Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Classic Films: "Rain Man" (1988)

March 31, 2015


Two basic definitions of the term "savant" (according to i.word.com) include "a person who knows a lot about a particular subject," or "a person who does not have normal intelligence but who has very unusual mental abilities that other people do not have." Many individuals on the autism spectrum, according to Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. (www.autism.com), "have extraordinary skills not exhibited by most persons," including but not limited to skills in math, art, music, and memory. A disadvantage, however, includes lack of social communication or expression towards others.

The 1988 movie Rain Man tells the story of two people who live in their own "worlds"--one with a condition that's been placed on him, the other with a condition (or rather, worldview) he's placed on himself. 

The three central characters are quite compelling. Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise, in one of his signature roles) is a self-centered wheeler-dealer who puts himself as his first priority over others. (And it's hard to have any sympathy for him at first.) Charlie learns that he has not only been left out of his recently-deceased father's inheritance, but that he also has an institutionalized autistic brother, Raymond, he never knew about.

Raymond (Dustin Hoffman, in an Oscar-winning performance) has lived at the institution known as Walbrook for half of his life. He demonstrates unique and significant memory skills when it comes to, for instance, reading phone books or calculating random mathematics (much to a doctor's and Charlie's amazement in one scene). He is also used to specific routines, such as watching "Judge Wapner" on T.V. every day and getting to bed by 11:00 p.m., and lacks the aforementioned social communication, save for some emotional outbursts when said routines are tampered with. As one aide puts it, "I don't think people are his first priority."

Susanna (Valeria Golino), Charlie's girlfriend and co-worker, is from a different part of the world, and is one of the only characters willing to understand (or try to understand) Charlie's life as well as Raymond's. "When I was a kid and I got scared, the 'Rain Man' would come and sing to me," says Charlie, referring to the childhood he had forgotten and grown out of.

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman
Charlie eventually kidnaps his brother from Walbrook in an attempt to get his share of his father's inheritance. But soon, their road trip goes from an act of selfishness to a challenge and test for Charlie. It not only pushes him to his emotional limits, but pulls him back to life, and challenges him (and audiences) to consider what is best for one's well-being than for our own well-being.

In a small way, Charlie Babbitt is the prodigal son who learns to live again through his brother. As a young man, he left home and estranged himself from his father. But through his brother, he learns to communicate and live for something better. A turning point comes at a hotel one night when Charlie learns who the "Rain Man" was. It isn't directly mentioned (and one of my high school teachers explained this to me the first time I saw this film), but there was an incident where Raymond unintentionally hurt his baby brother (Charlie) while trying to give him a bath. Only when he realizes this does Charlie slowly but surely begin to have a different viewpoint from here on, and eventually acknowledges Raymond as the only "family" he has left. And it's this aspect--how we communicate and connect with other people--that makes Rain Man a unique, often funny, heartbreaking, and emotional experience.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Animation Filmography: "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" (2015)

March 29, 2015


In The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, SpongeBob and company (including best friend Patrick, grouchy neighbor Squidward, miserly boss Mr. Krabs, squirrel Sandy, and culinary nemesis Plankton) go on a quest to find and bring back the secret formula for the infamous Krabby Patty. To do so, they go to the surface, and thereby change from cell-animated creatures to CGI counterparts. Thus, the film is a mending (and, in a way, a transition) of animation styles, from 2D to 3D, with a little stop-motion thrown in, along with live-action segments featuring Antonio Banderas as the villainous pirate Burger Beard. The film is not only a creative mending of said styles of animation and filmmaking, but also something of a commercially- and critically-successful return for the hand-drawn feature to the silver screen.

Though the medium of hand-drawn animation became popularized in and since the 1920s by way of Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM, and Paramount (to name a few), it has become a scarce entity throughout the last decade due to the rise in popularity of 3D animation. In fact, Disney itself had not had a major hand-drawn success (financially and receptively) since The Lion King over twenty years ago. Warner Brothers has not had a feature film starring its popular Looney Tunes characters in over ten years. Twentieth Century Fox opened a new animation division in the mid 90s with the success of their first feature (Anastasia, 1997), only to be closed down after the financial failure of their second feature (Titan A.E., 2000). Even DreamWorks, which began making hand-drawn films and CGI films simultaneously, shut down its former division in the early 2000s and dedicated itself solely to the latter.

