Monday, December 29, 2014

Animation Filmography: Disney Animation to the Bottom, and Back Up Again

December 29, 2014 

WRITER'S NOTE: The following facts can echo into the same period of the mid-2000s, where the Disney studio was put under new management. It should also be noted that the studio has also had many highs and lows, particularly following dismal periods (such as the 1940s, the late-fifties, and the late-nineties/early-2000s, to name a few). 

 

The early eighties were a transition period for the animation department at the Walt Disney studios. "The Fox and the Hound" in 1981 represented a "passing of the baton" from one generation of animators to the next. The latter would be responsible for the hit films that would come out later in the decade and into the early nineties.
One year after new management was brought into the studio in 1984 (consisting of Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Roy E. Disney), "The Black Cauldron"--the most expensive animated film at the time--was released, only to become a financial low point in the animation department's history. Fortunately, the release of "The Great Mouse Detective" the following year would ensure that the animators (and therefore, the studio) were back on the right track and would bring about a renaissance that would remind people of the magic and significance of Disney. On the way there, they went to the bottom of the sea and arose with a little mermaid. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

"$uccessfu!" Films: "Batman" (1989)


The conventional view of comic-books, particularly of superheroes, consists of the battle between good and evil, the hero and the villain, the right and the wrong. In the early twentieth century, superheroes (including but not limited to Superman) were seen as mere perfect and extraordinary characters that were too great and too mighty to be taken seriously in the real world (apart from, of course, saving various people in the fantastical adventures that real-world comic-book readers would escape into). 

In the late 1930s, however, graphic artist Bob Kane was inspired to create a superhero that was based in reality. His influences (along with that of uncredited co-creator/writer Bill Finger) consisted of Leonardo Da Vinci's diagram of a flying machine known as the ornithopter, and popular masked characters as Zorro and the Shadow. Thus, the "Bat-man" (and his alter ego Bruce Wayne) was born.

Batman's debut in Detective Comics, Issue No. 27
This year marks the 75th anniversary since the Caped Crusader's first appearance in Detective Comics (a.k.a. DC Comics), and 25 years this month since director Tim Burton's dark and mesmerizing film adaptation was released in theaters.

In recent decades, artists and writers have done more than provide escapism for comic-book readers. They've helped form and develop a modern mythology that consists of fantastical characters dealing with real world situations. Many of today's filmmakers, from Bryan Singer to Sam Raimi to Christopher Nolan, have followed suit. But prior to the late-80s, executive producer Michael E. Uslan had long dreamed of producing a "definitive, dark," and serious Batman film, as Kane had intended from the character's inception.

Following in the footsteps of the comics, the character found his way into serials of the 1930s and 40s. However, his popularity would decline in the mid-1950s, due to the nation’s belief that comic books were brainwashing children. As a result, "Batman" was shifted to lighter, more cheesy, fare in the 1960s with the popular television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin)
The legacy of DC Comics in film became widely successful with the release of "Superman" in 1978. Directed by Richard Donner and starring an unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, it was the first movie of its kind that gave audiences a glimpse at what a superhero story could be on film. It featured a compelling and captivating story with an A-list cast and enough spectacle and action to spare. Batman was to follow, and it would take ten years to get to him to the big screen. 

Many people, however, still had perceptions of the campy TV show. Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” graphic novel of the 1980s, however, harkened back to Kane’s original intention of Batman as a “dark vigilante”. The film project did face some controversy, particularly with the casting of Michael Keaton, who had been known for comedic roles like Mr. Mom and Night Shift. (He would star in Burton's Beetlejuice one year before Batman's release.) There was also some concern from producers, executives, and even theater owners, who wondered if the film was going to be too dark. 

To reduce negative speculation (and to prove that it wasn’t another campy version), a 90-second trailer of the film was shown in theaters, much to the surprise of audiences and fanboys. The advertising campaign (featuring the newly-refined and now-infamous bat symbol) became an phenomenon, as well as an unprecedented marketing connection between the comic-book and film industries.

