Monday, August 31, 2015

$UCCESSFU! FILMS SERIES: 2015, A "Universal" Year at the Movies?

August 31, 2015

This past weekend, Universal Pictures officially had three films that grossed over $1 billion worldwide at the box-office so far this year. This is yet another benchmark in an already record-breaking year for the film studio, known for such classic blockbusters as Jaws (1975), E.T. (1982), and Jurassic Park (1993). While said films were original during their initial releases (not to mention the most popular films at one point in cinema history), this year's slate of hits were each part of different franchises. From fast cars to dinosaurs to little yellow men, Furious 7 (released in April), Jurassic World (June), and Minions (July), respectfully, all contained variety and style, as well as international and, shall we say, universal appeal, to be sure.

But what did they leave us with? Let's take a look back.

(l-r) Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker, Vin Deisel,
Tyrese Gibson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, and Jordana Brewster are the Furious 7
Furious 7 
Arguably, this series should of just ended after Fast Five (2011). Nevertheless, Vin Deisel, Paul Walker, and company return in this seventh outing (the film's title is possibly an homage to The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai) and on a mission to stop a vengeful Special Forces assassin. As the tagline above suggests, "vengeance hits home".

What's unexpected this time around is a better story where the main "heroes" aren't out for a heist or a getaway, but to stop an adversary that threatens their familial bonds. Recurring players return in an international cast that has perhaps helped this series become popular worldwide. There's even a worthy and respectful farewell to the now-late Walker, who died tragically in a car accident in December of 2013, and who was digitally inserted back into half of the finished film in post-production.

What is expected (obviously, and perhaps more than audiences bargained for) are images of sexuality, sequences of insane and sometimes merciless action, frentic car chases, and much more mayhem and destruction to compete with Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon's equally record-breaking installment in the Marvel series) and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Interesting fact:
Prior to the film's theatrical release, star and co-producer Vin Deisel predicted (and I quote), "[This film] will probably win best picture at the Oscars, unless the Oscars don't want to be relevant ever."

Chris Pratt (center) is a raptor whisperer in Jurassic World
Jurassic World 
For some audiences, this third sequel in the prehistoric-meets-present-day series brought back nostalgia of Steven Spielberg's 1993 original in which modern scientists bring dinosaurs back from extinction via genetics. That initial comes true in a fully-functioning theme park, with Bryce Dallas Howard as CEO and Chris Pratt (fresh off of last year's Guardians of the Galaxy) as the everyman leading hero when a newly-created hybrid dino breaks out of containment and runs amok.

There was criticism directed at Howard's character (one of which came from Joss Whedon on social media) regarding a supposed anti-feminist message, considering she spends the whole movie wearing high-heels. On the other hand, it's one of the film's many elements that illustrates the contrast as well as transition from a corporate mindset to a realistic one--no different than what the original film illustrated. Some of the violence and perilous situations in the film, however, should be discerned in terms of what should be considered "entertaining" and what shouldn't.

It may not be an instant classic as the first Park. But still, Jurassic World is visually and viscerally thrilling and a roller-coaster ride of a movie.

A few interesting facts:
Last year's highest grossing film globally was Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction, which featured robotic dinosaurs. World, which also features dinosaurs, is by far this year's most successful film globally.

In 2011, Michael Bay's previous installment, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, was one of that year's most successful, only to be outranked the following year by Marvel's The Avengers as the most popular film of 2012.

Even more, Avengers was only Whedon's second film as director (following Serenity in 2005), as World is Colin Trevorrow's second film as director. (His first, Safety Not Guaranteed, was also released in 2012.)

(l-r) Minions Kevin, Stuart and Bob at Buckingham Palace
The inevitably-silly prequel to Despicable Me chronicles where those Twinkie-shaped, gibberish-talking henchmen came from and what they did before they met Gru in the 2010 original. The story (though that's not really the film's main concern) follows Kevin, Stuart and Bob, as they venture out into the world to find the "biggest, baddest villain" for their tribe to serve. They find one in Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), but only just.

