Jessie’s character. (The song, “When She Loved Me,” moves me to tears.) Even more amazing, Pixar manage to rewrite the entire movie and finish it—all within nine months before its theatrical release!

5. Finding Nemo (2003)
The first animated feature that emotionally grabbed me, especially on a big screen. This underwater adventure about an overprotective clownfish (a perfect Albert Brooks) on a quest to find his son in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is breathtaking, funny, often scary, and exciting. Two of the film’s greatest strengths include casting Ellen DeGeneres in an unforgettable turn as the forgetful-but-lovable Dory, and Thomas Newman’s equally unforgettable and resonant score.

4. WALL*E (2008)
Pixar’s coolest character ever is a lonely robot who finds love in a post-apocalyptic world where technology has taken over human needs. (That notion actually takes place aboard a distant space craft, where the film slightly strays at times.) Nevertheless, this science-fiction/romance from Nemo director Andrew Stanton combines elements of Chaplin, Kubrick, and Star Wars in a breathtaking, photorealistic landscape where the soul message of the film is probably the most important of any film: love. Thomas Newman’s score hits all the right notes when it comes to emotion, intensity, and wonder. Did I mention there’s no dialogue for the first 40 minutes? Love it.

3. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Even more rare than a sequel that lives up to and tops the original (Toy Story 2) is a third film that lives up to and tops the first two. Leave it to director Lee Unkrich (an editor on the first film and co-director on the second) and his team to go deeper than they’ve gone before to deliver a story that involves not just Buzz and Woody (Tim Allen and Tom Hanks, in great vocal form) but the whole gang, as Andy leaves for college while the toys are sent to a daycare center. Surprises, hilarity (Spanish Buzz, anybody?), and drama pursue in the most intense, conflicting, and involved installment in the trilogy. No denying, it is entertaining, fun, and exceptional, for all the right reasons. A great ensemble piece as well, for reasons mentioned.

2. Ratatouille (2007)
The first animated feature I appreciated and admired as an adult, period. Brad Bird’s sophomoric effort (and arguably his best work to date) with Pixar established the studio’s reputation of taking essentially impossible ideas and making something wholesome, worthwhile, and entertaining out of them. Furthermore, it harkens back to the glory days of Walt Disney, when animated features actually meant something. Passion and pursuit for the things we love instead of doing it for profit: this is the kind of message we need in the movies.

And my number one choice . . .
Up (2009)
My favorite Pixar film to date is the studio’s most surprising and emotional. Featuring a cast of some of the oddest characters ever assembled, as well as a transcendent and metaphorical story with Miyazaki-esque adventure and visuals that are brilliantly executed, Pixar maintains a magic touch that transcends the medium of animation and speaks to the human condition in a powerful, sophisticated, and entertaining way. Whoever thought that a curmudgeon, a boy scout, a neurotic dog, and a multicolored bird could mean so much?

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What are your favorite Pixar films? What are your favorite characters? What are your favorite Pixar memories? Feel free to comment as you like.

Sincerely yours,
B.E.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Return of the "King": The Weekend Box Office Brings 2-D Classic to Today's 3-D World


Disney decided to re-release their 1994 animated box-office hit The Lion King in 3-D this past weekend. At the time of it's release, it was the highest grossing animated film of all time (with a domestic gross of $312.9 million), until Finding Nemo overtook it in 2003 (with a $339.7 million gross), and then by Shrek 2 in 2004 ($441.2 million) and Toy Story 3 last year ($415 million), respectfully. King was re-released in IMAX theaters in 2002, grossing an additional $15.7 million, and has now added $29.3 million from this past weekend. It has now surpassed Nemo to become the third biggest animated film ever--at $365.8 million so far. (Talk about irony!)

Besides topping such new releases as Drive, Straw Dogs, and I Don't Know How She Does It combined, King proved a nostalgic pick for moviegoers. According to CNN.com, 59 percent of moviegoers were under 25, along with 74 percent consisting of families with kids (a nice way to start the new school year), and 56 percent being women. According to Indiewire.com, it was also the first time a hand-drawn feature had been converted to 3-D. The results have reportedly been astonishing, especially for audience members who've never seen the film before. It's similar to the 1997 reissues of the Star Wars trilogy.

I was surprised when I first heard this news in an issue of USA Today earlier this week. As a lifelong fan and admirer of animation, it's incredible to hear how a hand-drawn feature (especially one released fifteen years ago) could draw such crowds against new releases in today's 3-D world. Who knows if this is a sign that hand-drawn animation is alive, well, and still relevant? If it is, count me in an advocacy for the artform that started everything. Regardless, it certainly proved a nostalgic trip down memory lane for audiences last weekend.

Check out the following links for more info:
http://blogs.indiewire.com/thompsononhollywood/2011/09/18/weekend_box_office_disneys_lion_king_3d_pops_out_at_september_auds_with_tkk/
http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/216301/20110919/the-lion-king-3d-top-box-office-no-1-film.htm
http://boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=animation.htm

Hakuna Matata,
B.E.