Keaton's Batman
Nicholson's Joker
Shot in Pinewood Studios in London, Batman was the most expensive movie ever made at the time. The minimal effects and set design, including Gotham City and the Batmobile, by the late Anton Furst echoed back to the classic serials and expressionism of the 30s and 40s. Upon its release in the summer of 1989, the film was a mega hit and helped redefined what a comic-book movie could be. It is dark and brooding, to be sure, and should not be taken lightly. And even though it does spend more time with Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable performance as the Joker, and includes a couple of controversial third-act scenes, it does (more than the other movies in the original series, courtesy Burton and Joel Schumacher) tap into the mystery, trauma and darkness of the character of Batman and Bruce Wayne.

Furthermore, what makes this film a distinct comic-book movie is how it poetically and operatically illustrates how the villain exposes who he is to the public (“Winged freak terrorizes? Wait 'til they get a load of me”), while the hero keeps his identity in the shadows. This even creates debate over which of the two ("hero" or "villain") is more dangerous. 

Vicki Vale: A Lot of people think you're as dangerous as the Joker.
Batman: He's psychotic. 
Vale: Some people say the same thing about you.
Batman: What people?
Vale: I mean, let's face it. You're not exactly...normal.
Batman: It's not a normal world, is it.

These themes make Batman the quintessential comic-book movie that asks the central, thought-provoking question: Does the villain make the hero, or does the hero make the villain?

Monday, June 23, 2014

"$uccessfu!" Films: "I-Know-It's-Popular," All-Out Excessiveness, and A Good Reason for Criticism

June 23, 2014

In his review of the 2009 blockbuster sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers mentioned, "I know [this franchise is] popular. So is junk food, and they both poison your insides and rot your brain." He went on to call the film (along with its predecessor) "the worst movie of the decade," and furthermore created, alongside his ever-popular "Scum Bucket" of bad-review movies, a "Transformers Scum Bucket" for any such movie that measured up. 

Fallen in its Prime
Mr. Travers may have been harsh in his criticisms, but at least he was honest and made a solid point in that a movie's (or franchise's, for that matter) popularity doesn't necessarily solidify that it's going to be a great movie nor that it will be worthwhile. 

When the first Transformers came out in the summer of 2007, I, like many moviegoers, was excited to see mind-blowing special effects in the form of space robots. In other words, it was actually really cool (and somewhat nostalgic) to see such attention to detail and visual imagery at the time. And it was, perhaps, that sense of anticipation alone that made the first movie (directed by none other than Michael Bay, and based on the popular toys from Hasbro) entertaining, as well as on the same par of such revolutionary visual film experiences as Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

The 2007 original--when it was cool and exciting
That same feeling seemed evident with the release of the aforementioned sequel. As it would turn out, negative reviews and bad word of mouth from critics (and audiences) resulted in possibly the most disappointing summer blockbuster to end all disappointing summer blockbusters. It did go on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all-time. But for many, it became the equivalent of nothing more than a cinematic migraine--an assault on the senses and emotions.

What disappointed me personally wasn't so much the endless action and special effects in the second film--well, all of that was extremely overdone and ugly to a fault--as was the appalling amount of crassness and sexual content, especially the immodesty and objectification of just about every female character in the movie. This is suppose to be entertaining?!? I thought to myself, "Does anybody remember that this movie is based on kids' toys?" And they're marketing this kind of stuff (humping dogs, robot testicles, and scantily-clad women) to children?!? In addition, as another review implied, is this really what audiences want to see? Lest we forget, this film runs an unapologetic two-and-a-half-hours! 

The experience of watching this film (along with writing notes and considering Mr. Travers' critique) helped me grow in my understanding of film criticism and taught me a lot about the difference between a movie's success based on money (e.g., how many people go to see it) and a movie's success based on the impact it has (e.g., a critical and thorough point of view). As previously mentioned, just because it's a big, loud, and action-packed experience, and just because it makes a lot of money (and let me emphasize a lot), and furthermore just because a lot of people go to see it, doesn't mean it's worth seeing. 

The 2011 follow-up, titled Dark of the Moon, was somewhat of an improvement, with eye-popping (and more steady, less shaky) 3-D visuals, courtesy the same visual effects team that brought the world of Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar to life, as well as a grittier tone. Yet, the film is still unbearable in its action and mayhem, and strangely echoes the effects of a post-9/11 world. Plus, a retrospect of the story's altering of the history of the space race as a cover-up bothers me, as does it's dopey humor, immodest shots, and the destruction of buildings in its action sequences (especially the 40-minute climax that takes place in Chicago). 