Set primarily in the late-sixties, there are plenty of fun nods to music and trends of the time for adults to catch. (Interestingly, 2015 has been an exceptional year for 60s-era action-adventures, spy films in particular, including Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and, later this year, Spectre.) For everybody else, the sheer silliness and ridiculousness of these characters' antics should recall the classic slapstick mayhem of Three Stooges films and Looney Tunes cartoons. Plus, the aforementioned gibberish language of these characters has made them accessible and cute around the world.

But perhaps that's also the film's greatest weakness, making it more about style and comedy than a story, as well as a little more questionable in its elements of "rude humor" than the previous Despicable Mes.

Interesting fact:
This past weekend (August 28-30), this Illumination Entertainment-produced flick became the third animated film in history to cross the $1 billion global mark, following Pixar's Toy Story 3 (2010) and Disney's Frozen (2013).

What do all of these films have in common?
1. They're big. It is, after all, the nature of many sequels and franchises to be bigger than the last film, and have more elements in them than the last. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The former two, however, paid respects to previous installments while progressing in story, respectfully. The latter was an origin story.

2. Family. They each include themes of family, one way or another. And all three were commendable in that regard.

3. Perhaps they're too big. This is where all three suffered the most, in terms of action and style. (Although, Jurassic World's visuals and action were arguably consistent with the story being told, even if a couple of sequences were overdone.)

What do you think? Were these films big, or perhaps too big? Did they leave you with anything, for better or worse? Do you think they'll be around for years to come?

In my opinion, it's too soon to tell on that last one.

Pixar Filmography: Major "Emotion" Pictures

August 31, 2015

As a companion piece to my review of Inside Out (which you can read here), here’s a look back at some of Pixar’s previous films, particularly those that deal emotionally with childhood and/or growing up.

Toy Story series (1995, 1999, 2010)
Jessie and Woody in Toy Story 2
This series chronicles the relationships between toys and their owners, as well as the fear of being outgrown and forgotten (much as Bing Bong experiences in “Inside Out”). Yet, there’s the theme of taking advantage of the time spent with children while it’s given. Says Woody (in a worthy proclamation for father figures everywhere), “I can’t stop Andy from growing up. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

a bug’s life (1998)
Flik and Dot
Young ant princess Dot feels held back from doing impossible things, like trying to fly. Flik, a shunned worker ant in the same colony, and whom she looks up to, encourages her to think of herself as a “seed” who just needs some time to grow, and have patience that one day she will do great things. She even returns the favor later on.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Boo and Sulley
After a little girl from the human world named Boo stumbles into the monster world through her bedroom closet, and into the lives of buddies Mike and Sully, the latter eventually becomes a surrogate father figure and protector for her as they try to return her to her home. Sully soon learns there are better things in life than becoming the most popular “scarer” in the world, and chooses humility and friendship over pride and recognition.

Finding Nemo (2003)
Nemo and Marlin
Marlin the clownfish loses his son Nemo one day and sets out on a journey to find him. Along the way (and with the help of a forgetful but lovable fish named Dory), he learns to be a better, less protective, father, and allows his son to grow and discover life.

The Incredibles (2004)
Dash and Violet
The Par children, Violet and Dash, struggle with keeping their true identities a secret (e.g., Dash’s speed and Violet’s invisibility and force fields), as well as angst in being persuaded to try and live “normal” lives. (Dad Bob Parr, at the same time, has a personal distaste for mediocrity.) Dash desires to be on the track team but is held back by his mother, Helen. He argues,

“You always say, ‘Do your best,’ but you don’t really mean it. Why can’t I do the best I can do?”
Mom: “Honey, right now, the world just wants us to fit in. And to fit in, we just have to be like everybody else.”
Dash: “But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of. Our powers are what make us special.”
Mom: “Everyone’s special, Dash.”
Dash: “Which is another way of saying no one is.” (Wow.)

As for Violet:
“What do you know about normal? What does anyone in this family know about [it]?!? . . . We act normal, mom! I want to be normal!”

When Bob (secretly Mr. Incredible) goes missing, Helen (secretly ElastiGirl) and her stowaway children set out to get him back. Along the way, Helen learns to really value her children for their “powers” and their identities.