Most of the success of hand-drawn animation in recent years has been found on television, from shows like Adventure Time (Cartoon Network) to Phineas and Ferb (Disney) to Avatar: The Last Airbender (Nickelodeon). That's not to say there haven't been acclaimed feature films on the critical and awards-season circuit. Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli (creators of The Secret World of Arriety and the Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises) and the equally-successful GKids (the independent studio behind The Secret of Kells, Ernest and Celestine, and last year's Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea) have amazed audiences and critics with captivating stories full of fantasy, adventure and drama.

But it's been years since Hollywood has produced a hand-drawn feature that was both a commercial and critical success. The last feature to do so was probably The Simpsons Movie (2007), a Twentieth Century Fox-produced comedy based on the long-running T.V. series (which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last year). And Disney (the studio that pioneered the animated feature with the unparalleled Snow White in the 1930s) returned to form with The Princess and the Frog (2009), yet has not made a 2D animated feature since the under-appreciated Winnie the Pooh (2011). I long for the day when hand-drawn features--particularly from Disney--make an impression at and beyond the box-office like they used to, and much the same way recent films like Frozen and The Lego Movie have. For the time being, though, it is fun to see the medium on screen in the form of the adventures of a "little square dude" (as Sandy Cheeks initially called him) and company.


The main characters under water in 2D (top),
and on land in 3D (bottom).
"SpongeBob SquarePants" made his debut in the spring of 1999 on Nickelodeon. After two years on the air, it soon became the highest-rated "kids" show on television, and eventually the longest-running animated series on Nickelodeon (besting the former record-breaking "Rugrats"). I was an obsessive fan of the show in middle school and particularly high school, and have enjoyed (most of) the silly, offbeat, and sometimes crazy adventures of Mr. SquarePants and company.

In recent years, due to my ever-growing observant, informative, and discerning worldview toward pop culture and media, I've lost interest in the series and leaned towards stories (particularly movies) that focused more on longevity and timelessness, and less on clueless hilarity and over-the-top ridiculousness (qualities I accuse the Nickelodeon and Disney Channels for doing nowadays). That being said, I was surprised by how this fifteen-year-old invertebrate still held up in today's digital age, and how his strange-but-cheerful optimism still endured.

According to IMDb, many of the staff from seasons one through three of the show returned to work on this film. And the indication of the show's earlier appeal is on display, while embracing a better approach to the material than in previous seasons (a large majority of which I, myself, have not absorbed, so to speak). There are even some clever homages to a few episodes from those earlier seasons.

Weeks after initially seeing the film, I considered its structure and concluded that it works almost like three segments (or episodes) into one feature. Episode One includes Bikini Bottom as we know it. (This part of the film is a bit slow, and feels more like an episode than anything else.) The turning point comes when Mr. Krabs' business rival Plankton's latest attempt to steal the secret Krabby Patty formula backfires as said formula miraculously disappears, sending the town into a Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic frenzy.

Episode Two includes SpongeBob and Plankton unexpectedly teaming up to try and set right what has been wrong. (Easier said than done, obviously.) In the process, they build a time machine and encounter a galactic dolphin. This is where the film truly gets entertaining and hilarious from hereon. And the turning point: "I smells Krabby Patties!"

Episode Three consists of SpongeBob and the gang--actually, just him and the aforementioned characters--going to the surface (with some mystical help), landing on a beach in never-before-seen 3D form, and becoming superheroes who make due with Burger Beard and his pirate ship/food truck. In the process, characters come together a la Toy Story 3 and learn (if only for a moment) what "teamwork" is.

Possibly a parody of The Avengers?: 
Sour Note (Squidward), the Rodent (Sandy), Sir Pinch-A-Lot (Mr. Krabs), 
Plank-Ton (Plankton), Invincibubble (SpongeBob), and Mr. Superawesomeness (Patrick).
Unlike its predecessor, which had its moments though a darker context and some questionably-suggestive sight gags, this follow-up is more fun, more unexpected, and more recommendable. And other than helping make February a successful month for animated features for a second year in a row, The SpongeBob Movie has another thing in common with The Lego Movie. It works as a culmination of high art and low art, blending the most absurd elements and surprises (post-apocalyptic mayhem, time travel, superheroes battling pirates) while paying silly homage to action/adventures from Pirates of the Caribbean to 2001: A Space Odyssey and even possibly The Avengers, without getting very serious or unsettling. Even current music icon Pharrell Williams, thanks to his successful contributions to the Despicable Me franchise, adds colorful tunes to the mix.