Bumblebee amidst destruction (2011's Dark of the Moon)
The film went on to become one of the ten all-time highest grossing films in the world. But after the third movie, I told myself, I think I've had enough of smashing CGI metal. 

Michael Bay, as just about everybody knows, is no stranger to such "blow-'em-up" extravaganzas. He burst onto the scene with the 1995 Will Smith-Martin Lawrence vehicle Bad Boys, and continued with such "hits" (so to speak) as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II, and last year's Pain and Gain. And he's not alone in his mass appeal of all-out action sequences and destruction. Director Roland Emmerich emerged around the same scene with another Will Smith vehicle, Independence Day, in 1996. He has, since then (for the most part), been blowing up cities and almost the whole world in the 1998 remake of Godzilla, as well as in The Day After TomorrowWhite House Down, and especially in 2012.

Action superstar Sylvester Stallone could fit a similar though different category, what with his recent Expendables franchise and its all-star casts, endless gunplay and explosions. Even critically-praised filmmaker Peter Jackson has, in recent years, emphasized the use of extended (and nearly endless) visual effects sequences in his 2005 remake of King Kong, as well as his current Hobbit trilogy. (Actor Viggo Mortensen has recently spoken out against this.)

More recent (and more acclaimed) films as The Avengers, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim and this year's Godzilla portray equally destructive action. Yet what keeps these films compelling and engrossing (and different from something like Transformers) is the emotional core of their stories and characters. Kudos to directors Joss Whedon, Zack Snyder, Guillermo del Toro, and Gareth Edwards, respectively, for their attention to detail, for the most part.

And here we are in the summer of 2014 with current releases of such action-adventures as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past (all three of these films are currently the highest grossing in the world this year); and upcoming releases of The Expendables 3 (August) and a fourth Transformers later this week (titled Age of Extinction). This time, instead of Shia LaBeouf and company, we get Mark Wahlberg and a new cast in a story set a few years after the events of Dark of the Moon. According to the trailers, this film may promise a more serious and gritty tone, and may have a more engrossing story than the previous films combined. But I've been wrong before.

Can Mark Wahlberg save the world from Extinction?
It will be explosive, mind-numbing, and a big moneymaker, to be sure. A colleague of mine recently mentioned, "If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Films of 2013: "Frozen"--Disney Animation Matures Once Again, With a Real Coming-of-Age Fairy Tale

March 15, 2014


Anna and Elsa are devoted, fun-loving sisters until an unfortunate incident separates them for most of their lives. Elsa was apparently born with powers that allow her to create and control snow and ice. Yet, she struggles to suppress this gift and curse, even when she locks herself away from (and fears hurting) those around her. This creates angst, isolation and a lack of understanding towards the people around her, especially Anna. 

Anna has been left out of her sister's life (and their childhood growing up) for so long that she chooses to seek a new dream, or so she believes ("A chance to change my lonely world/A chance to find true love"), while Elsa is forced to role-play in her upcoming position as queen to hide her identity. The day Elsa is to become queen of the kingdom of Arendelle, all goes well until Anna catches love-at-first-sight with a dashing prince and, almost immediately, accepts his hand in marriage. This does not go well with Elsa, who insists "you can't marry a person you just met." Anna is outraged and in her commotion only infuriates Elsa, who unintentionally lets her powers slip and escapes into the mountains. In the process, she triggers an effect that sets the entire kingdom under an eternal winter. Anna then goes on a quest to find Elsa, hoping to restore everything. Along the way, she gets help from an ice-selling mountain man named Kristoff, his trusty reindeer Sven, mystical trolls, and a beaming and hilarious snowman named Olaf. 

To get right to the point, Frozen (loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen") is the Disney Studio's seventh animated feature film based on a fairy tale (not counting 2007's live-action/animated Enchanted, which was a parody and homage to Disney's classics). It's the first to feature not one but two main characters who are princesses. More importantly, it's the first fairy-tale adaptation from Disney to bring the genre to a contemporary and mature level. In other words, it makes the seemless transition from a conventional fairy tale homage and worldview to a mature adaptation for today's audience, representing nostalgia in its Disney-magic and maturity in its storytelling as well as its artistry. (And it's visuals are beautiful and breathtaking.) 

