Monday, August 31, 2015

"$uccessfu!" Films: 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
Minions 
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.

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