While it may not bear the title of "Greatest Movie Ever Made" or become a classic anytime soon (nor appealing to everyone, for that matter), The SpongeBob Movie doesn't lack for creativity, silliness, or idiosyncrasy. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Films of 2015: "Cinderella" and Disney's New Benchmark in Re-imagined Fairy Tales

March 22, 2015


After seeing Disney's live-action update of Cinderella (along with trailers for Pixar's Inside Out and Disney's Tomorrowland, both out this summer), I'm reminded not only of the magic of movies and the movie-going experience, but also by how they can be used to impact audiences, and make a difference in peoples' lives. Whether we need to be reminded of who we are, or need encouragement through life's trials, films can (like Cinderella's worldview in the former film, based on the classic Charles Perrault version) help us "look at life not as it is, but as it could be."

As a child, Ella (Cinderella) is influenced by her parent's joyous and courageous outlook, even after her mother's untimely death. While Ella does her best to press on courageously and joyously, her father believes she still needs a mother's care and asks his daughter for her permission to marry again and start a new chapter in life.

And we all know this eventually leads to a dark chapter in Ella's life, as her family is joined by stepmother Lady Tremaine (a truly wicked Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters, Anastasia and Drisella. And when her father dies unexpectedly while traveling, Ella is coldly and cruelly forced into the role of a servant. As the film tells us, "it would [eventually] seem her stepmother and stepsisters had transformed her into a creature of ash and toil." Hence the name they give her, "Cinder-Ella".

The Wicked Stepmother (center) and Stepsisters
Nevertheless, Ella lives by her mother's dying words ("Have courage and be kind") in the face of such hardship. And we certainly cheer her for it, thanks in large part to actress Lily James' (Downton Abbey) radiant and honest performance. Again, we all know where the story goes: a ball is held in the royal kingdom, Cinderella is forced to stay home, her Fairy Godmother (a quirky Helena Bonham Carter) shows up and makes it possible for her to go, she dances with the prince, she leaves at midnight leaving behind a glass slipper, and the prince swears he'll find the maiden whom the slipper fits. (That's pretty much the basic storyline that was present in the 1950 animated original as well, with the exception of the entertaining subplot involving the mice and Lucifer the cat.)

What's different in this version of the classic fairy tale (directed by Kenneth Branagh) is how grounded it is. (Not completely. This is a fairy tale, after all, and I, personally, have some minor issues with a few of the fantastical and romantic elements, including Cinderella's dress and a few hourglass figures.) For the most part, however, this film version breathes new life into the legend and makes it feel both classical and contemporary.

Disney's reimagining of fairy tales and classic stories in recent years began with the satirical homage that was Enchanted (2007). It featured Amy Adams as a Snow White-type princess who is thrown into the real world and learns what real love is. Though that film was more of a parody as it was a tribute to Disney's animated classics, it was director Tim Burton's take on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (2010) that set a standard for not only visually-appealing fantasy worlds in today's 3D age, but also surprising stories with strong and re-imagined leading characters, particularly females, who become better people capable of more than even they know. Mia Wasikowska wonderfully portrayed Alice as an older girl who revisits her childhood world of "Underland" and old friends, and learns of her role not only in this world but in her own.


Alice, brave and daring.
Oz, conniving yet resourceful.
Maleficent, wicked yet vulnerable.
Cinderella, courageous and kind.
Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) took us back to the land of Oz (created by author L. Frank Baum in his books of the early 1900s), and showed us how the wizard (played by James Franco, as magician Oscar Diggs) ends up there. While initially and clearly a fool, he soon becomes a leader that the land may not have hoped for, but the one they need. Last year's Maleficent featured Angelina Jolie as the self-proclaimed "mistress of all evil," but with a twist. Based off of the late veteran animator Marc Davis's character design in the 1959 animated classic, as well as the original story by Charles Perrault, Jolie's portrayal is one of complexity and conflict, particularly in terms of the character's relationship to the "Sleeping Beauty" Aurora (beautifully played by Elle Fanning), and how the latter character represents the former's once beautiful and innocent life. Some saw it as a sentimental take on the iconic villain. Nevertheless, Jolie added some surprising twists and depth, as well as dark humor. And last season's Into the Woods (based on Stephen Sondheim's stage musical) portrayed various fairy tale characters, including Cinderella (played by Anna Kendrick), who exist in the same fairy-tale universe and learn that there is not always a happily ever after. 

