Friday, October 30, 2015

Films of 2015: "The Martian"


Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left by his crew mates on the planet Mars after an unexpected sandstorm—and a collision from a satellite—leaves him presumably dead. Mark survives, however, and is alone on the red, hostile planet, assuming that his days are going south. Fortunately, there is already shelter set up. He also happens to have a background in botany, and is an incredibly skilled engineer. Determined to stay alive, his main objective is to figure out how to make food and water that will last from now to the time NASA will allow another man-mission to Mars (four years, to be exact), until eventually figuring out how to contact NASA. He records daily video journals and even displays an upbeat sense of humor “in the face of overwhelming odds.”


The Martian, in its simplest form, is a story of survival, ingenuity, and perseverance. Based on the novel by Andy Weir, sharply written for the screen by Drew Goddard (World War Z), and directed with skill by Ridley Scott (his fourth sci-fi outing following Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus), the film is very intelligent and key on science and authenticity. NASA was consulted to ensure that such science would be portrayed accurately and relevantly. With that in mind, this film could be a mending of science-fiction and science-fact, but without all the complexity that encircled, say, last year's Interstellar. The Martian also has an engrossing sense of humor, partly with the inclusion of 70s music (much to the dismay of Damon’s Watney). Damon is backed up by a pretty impeccable cast including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Kristen Wiig. The music score by Harry Gregson-Williams is at times mysterious; other times, grandly-calm; and other times, appropriately-emotional. 

Hollywood seems to be revisiting and celebrating the space race in recent years. Gravity (2013) was a story about getting home, while visualizing the wonders and horrors of being in space. Interstellar (2014) was about space travel in terms of finding a new home for the inhabitants of a dying earth. Even Tomorrowland from earlier this year implied, in part, that there are still possibilities and new ideas for space exploration. 


What’s most impressive about The Martian is that it isn’t just a sole-survivor story on the surface a la Cast Away or All Is Lost. It’s a global effort, consisting of NASA and other world agencies and scientific engineers, to bring one man back home. (If you recall, Matt Damon played a similar character in Saving Private Ryan.) Writes Rubin Safaya of Cinemalogue.com, “The true spectacle of space exploration . . . lies in the collaboration between people: scientists, engineers, agencies, governments, nations, and the public. . .” At the same time, the individual choices we make every day as human beings—what we choose to do, how we choose to act—can influence and bring people together to achieve the impossible. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"Goosebumps" (2015): Spooky Nostalgia


A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post reflecting on trends and memories of the 90s, including music, movie stars, and television shows. One thing I didn’t mention were popular books of the decade. This past weekend’s release of Goosebumps, based on the best-selling Young Adult horror novels and featuring Jack Black as a fictional version of series author R.L. Stine, echoes back to that decade, while also delivering special-effects roller-coaster thrills a la Ghostbusters or Jumanji.

I read some of the books growing up—The Haunted Mask, The Girl Who Cried Monster, Welcome to Camp Nightmare, to name a few—and I remember being engrossed and sometimes frightened by the cover artwork. The success of the book series (published between 1992 to 1997) led to a popular T.V. series on the Fox Kids Network (1995-1998), a spin-off book series titled “Give Yourself Goosebumps” (designed to allow readers to choose different endings or plots), and a more recent T.V. series titled “R.L. Stine’s The Haunted Hour”.

The original books in the series
In the new film, a teenage kid named Zack and his mom move to a new town. They move next door to a pretty girl named Hannah with a strange father who goes by “Mr. Shivers”. (It’s no surprise, really, that Shivers turns out to be Stine.) When Zach hears noises next door one night, he sneaks over to investigate and soon discovers manuscripts of the original “Goosebumps” series. When he opens one up, mayhem ensues as Stine’s original creations run amok. The result is a clever thrill ride of scares and silliness that really feels like something from the 90s (save for references to “Tweeting” and doing “selfies”).

The real question, in spite of all these scares and silliness, is this: Does it traumatize kids? 

To be fair, fear is a natural human emotion. We all experience it growing up. According to Stine (once described as “the Stephen King of children’s literature” by the Cape Cod Times in 2007), “Most fears are basic: fear of the dark, fear of going down in the basement, fear of weird sounds, fear that somebody is waiting for you in the closet. Those kinds of things stay with you no matter what age.” We also fear letting go of certain things like towns we grew up in, loved ones, and even growing up and moving on.