WRITER'S NOTE: TITLE UPDATED July 7, 2014

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Films of the 2000s: "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002)


After the success of his sophomoric feature Magnolia (1999), writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson announced that his next project would be a film starring Adam Sandler. Many obviously laughed and scoffed at this idea. For one thing, Anderson had become known for complex and sophisticated films with ensemble casts (he had also made the critically-acclaimed Boogie Nights from 1997). More importantly, Adam Sandler (as just about everybody knows) has built a reputation for playing goofy, lazy, and angst-ridden characters for kicks and giggles—not always in the most pleasant ways, mind you.
On the other hand, angst-ridden characters work for dramatic and serious pieces, too.
Inspired by the true story of David Phillips, who obtained over a million frequent flyer miles from buying thousands of dollars’ worth of pudding, Punch-Drunk Love tells the story of Barry Egan, a socially-impaired small business owner who suffers from uncontrollable fits of rage and confusing attitudes. Ridiculed by seven sisters and single, Barry’s life becomes more complicated after he contacts a phone sex line and becomes involved in a blackmailed scheme that not only affects his income, but his own personal life as well. He soon meets a mysterious woman named Lena, who turns out to be the kind of person Barry needs (and vice versa). As love blossoms, so does Barry’s need to be honest and protective, even if that means confronting and righting the mistakes he’s made as well as confessing them.
The quality and style of this film are very surrealist, quirky and sometimes dizzying, thanks in part to the mesmerizing artwork by Jeremy Blake and the equally (experimental) mesmerizing score by Jon Brion (who previously worked with Anderson on Magnolia). Blake’s artwork throughout the film is psychedelic and trippy, but, as a form of visual poetry, can suggest certain or many things. (One of the bonus features on the two-disc DVD edition shows twelve “scopitones,” featuring said artwork and clips from the film, and what they could each represent.) At times, Punch-Drunk Love feels like a Stanley Kubrick movie, with its often dark elements and situations, such as when Barry is chased by four blond brothers during a conflict, or when Barry walks into a restaurant bathroom and tears it apart. Yet, the film carries a specific and sophisticated understanding of character, conflict, and development. I admire Anderson’s use of color, lighting, and staging, as well as his emphasis and distinction of character and his choice of music (as strange as it is. Yet, it reflects who Barry is. After all, this is his story). Eventually, such aspects paint a moving and resonant picture of romance that stays with you after the credits roll.
Barry encounters a harmonium in the street.
Even specific props and costumes are a character in and of themselves. Case in point: The harmonium that Barry finds in the street at the beginning of the film. At certain moments, he tries to fix it and tests its sound qualities, suggesting the theme of “getting in tune and finding your voice,” according to Anderson. Other significant examples include the wardrobes that Barry and Lena wear. Throughout the film, Barry wears a blue suit, possibly suggesting a person in a cold, lonely state. Lena, on the other hand, clearly shines with her colorful dresses. I also respect the way Anderson defines his characters (specifically by their actions and by their emotions) through color and through lighting. My favorite moment in the film, perhaps, is when Barry and Lena walk down a hallway together and Barry slowly extends his hand out to her, and they eventually hold hands. It’s a brilliant and poetic image of need and accountability.
Adam Sandler is just terrific in his radical performance as Barry. Apart from his usual mindless comedies (as classic as they are), there’s a real depth and understanding in his angst and his fears that helps us identify with his struggles, his choices, and his flawed personality. Mind you, not all his choices are wise, but it’s something to see a character that really develops into a better person. Emily Watson is a glowing presence as Lena. Two years before Kate Winslet’s Clementine consistently changed her hair color in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Watson’s Lena physically embodies a bright, colorful form of heart and love that brings light and honesty to Barry’s character.
Emily Watson and Adam Sandler
The theme and story of the movie could be interpreted many ways. The way I look at it, for one, is that it’s the story of a socially-impaired man who thinks he’s finding love and companionship in the right places (in this case, a phone sex line), but eventually complicates his life more and makes things worse. In other words, what he thinks will give him fulfillment turns out to be a lie and a scam. The moral in this case is that things like immoral or beneficial sex do not bring true fulfillment in one’s life. Enter Lena, who, in time, represents to Barry (and to the audience) a more honest kind of love, a kind that makes Barry a better person than he ever imagined he could be. In fact, this leads Barry to say at one point, “I have so much strength in me, you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”
According to the studies of Christian pop culture analyst Craig Detweiller (in his 2008 book “Into the Dark”), is that general revelation or is it?! In other words, is that “the transformative power of screen stories” or is it?! Now, because this is an R-rated film, due to “strong language including a scene of sexual dialogue,” I’m not necessarily marking it as a means of recommendation or making any kind of endorsement for the worldviews it expresses. What I am suggesting, on the other hand, is that even a strange or often-problematic movie such as this (not to mention it’s an Adam Sandler movie) has the power to generate discussion, both cinematically and spiritually. It also has the ability to show viewers that love is complex, and that love is sometimes confusing. Yet, love can (and should) be honest, true, cared for, and respected. It is a universal message, told in a dark and strange, yet modest and unique, way. Furthermore, it’s a universal message that reminds us how purposeful and affecting it is, even in an Adam Sandler movie.

WRITER'S NOTE: UPDATED July 7, 2014