The theme of characters who face the realities of the world, yet continue to be persevering (and in some cases optimistic) seems to have been a theme in almost every one of the studio's animated films since the headlined acquisition deal in 2006. Since then, Disney has grown through a transition period of bringing classic and original stories to today's computer-animated and visual-effects film culture, even as Pixar (which Disney purchased then) was building on its own success with films about culinary rats, lovable robots, floating houses, prison-escapee toys, secret agent cars, Scottish princesses and college-age monsters. The Mouse House (which started out with talking mice, seven dwarfs, wooden puppets, and walking brooms) has delivered original and contemporary stories of futuristic families (Meet the Robinsons, 2007), television dogs (Bolt, 2008) and video-game villains (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012). Their remaining films featured fairy tale princesses or storybook characters whose worldviews parallel or contradict the cynical world in which they are present or thrown into (one, quite literally). For the record, only two of these films were hand-drawn (three, if you count a live-action/animated hybrid). Characters in these films also search for purpose in their lives, and learn that although things are not what these characters had hoped they would be, there is still something to look forward to and to live for. 

Giselle goes from an Enchanted world to modern-day New York
Tiana and the Frog prince
In Enchanted, the precocious-but-innocent Princess Giselle is thrown from her animated land of Andelasia and down a well into modern-day New York. She comes to learn that real love is beyond fairy-tale romance. It's about taking the time to get to know people and not immediately rushing into a relationship. In The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tiana is a young woman who hopes to make her dreams of opening a restaurant a reality. Here is an unconventional characteristic, in that rather than waiting around for dreams to happen (as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and initially Giselle, would), the main character works hard to achieve them, and in the process learns the difference between wants and needs. In Tangled (2010), Rupunzel is born with a magical gift of glowing hair, which heals wounds and reverses aging. She has been locked away in a tower and from the world by the evil Mother Gothel, who covets Rapunzel's gifts and whom Rupunzel has been deceived to believe is her real mother. Rapunzel longs to find the mystery behind the floating lanterns that appear in the sky every year on her birthday. She gets an opportunity when the roguish and runaway thief Flynn Rider finds her tower and they strike a deal. What begins as a partnership becomes a lesson in chasing after dreams and finding new ones. In Pixar's Brave (2012), Merida defies tradition in her role as a princess to become a warrior archer, but must repair an ancient curse that threatens her entire kindgom. At one point, regarding her traditional role, she mentions that for a royal suitor to win her hand, he must first win her heart.

Tangled's cast ready for action
Brave's Merida defies tradition

And now Frozen becomes the icing (so to speak) on the maturity cake of this heart-related theme. Sure, it features everything from childhood innocence (i.e., Olaf, from Elsa's creation, is the childhood she and Anna once had), to romance, angst, adventure and wisdom. But as one resource put it, it's not so much a story about two princesses looking for love (e.g., Prince Charming, "true love's kiss"), but learning to love. It's a story about love between sisters and family. As one character says during a crucial moment, "Only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart" (my emphasis). 

There's no question about it: the Disney fairy-tale has come of age.


The film's impact over the last few months since its release in November proves there are still very creative and inspired artists and filmmakers at the Disney studio, who in turn show that a great story with great characters, music, hope and determination can warm even the most frozen of hearts. What a wonderful and universal achievement.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Animation Filmography: "Ratatouille" Mirrors the Disney Legacy

March 1, 2014


I'll never forget the experience of seeing Pixar Animation Studio's Ratatouille in an old-fashioned movie theater with my younger brother and younger sister in the summer of 2007. It was certainly one of the best film-going experiences I’ve had in the last few years. I say this not only because I have fond memories of taking my siblings to the movies, but also because it was the first time I really began to appreciate the medium of animation as an adult. (It was almost my junior year in college at the time.) More importantly, as I view the film in retrospect, I believe it captures, illustrates, and reminds viewers of a time when animated features were really something special: a time when animation wasn’t just a kid’s medium, but an entertainment and an art form for everyone.