Still, it’s worth considering the following definitions of scare and trauma. To scare is “to fill, especially suddenly, with fear or terror [or to] frighten [or] alarm” (dictionary.com). To traumatize is “to cause (someone) to become very upset in a way that often leads to serious emotional problems” (i.word.com). The movie Gremlins, for example, can arguably be considered traumatizing, considering its Christmastime setting and images of little green monsters coming out of snow and Christmas trees. Plus, some characters get killed. Ghostbusters includes images of demon dogs and possessing spirits.

Jack Black, Odeya Rush, and Dylan Minnette
Fortunately, the scares in Goosebumps have more to do with dark fantasy—all the monsters and characters come from the author’s imagination, and literally come back to haunt him—than with occult spirituality. There’s no graphic violence or bloody violence as well. It’s the kind of predictable fantasy, despite some clever plot twists, where you know things will turn out alright. It should also be worth noting that Stine was, in a way, considerate of his young readers as well as the line between fantasy and reality. “When I write for kids,” says Stine, “I have to make sure they know what can’t happen. They have to know it’s a fantasy” (IMDb).

So, what is seen onscreen isn’t meant to be taken seriously, but rather humorously and as mere fantasy. Still, images of ghouls, a werewolf, a talking ventriloquist dummy, ax-wielding gnomes, a giant praying mantis, and a vampire French poodle can be frightening (especially for the film's target audience of kids), and should also give parents of young children reason to discern over age-appropriateness and how the movie will, one way or another, affect them. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 2: Collaboration and Creativity Under One Roof, Part I

Remaining Ideas Over Lunch

A place where employees and staff members "can work and play under on roof."
The success of the Pixar Animation Studios’ first three films (Toy Story, 1995; a bug’s life, 1998; and Toy Story 2, 1999) led to the decision to create a new facility, which officially opened in Emeryville, California, on November 27, 2000.

John Lasseter served as an executive producer on subsequent films, giving fellow colleagues opportunities to present their filmmaking chops. Some of these ideas came from a now-famous lunch at Hidden City Café in Point Richmond, California, in 1994, between Lasseter and Pixar veterans Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and the late Joe Ranft. Stanton and Docter were the first two animators that Lasseter hired outside of the studio (going back to 1990). Both served as original story writers for Toy Story, with Docter supervising the animation on that film as well. Stanton would go on to co-direct a bug’s life with Lasseter, while Lasseter ultimately chose Docter to direct what would be the studio’s fourth feature film. (Docter had no prior directing experience then.) 

Through Our Closet Doors

Co-directed by Toy Story editor Lee Unkrich and Simpsons writer David Silverman, Monsters, Inc. (2001) brought to life the age-old child belief that monsters hide in our closets, waiting to come out and scare us at night. As they had done with toys and bugs, the filmmakers started with a familiar idea, and then took it to a whole other level, and then some. As the opening credits roll, for example, audiences are invited in for a fun and entertaining time. Then the very first sequence starts out scary, with a monster ready to scare a little boy. Suddenly, that notion twists on itself and becomes funny, and we soon find out it’s a test that the monster is going through.

You see, the film tells us that monsters scare children simply because it's their job to. Furthermore, it's children's screams that power as an energy source for the monster world, known as Monstropolis, where monsters of all shapes and sizes and qualities have everyday lives like the rest of us. In addition, there’s been an energy crisis since kids are reportedly becoming harder and harder to scare. The irony, though, is that monsters are actually scared of children. And when a human girl named Boo wanders through her closet door and into their world, it's up to top scarer James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) and his friend Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) to get her back home. Yet, when they discover a dark, secret plot within the company that turns out to be more scary and dangerous than all they’ve worked for (the dark side of desperation, shall we say), they must choose between doing what is right-but-costly and what is easy-but-self-fulfilling.

Wow. Talk about creative freedom and complexity. 

Boo, Sulley, and Mike
The film was not only a breakthrough in CGI (particularly with the animation Sulley’s fur), though that’s an obvious given. It’s also a joy in its aforementioned creative storytelling and in its visual comedy, with several sight gags and homages. Monster street signs read “Stalk” instead of “Walk,” and the name of the local sushi restaurant is a nod the late stop-motion animator, Ray Harryhausen. The scare floor is also amazing to see, in terms of how the doors are operated and linked between the human and monster worlds (including time zones), and how they’re stored in the door vault (an entertaining and surprising roller-coaster sequence, if ever there was one). It’s also interesting that the scare assistants, including Mike, wear helmets like construction workers.

The main characters are winning and compelling. Mike is a one-eyed green ball with skinny arms and legs. Sulley is a blue and furry gentle giant with purple polka-dots. Boo is an adorable 2-year-old girl. Randall is a conniving, chameleon-like lizard who wants to outrank Sulley as the best scarer. Celia is a charming receptionist, and Mike’s girlfriend, with snakes for hair. Roz, a scene stealer, is a snobby office clerk. And company CEO Waternoose is a grandfather-like crab.