Meeting the Prince
The character dynamics and relationships in Cinderella are no exception in this list as well. Ella's relationship with her parents, we already know, is loving, while her relationships with her stepmother and stepsisters (for their part) are cruel and envious. Probably the most surprising relationships are those between Ella and the Prince--or, "Kit," as he goes by (played by Game of Thrones' Richard Madden)--, and the latter and his father, the King. Instead of first meeting at the ball, they meet in the woods, as Ella stops him and his guards from killing a stag. Her words and character have an effect on him, and this inspires him to have every maiden in the kingdom invited to the upcoming ball in order to see her again, not to mention going against the tradition of inviting just "princesses" to such occasions.

Both Ella and Kit are portrayed as characters who either come from strict or traditional upbringings, or are currently in such circumstances and feel trapped or broken by life as it is. They are also characters who don't have it all figured out, who are still learning in life (as we all are), and who question if the other will take them "just as I am". Yet, both choose to look at life with courage and kindness, and at life "not as it is, but as it could be". Now there's honesty and hope for a better tomorrow and ever after.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"$uccessfu! Films": Billion-Dollar Babies

March 8, 2015

During the last quarter of the 20th Century, it was every few years that a particular movie would claim the title of "Most Popular Film of All-Time." From "Jaws" to "Star Wars" to "E.T." to "Jurassic Park" to "Titanic" and now to "Avatar," there have been significant moments in the history of filmmaking and filmgoing that were, in a way, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Nowadays, unfortunately, it seems like anything can be popular.
~Facebook post by B.e. Kerian (01/14/2015)

In the twelve years between James Cameron's voyage on the Titanic and his trip to Pandora, only three films (all of them sequels) have become billion-dollar hits in theaters. And all three were action/adventures--one based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, another on a Disney theme park ride, and one other on a comic-book icon.

Aragorn (The Lord of the Rings) readies for battle in The Return of the King (2003).
Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) sets out to find the Dead Man's Chest (2006).
The Dark Knight roams Gotham City (2008).
Following the unprecedented success of Avatar, the number of films to gross over $1 billion has exponentially increased for the next three years.

2010:

Alice (Alice in Wonderland) and Woody & Company (Toy Story 3) are strangers in strange worlds.
2011:
Jack (Pirates) sets sail again, this time On Stranger Tides.
Shockwave (Transformers) unleashes destruction in Dark of the Moon.
The boy wizard dukes it out in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--Part II.
2012:
The Avengers suit up for the first time together.
Batman makes his final matches (for now) in The Dark Knight Rises.
James Bond (Skyfall) and Gollum (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) have missions of their own.
Thanks to its 3D re-release at the beginning of the year, Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace surpassed the same mark. And Titanic surpassed the $2 billion mark for the same reason, as well as the same 3D conversion. The same went for the IMAX 3D re-release of Jurassic Park in April the following year, cumulatively becoming the most successful film in the history of Universal Pictures.

2013:
Robert Downey Jr. suits up again in Iron Man 3.
Elsa works her magic in Frozen.
2014:
Optimus Prime (Transformers) looks heartless in Age of Extinction.
So what do we learn from all this? Is it that a movie has to be a big action/blow-'em-up extravaganza or an animated romp in order to be successful? Some would argue, yes.

But here's the thing. It used to be every few years that a certain movie would claim the title of "Most Popular of All-Time." And it seemed like a special time, as each movie created (and continues to create) memories for audiences around the world. Truth be told, what matters is not merely how many people go to see a movie (which continues to be a misconception among the norm nowadays), but how that movie impacts them over time, whether it holds up or not, and how it inspires and speaks to them, for better or worse.

Though 2014 was a disappointing year for movies in retrospect (and the only BIG moneymaker consisted of smashing CGI robots and Michael Bay action), 2015 looks to be a nostalgic and progressive one in terms of the opportunities today's filmmakers and storytellers have in breathing new life and significance to classics and to ongoing studios. Whether it's a galaxy George Lucas first took us to in 1977, a slice of childhood Charles Schultz first entertained and enlightened us with in the 1950s, or heroic adventures that Marvel illustrated in comic books in the 60s, it can, as James Earl Jones said in "Field of Dreams," "remind us of all that once was good, and could be again."