The story centers on Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who "has a highly developed sense of taste and smell," not to mention a knack for creative culinary skills. Despite the fact that he's a rat (that's right!), along with the cynicism and snobbery of his father and community, Remy is determined to make his mark in the world. "All we do is take," he argues with his father. "I'm tired of taking! I want to make things. I want to add something to this world."

Remy's inspiration is the late famous French chef Auguste Gusteau, who's self-titled restaurant was once the toast of Paris, France. His determination and his passion for good wholesome food left a great deal of satisfaction and inspiration to those around him, and his legacy inspires Remy to become what he has always dreamed of becoming. "You must never let anyone define your limits because of where you come from," says Gusteau. "Your only limit is your soul."

Ratatouille also seems to say a lot about Pixar, in terms of their philosophy of achieving the impossible—by diverse and unconventional means. While their first batch of feature films consisted of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes and cars, Ratatouille and the three Pixar projects that followed (involving an earth-bound robot, an old man in a floating house with balloons, and toys who get sent to a daycare center and plan a prison break) would essentially leave viewers wondering, "How are they going to make that work?" In fact, Walt Disney himself once quoted, "We love doing the impossible."

During one pivotal scene in Ratatouille, Remy's human friend Linguini defends his honor and character, despite what Remy is. "This works. It's crazy, but it works." Here is an illustration of going against conventional wisdom and embracing new ideas. While other studios would rather recycle old concepts and storylines of theirs (sometimes from other studios), the real artists are those who use what has perhaps never been seen or heard or done before, and do something daring and extraordinary with it.

Today, Pixar has, perhaps more than any other animation studio, been able to develop and sustain what Disney started. Not to master Disney, to be sure, but rather to learn from its craft and grow from there. For example, Disney believed that a great film consisted of a great story, appealing and believable characters, persistence in the use of technology, and dedicated people involved in making it happen. And with each new project, the envelope was pushed to great effect. Looking back at the classic films of what is considered to be the "Golden Age" of animation, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and continuing on to Bambi in 1942, each project had its own set of challenges, such as the use of the multiplane camera, and experimenting with colors and character movements and so forth. Yet, each of these films became something authentic, something amazing, and something worthwhile, just as Gusteau's and Remy's culinary creations (and Pixar's diversity) became likewise.

The animators and filmmakers at Pixar have learned from and have mastered on their craft, they have managed to attract wide audiences (including universal accolades from numerous film critics), and they have kept story and characters their main priority.

Remy stands as an example for people who are passionate about what they do, and who challenge themselves to explore endless possibilities, no matter what adversities they face in life. And although many have believed Pixar has not been as successful in recent years since 2010 (Toy Story 3 became the highest-grossing animated film of all-time worldwide that year, while Cars 2 was a critically-disappointing though financially-successful sequel the following year), the studio that brought us a hopping lamp to begin with still proves that it can make any project work, and can carry on a tradition that says anything is possible.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Film Philosophy of B.e. Kerian

February 23, 2014

I started this blog in March 2012. Prior to this, I have reviewed and/or rated between 700 and 800-plus movies on Facebook's Movie Flixter app. (My final reviews on that app were posted two months before I started this blog.) Ever since I was a kid, movies have always been a passion of mine. I believe they are meant to be more than just watched (as this blog's mission statement mentions), though there are exceptions. They are to be understood, thought about, shared with, and examined.

Since the fall of 2012, I started developing a new philosophy and outlook on film, in terms of not letting the opinions of others (especially that of critics, as well as the general public via box-office) determine what I should think and feel and say about movies. More recently, I've come to the conclusion that trying to see a lot of movies--not every movie--is overwhelming. I'm inspired by the words of the late Roger Ebert, who stated in his final piece titled "A Leave of Presence" last spring that he wanted to review "only the films I want to review." As a result, I only want to focus on the movies I'm interested in. (For the record, such interests include animation, comic-book movies, dramas, adaptations of certain books, certain biographies, some science-fiction, and research and examining of the history of "successful" films--not necessarily in that order.)