Roz was voiced by story supervisor Bob Peterson
The company’s slogan reads, “We scare because we care.” That being said, it seems a central theme in the film involves what characters care about, and what really matters. Randall, once again, cares about his reputation and being the best, even going so far as outranking others by secret (possibly cheating) means. Waternoose, who comes from three generations of family, cares about keeping the company alive and going. Mike cares about his job, as does Sulley. In fact, they’re both stoked about being on the cusp of breaking the all-time scare record. But Mike also cares about his relationship with Celia; he even tells Sulley at one point, “You know, there’s more to life than scaring.” He turns out to be right when Sulley comes to care more about Boo and her safety. When Sulley, in one scene, is pulled into a scare demo and unintentionally scares Boo, he sees not only how it hurts Boo, but how much all that he had worked for has hurt so many other children as well. (“Did you see the way she looked at me,” he laments.) Most of the time, Mike is very selfish in just wanting to get Boo back home. But when he and Sulley are at their lowest points, he gets cut to his core and wrestles with what’s really important. And eventually, he comes to appreciate Sulley’s intentions and even goes to great lengths (and scratches) to give his friend what he loves.

The central message not only concerns the roles of parental figures, nor just the effects of fear and laughter and friendship (like Boo’s presence on the monster world), but also in choosing to do what matters and what is right, even though it’s costly, versus what is easy and for our own sakes. The same applies to Pixar animators and filmmakers, who cared about their work and leaving audiences with themes and messages—and not just cartoony aspects—to inspire and challenge them.

Cast of Monsters, Inc.
What most people probably forget is that this movie came out less than two months after 9/11, and it was a question of whether audiences would go and see movies after that day. When the film did come out on November 2 that year, it did attract families, including those of younger children, because it allowed them to go and see something together for, reportedly, the first time in weeks. Docter’s commitment to the film shows. The last shot of the film, for instance, illustrates hope for the future, and hope for what will happen next. And it’s a message that would carry deeper into their next film.

Trivial facts:
- When John Lasseter was a student at CAL Arts in the late 1970s, one of the two short films he animated was called “Nitemare,” about a boy who sees monsters when he turns out the lights at night.
Monsters, Inc. was the last Pixar film to have animated outtakes. (Couldn’t keep forever, right?)
- “Hidden City Café” is featured at the beginning of the film, when Mike and Sulley are walking to work.
- Because Mary Gibbs (the voice of Boo) was less than three years old at the time of her voice recordings, the filmmakers couldn’t get her to sit still. Instead, they followed her around with a microphone, which allowed spontaneity to the character’s performance.
Monsters, Inc. includes nods to past Pixar films and possible foreshadows to future ones. (Some of the toys in Boo’s room include a Jessie doll from Toy Story 2, a “Luxo Jr.” ball, and a squeaky Nemo; and the garbage cubes could possibly foreshadow WALL*E.) 


Fish Out of Water

Clownfish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) and wife Coral are ready to start a family, until unexpected tragedy strikes in the form of a barracuda. Only Marlin and one baby egg survive. Years later, son Nemo is excited for his first day of school, but Marlin continuously warns his son that the ocean is not safe. Marlin may be a clownfish, but the irony is he’s often serious and very much a worry-wart. (At least two characters make a point in saying, “For a clownfish, he really isn’t that funny.”) From that, angst arises in Nemo, until he is taken by a sea diver and Marlin sets out on his journey to find him. Along the way, he meets a forgetful blue tang fish named Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), as well as a host of colorful and quirky characters who illustrate the importance of community, accountability, faith and/or family.

When a parent experiences tragedy, they fear for their children. The opening scene in Finding Nemo (2003)—which implies the death of Marlin’s wife and children, save for one, by a barracuda—proved too intense for some families, yet director Andrew Stanton defended it by stating that it “works within the rules of nature,” as had been done in such classic Disney films as Bambi and The Lion King. Furthermore, Stanton describes the film as a metaphor for life—as if stating, “Yes, there is danger in the world, but there is also beauty and fun and hope.” And there are scary moments in the film, to be sure, particularly in the form of sharp-toothed creatures. Stanton also believed that “there were so many other flavors of what a Pixar movie could be,” compared with what they had done in the past with toys, bugs, and monsters. At the same time, there were doubts as to whether the film would work, and if it would become the studio’s first flop, as many had speculated. 