Up (2009)
Russell and Carl
A young Carl Frederickson and friend Ellie (whom he later marries) make a promise to go to South America and have amazing adventures. As they get older, though, life gets the best of them, from insurance payments to infertility and eventually to Ellie’s death. On Carl’s self-quest to South America, stowaway Boy Scout Russell becomes a surrogate son to him, and he eventually learns that the greatest adventures are with the ones we love.

Brave (2012)
Merida (left) and an unexpected companion
Princess Merida’s relationship with her stern and demanding queen mother are put to the test when she defies tradition, changes her destiny, and soon has to reverse a curse she has brought not only upon her mother but her entire kingdom as well. Present in this medieval period adventure are themes of not only mother-daughter relationships, but also of identity, responsibility and, yes, bravery.

Inside Out (2015)

Riley goes through a rocky stage in life when she and her family move from the Midwest to San Francisco. Internally, Joy and Sadness get sucked out of Headquarters, leaving Anger, Disgust and Fear in charge. As they try to get back, they (and audiences) discover how each of our emotions—even the ones we believe don’t mean anything—play a significant role in our lives, including the fact that happiness isn’t everything.

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

It’ll be another couple of months before this film comes out. But according to the recent trailer (watch below), we not only get a “what if” scenario of dinosaurs still living on earth, but also an unlikely friendship between a young Apatosaurus and a human boy (think a twist on a boy and his dog), and a glorious portrayal of the relationship between species and nature.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 4: Childhood and Growing Up--"Inside Out" Retains Pixar's Portraits of Life and Maturity

August 29, 2015
The year’s best movie by far doesn’t feature dinosaurs or superheroes or fast cars or even Minions. It centers on the emotions inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl and the rocky phase she goes through as she and her family move from the Midwest to San Francisco. Inside Out is the fifteenth animated feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, as well as perhaps its most ambitious. And yet, it retains the same emotional heart strings that made director Pete Docter’s previous film, Up, a daring winner.

This year also marks twenty years since the release of the studio’s original milestone, Toy Story, which practically changed the face of animation just as Walt Disney’s perennial Snow White had nearly eight decades earlier. That being said, you could say the emotions in Inside Out stand as Pixar’s own version of the Seven Dwarfs. Only here, there are five—Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyliss Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader)—all assuming personified adult roles in the “headquarters” of Riley’s mind as she experiences life with laughter, caution, and sometimes angst. Surrounding this tower are distinct “islands of personality” that make up Riley’s character traits, from goofiness to hockey-loving to family, friendship and honesty. Completing this internal structure, if you will, are theme park-like attractions full of stuffed animals and giant French fries, movie studios that produce and create dreams at night, and a maze of shelves full of marbles with video memories of Riley’s experiences growing up. (Who ever knew the mind could be this imaginative and creative?)
. . . and "inside" her mind
Pixar has had a long reputation for not only dazzling audiences with mere CGI ingenuity, but also in getting emotionally invested in the stories they tell and in the characters that occupy them. In fact, half of their films focus on memories of childhood, what it means to be a parental figure, and growing up. Some of the best stories in film are those that not only allow us to escape from reality for a few moments, but also challenge and inspire us with ways in which we can deal with reality. Pixar has done so with stories involving the relationships between toys and their child owners, a father clownfish searching for his son under the sea, monsters in children’s closets, a family of superheroes, and an old man flying his house via balloons to another part of the world.

Inside Out centers specifically on the challenges of growing up and experiencing life in new ways, as well as learning to let go of certain insecurities and child-like ambitions in the process, including the fact that happiness isn’t everything. (I should note that this movie deals with some pretty sad subject matter at times and may be too much for sensitive viewers, particularly younger children.) On a deeper level, it’s a journey for Joy, Sadness and of course Riley, when the former two get accidentally sucked out of the headquarters station into long-term memory, leaving Anger, Disgust and Fear, in charge but to no avail. As they try to get back, they (and audiences) discover how each of our emotions—even the ones we believe don’t mean anything—play a significant role in how we grow, develop, and work or interact with other people. Ergo, Pixar’s retaining (and rewarding) theme of emotional investment and maturity.