At the same time, I need to be discerning about the films I choose to view and examine. As said viewing and examining can be an engaging tool, it can also be a damaging one. In other words, there are certain movies that seem interesting on the surface, but they can leave you either desensitized or embracing immoral values or so forth. Take some of this year's Oscar-nominated films, for instance. Granted, these films are undeniably congratulated for their artistic merits and achievements in filmmaking. And why it's also commendable that certain films have been brought to the public's attention through the Oscars (and through critical reviews, such as those of the late critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert), we cannot base our decisions for what to watch and what not to watch on these aspects alone. There needs to be a discerning resource or more, as well as a legitimate reason for what we choose to watch. What is the film's message? It the overall impact inspiring or damaging? Moral or immoral? Condoning or criticizing? (I recommend the resource "PluggedIn," a media discernment website for families and everybody in general.) 

Lastly, I have also learned that you can't be too quick to judge. A movie may make a lot of money on opening weekend or in the year it was released. A lot of people may be talking about the latest phenomenon of their generation. But what really matters is how a movie stands the test of time, how it's talked about years from now and introduced to the next generation of moviegoers thereon, and how it brings people together universally and emotionally. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Films of 2013: "All Is Lost"

February 17, 2014


"All Is Lost" opens in the middle of the action: Robert Redford's character (referred to in the credits as "Our Man") is on a sailboat in the middle of (possibly) the Atlantic Ocean. He is interrupted in his sleep by what turns out to be a collision with a shipping container. A hole is gauged in the boat, causing massive flooding.

The action that follows occurs over the course of apparently eight days. The location is primarily the sea, along with various storms, although the two predominant set pieces against this primary backdrop are a sailboat and a life raft.

Yet what makes this unlike other films with stories that feature a lone (human) survivor lost at sea (e.g., "Cast Away," "Life of Pi"), "Our Man" is quite literally the only character we spend the whole movie with. Rare is it for a story to feature and center on one central character, and yet be so compelling. You really get the sense that this is an experienced sailor, as well as an experienced man, a patient man, and a persevering man, against all odds. This is a tour-de-force performance in the actor-director's half-century career. 


And while the aforementioned films comparatively look like fantasies, this is the real thing. I refer specifically to the experience aspect. The experience of being at sea. The experience of being alone. And the experience of fighting the physical, natural and emotional elements of life to survive. 

I'll be honest, I had just about given up hope on this film (like "Our Man" may appear to at times), considering its potentially existential and secular worldview. Then, the unexpected happened. This is a film that sneaks up on you. It's a story that reminds us of humanity, and encourages us to rise to the occasion. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Films of 2013: "Gravity"

February 9, 2014


Gravity--a haunting and breathtaking science-fiction drama from director Alfonso Cauron (Children of Men)--immerses the audience into a photo-realistic view of space with thematic structure that is universal and enhances the technological wonderment onscreen. The result is poetic and visceral.

The story is simple. Two astronauts are stranded in space after an asteroid-like collision from another shuttle, and do everything they can to get back to earth. Sandra Bullock plays NASA mission specialist Ryan Stone, whose life seems to have been drifting after the sudden loss of her four-year-old daughter. George Clooney plays veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, on the verge of retirement. ("You're the real genius up here. I'm the bus driver," says Matt.)


It's easy to spot key visual elements in this film (especially in 3-D), such as reflections in helmets, images of shuttles and objects, the depth of space, and color palettes around earth and in the stars. The length of certain shots add a level of authenticity (the opening shot practically runs for about four minutes). Sound is also key during moments of peril, such as when Bullock's Ryan begins losing oxygen and gasping for breath.

But it's the film's thematic and universal structure that makes the imagery (and the story) work. Cauron has stated in interviews that using visual metaphors in space was key in telling this story. It's intriguing that a majority of the film's action features characters floating above the earth, yet echoes adversities no different than what everybody experiences, is weighed down by, or lives through everyday. Along with the aforementioned theme of drifting, the roles of fear and death come up as well, particularly through the imagery of floating teardrops during a breaking and (literally) cold moment of hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. 