Marlin and Dory encounter jellyfish
What Nemo ultimately showcased was a new benchmark in visual and emotional sophistication. In fact, it set something of a benchmark for Pixar in how to make a feature film (and in transcending the medium of animation). It takes emotional resonance to a whole other level by not just allowing audiences to watch a movie, but also experience it. The breathtaking animation of the ocean, along with Thomas Newman’s bittersweet (and almost ethereal) score, draws you in from the first frame. The attention to detail also showcases the enormous amount of research the animators put in, thanks in part to scuba-diving trips and visits to Sydney, Australia.

Very funny and unforgettable scenes, some of which include homages to Jaws and Pinocchio (a scene inside a whale, and the theme of the prodigal son), have become a part of the cultural zeitgeist in recent years. The same goes for now-quotable lines (“P. Sherman 42, Wallaby Way, Sydney” Dory “speaking whale”) and the cast of quirky and colorful characters, from sting-ray school teachers to vegetarian sharks in AA-style meetings (“If I am to change this image, I must first change myself”) to an initiation in a dental fish tank (“Shark Bait, who-ha-ha!”), charade fish, radical sea turtles (Stanton voices the character Crush), seagulls (“Mine!”) and pelicans. Interesting enough, this is one of the few Pixar films (let alone, an animated film) that doesn’t have any real villains—depending on who you count as such.

Company of tank fish (with Nemo, in helmet)
Finding Nemo also works as a story that illustrates characters with disabilities. Nemo has a short fin, which partially causes Marlin to continuously worry for and doubt him. Tank critter Gil has a bad fin as well, as a result of a poor escape attempt, yet he’s determined to press on. Dory has short-term memory, yet she ends up helping/guiding Marlin on his journey. (Her motto, “Just keep swimming,” stands as a way to press on and persevere even in the darkest of circumstances.) 

At its heart, Nemo is about a father learning to let go of his insecurities, and allowing his son to experience life and to take risks, as well as believing that his son can do great things. As Dory truthfully states, “You can’t never let anything happen to him because then nothing would ever happen to him.” The same goes for having faith in friends and others, as well as doing things better with community, accountability and/or fellowship (such as when Dory begs Marlin not to leave her, or when word spreads from sea to land about Marlin looking for Nemo, who is amazed to hear all his father has been doing and that he cares). 

Sea turtle Crush was voiced by director Andrew Stanton
Trivial facts:
- The animation tests of fur for Monsters, Inc. were similarly used for the anemone in Finding Nemo.
- The year of its theatrical release, Finding Nemo eventually out-grossed The Lion King as the most successful animated film in history, but only just.
- The credits don’t include outtakes, as Pixar’s three previous films did, yet they’re still fun as characters swim across the screen.
- According to IMDb, "With over 25 million likes, Dory is the most liked character on Facebook from any Disney or Pixar film."





The Little Robot That Lived, and Could

The last of the ideas that Stanton and company discussed at "Hidden City Café" in 1994 was a story that took place hundreds of years into the future and centered on a lonely trash-compacting robot left to clean the earth, one garbage cube at a time. In WALL*E (2008), Earth has become so polluted and overpopulated with trash (largely thanks to a dominant consumer corporation aptly named “Buy’n’Large”) that human beings had to leave. Even more, they’ve allowed consumerism and technology to influence the way they think, the way they act, and even the way they look. (More on that later.)

Following a marvelous backdrop opening of space, complete with “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly!, we first see WALL*E (voiced by Star Wars sound veteran Ben Burtt, with modifications) doing the job he was built for, collecting earth’s trash and compacting it in the form of cubes amid deserted buildings and valleys. He is apparently the last robot—let alone, inhabitant— save for a cockroach friend, while other robots like him have apparently shut down. (His name is an acronym for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class”.) Yet, he remains vigilant in his duties and even finds and collects various trinkets and knick-knacks that represent what humanity has left behind. He keeps these things in a storage area, including a Rubik’s cube, lighters, an iPod, an old VHS of Hello, Dolly! and a small green plant he finds in a sealed shed. At the same time, he longs for the kind of affection and companionship he sees in the film he watches every day (illustrated in the form of holding hands, set to “It Only Takes a Moment”). And when a ship lands on earth one day and a probe named EVE emerges, WALL*E is instantly smitten and eventually pursues her out into space for an “out-of-this-world” adventure. 

Finding trinkets
The incredibly photorealistic animation (particularly the first 40 minutes of the film) is perhaps the best of its kind. And I’m not talking so much about awestruck images of, say, the sun or the rings of Jupiter or the Milky Way, although they are all a sight to see. For Finding Nemo, one of the challenges was animating water. Here, one of the challenges was animating air. In fact, the subtlety and engineering in that and other small details, from WALL*E’s binocular eyes to the other meticulous sound effects (e.g., sandstorms, robot quirks, controls, cockroach chirps) created by Burtt, are amazing. There is also good physical humor, which is funny and sweet, and works within the physics and laws of robotics.

In previous Pixar films, we’ve seen creative takes on conventional types of characters, from toys to bugs to monsters to fish (exclusively in that order). The robot characters in WALL*E are no different. They, like our hero, are clearly devoted to their duties when we first meet them. EVE (voiced by Pixar employee Elissa Knight) is a vegetation evaluator looking for signs of life on earth. Her sleek design illustrates something pure, shiny and new, like the shape of an egg. Yet, she can also be serious with sudden ray blasts. Auto, the “auto pilot” wheel of the Axiom spaceship, resembles HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. M-O is a small, cute cleaning robot devoted to cleaning up “foreign contaminants”.

Mary and John are impacted by WALL*E
Interestingly and ironically, the robot characters and the earth look more realistic and human than the human characters and interiors of the main ship themselves (a criticism I initially had with the film). But maybe that’s the point, in terms of how the human characters resemble giant babies and have forgotten—or perhaps, never have heard of—real-life. To be fair, it’s implied that they look like giant babies as a result of microgravity (enduring “slight bone loss”) while in space. This illustration of what materialism or “stuff” makes human beings look and think is a strong message, as well as a controversial and/or environmental one for some. At the same time, it sums up the idea of the kind of programming that not only human beings have succumbed to in the film, but that we ourselves apparently and progressively have. It also illustrates the idea of doing what is easy versus what is right. A scene in the film mentioning that earth has become too difficult to fix sums it up this way: “Rather than try to fix this problem, it’ll just be easier for everyone to just stay in space.”

According to Pixar.com, "As the film evolved [during production], the storytellers probed a more human question: are you just going to follow your programming, or are you going to take a chance." Again, it all goes back to the choice between surviving (doing what’s easy) and living (doing what’s right), and ultimately remembering what it means to be human regarding the latter. According to IMDb, Stanton “claimed that the film’s central theme was that irrational love can defeat everything, including programming.” This makes WALL*E an affectionate love story, and not just one of Pixar’s most ambitious films.

Auto, the Captain, and EVE
The relationship between WALL*E and EVE is very effective and influential, whether through music, or a wonderful “dance” in space, or from the imagery of holding hands. Early in the film, when EVE finds what she’s looking for and suddenly shuts down, WALL*E worries yet stays by her side and watches over her. Later, when EVE sees that same “hidden footage” she apparently recorded while shut down, she really begins to understand all that WALL*E did for her, how he took care of her through that time, and all that he has been doing in general.

Indeed, it’s the character of WALL*E that sells and influences the emotion arc of the story. The way he’s engineered is one thing. But the way he acts and responds is endearing and charming. The aforementioned robot characters also display curiosity and growing change, for better or worse. Even some of the human characters (particularly John, Mary, and the Captain) are affected by WALL*E’s presence, and in the smallest gestures and acts of kindness. John and Mary are amazed at all the sights of the ship (“I didn’t know we had a pool”) and of space (“So many stars”) they apparently see for the first time. The Captain takes an interest in learning more about earth and farming, and after seeing EVE’s recording of earth (and how contradictory it is to all he has learned about), he eventually decides that he and the rest of humanity should go back and take care of the home they never knew, and work to make it what it once was, no matter how consumed it is now. And to think it's all inspired by a robot character who starts out doing what he's built for, and then goes on a journey to do what he's meant for, and inspires others in the process. 

"It Only Takes a Moment"
Trivial facts:
- Pixar started out as a computer division that spun off from Lucasfilm in 1986. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar. Then in 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm. Hence, the film could be seen as a connection between Disney and Lucasfilm not only in some of its homages to Star Wars (like the Axiom ship’s “hyper-jump,” instead of “light speed”), but also in the fact that sound designer Ben Burtt worked on both films.
WALL*E was the first Pixar film to include live-action footage (including Fred Willard as the BnL CEO).
- This may also be the first Pixar-related project to include the name "WALL*E" since the 1984 short "Andre and Wally B." 
- Even though WALL*E is an original sci-fi film that stands on its own, there are arguably several homages to other films in the genre, including as follows: E.T. (plant WALL*E finds), Blade Runner (bright, colorful billboards), and Aliens (the giant airlock disposals). Sigourney Weaver even provides the ship’s computer voice.
- In 2012, the late TIME Magazine film critic Richard Corliss named this film the best one of the New Millennium so far, above other critically-acclaimed films as the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), Avatar (2009), and The Artist (2011).