Yet, hope is expressed in remembering what it means to live, why we should live and what we live for, even when it seems as if said hope is out of reach. This can start with the theme of rebirth, such as during a striking moment when Ryan is hanging in a fettle position inside a ship (much like a baby in a mother's womb). But it's Clooney's Matt who represents a trusted source of accountability and encouragement for Bullock's Ryan, especially in the theme of letting go of such adversities that weigh us down, and in choosing to live. Now there's a message that defies gravity. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Walter Mitty: Fantasy, Reality, and Communication


As mass and media consumers, we often escape into the stories we see, hear and/or feel. Whether it's a film, a book, a comic strip, or a concert, escapism has (and still does) give us a route to put aside the pressures and complexities of this existence we call life. Throughout the last century, there have been breakthroughs by means of communication through the arts and media, in terms of said escapism. Some may chose to listen to music on iPods as they jog. Others may write poetry or journal as a way to express their anxiety or stress. Others may go to a theater and watch a movie either in the traditional 2D format or in 3D.

But as revolutionary and as advanced as we have come throughout that time, there have been disadvantages in terms of the way people communicate and express themselves. For one thing, there are times where such escapism and the like can make us forget who we are as people, where we are, and what we are doing, as well as who we are around. That can often be due to the things or thoughts we allow to occupy our minds.

Walter Mitty began as a popular short story by James Thurber in the New Yorker in 1939. It centers on a day (or, rather, an afternoon) in the life of a habitual daydreamer who takes his wife on a trip to town. Throughout that time, he imagines himself as a Navy commander, a surgeon, an interrogated serial killer, an Air Force pilot, and a civilian shot down by a firing squad. (You'd have to read the story to understand the motivation behind these specific "characters".) Mitty can't help but escape into, and spend more time in, the heroic fantasies that counter his otherwise mundane life.

He has since become a popular character type in fiction and culture, illustrated in such characters as Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy (how could we ever forget him chasing the Red Baron?) and even songs by such artists as Alabama and Brian Setzer. The character's first on-screen portrayal was by Danny Kaye in a 1947 film version (which Thurber, reportedly, disapproved of). Ben Stiller has now taken the reigns, as both the title character and director, in a very loosely-based adaptation of Thurber's short story. In this version, Mitty works as a negative analyst at LIFE magazine, which is making its transition from negative film to digital in today's techno era. For the final magazine issue, Mitty has been given a negative by renowned photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). Unfortunately and mysteriously, the negative is missing. But with the encouragement of a fellow co-worker and single mother named Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), Mitty sets off on what becomes a real adventure, beyond anything he ever imagined.


Stiller's decision to shoot this film on 35mm film works as an old-fashioned homage to filmmaking techniques, as well as an artist's way of telling a story and capturing moments on camera. One of these ways is through the use of photography (another form of escapism that wasn't mentioned earlier). Photography has always been a medium for showing places we've been to or would like to go, what those places are like, and what they mean or express to everybody. Walt Disney once said, "Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language." And to have LIFE magazine as a backdrop in the film serves more than as just a mere tribute to a company known for photographs, and for inspiring its readers and representatives--through its motto--"to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed."

Walter's "understanding" of life has been limited to no further than his city office job, his family, and his dreams. At times on his adventure(s), he even wrestles with what is real and what is imaginary. And not just daydreaming as opposed to living. This theme is also expressed in photographic images we see as opposed to what we (choose to) believe. (On a side note, there's a similar theme in that some moments are best kept to oneself personally or only to a few, rather than "captured" and shared with others.)

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig
To its credit, the film portrays Mitty not just as a mere daydreamer, but as a man who once had dreams and aspirations that have long been forgotten. Furthermore, Stiller and screenwriter Steven Conrad humanize an introverted individual who eventually begins to start living real life, thanks in part to Sean's faith in Walter's work and what Walter does/has done, Cheryl's encouragement, and in the reminder of what LIFE magazine represents not just to the masses but from those who've made it happen.

Even though the film is marketed as a comedy/drama, there are different genres and styles represented as well, including superhero-esque action, global thrills and adventure, and romance. (Modest romance, to be exact.) Some have criticized Stiller's version for spending most of its time in visual spectacle. There are times where it does seems to jump a bit too fast (like a random stream of consciousness, no different than Walter's point of view). But whatever the film lacks in substance, it makes up for in its thematic elements, including its drama, its imagery, and its sense of adventure and reality.