Wednesday, November 25, 2015

REVIEW: "Short Term 12" (2013)

Short Term 12 takes place at a foster care center for at-risk teenagers, told from the point-of-view of lead supervisor Grace. Director Dustin Daniel Cretton chronicled his own experiences working at an at-risk center in his original 2008 short film of the same name, which became the basis for this film.

As we witness the day-to-day life and professional experience of Grace (Brie Larson), as well as her relationship with her co-worker and long-term boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), we soon find that their own personal struggles are no less serious than those of the teenagers they supervise. They seem to see themselves (or, at least, an expression of themselves) particularly in the characters of Marcus and Jayden. Marcus (Keith Stanfield, reprising his role from the original short) is about to turn 18, yet he doesn’t want to leave. (He expresses himself through angst-ridden and profane rap music in one scene.) Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) has been in-and-out of foster homes, due to reckless behavior. We also learn that she comes from a family with an abusive father. 

Grace tries to get through to Marcus
The ways that these characters have things in common—their imperfections, their willingness or, rather, lack of willingness to talk through things or to figure things out—illustrates the idea of suppressed emotions. Grace has obviously been at the foster center for many years and knows the ropes in handling other kids, as well as what they’re going through. Yet, she can’t seem to work or talk through her own doubts and fears, including her physical, emotional, and traumatic past scars. Like Marcus, she fears going through with various impending future outcomes—in her case, becoming a mother and becoming a wife. She also fears for Jayden and what she could continue to go through. It’s Mason (who grew up in a foster family himself) who begs her, “I’m asking you to just take the advice you give your kids every day and just talk to me.”

This film deals with some pretty heavy subject matter. There are issues of cutting, abortion, and abuse discussed or implied, as well as some questionable contemplation or actions in dealing with depressions or personal issues. The third-half of the film, in particular, gets dark. Also, there are some sexual references (including two main characters [unmarried] living together, and "scientific" anatomical pictures on a girl's bedroom wall), and there is occasional strong profanity throughout. 

Grace (right) listens to, and comforts, Jayden
For those who do choose to see this film, be aware that it is a raw and sometimes painful story of broken people, as well as those who choose to help them. (Brie Larson called it “emotionally dense and subtle and complex.”) Yet, for all its flaws, the film does show authenticity, realism and understanding in these characters’ lives, in the most non-melodramatic way. It shines a light on the darkness these characters—both leaders and kids—struggle with, but it also offers, even in the hardest of circumstances, the promise of hope and what it means to be loved. In other words, they (and us, for that matter) can still find meaning in life, with support and accountability.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 3: Suiting "Up" for "Brave" and Daring Adventures

The Old and the New 

Any company that had four hits in a row would not be open to changing anything. This place was the exact opposite. They were saying, "Look, we've had four hits in a row. We are in danger of repeating ourselves or getting too satisfied, and we need to shake this place up." 
~Brad Bird, on Pixar prior to The Incredibles (2004) ("The Pixar Story," 2007) 

Brad Bird was the first director brought in from outside Pixar Animation Studios to direct a feature film for the studio. His previous credits included his work on "The Simpsons" and the short-lived animated series "Family Dog," as well as the critically-acclaimed The Iron Giant (1999). He was also a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he was classmates with future directors John Lasseter, John Musker (The Little Mermaid, 1989), and Tim Burton (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985). His first Pixar film—a very dialogue-driven story and a PG-rated action-adventure, at that—was also the first film that really took the studio’s filmography in a different direction, becoming, at the time, the most mature-targeted (specifically teens and adults) feature they’ve made. 

The Incredibles (2004) is set in a world (reportedly a 1960s version of the future a la “Tomorrowland,” “The Jetsons” or “Johnny Quest”) where superheroes are forced by the general public into a relocation program, and thereby forced to live ordinary lives. Citizens have apparently transitioned from being in need of heroes to, sadly, believing they don’t need saving—those who wanted suicide, those who were hurt in vehicle wrecks, etc. This places stress on Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), who just can’t seem to put his old life, nor his pride, behind him. His nuclear family (a rarity in family films today), meanwhile, have struggles of their own. Wife Helen (a.k.a. ElastiGirl, voiced by Holly Hunter) tries to keep everybody and everything in balance. Daughter Violet (voiced by essayist Sarah Vowell) prefers shielding herself from everybody else—she can literally turn invisible and create force fields at will. Son Dash (voiced by Spencer Fox) can run super-fast, yet goes through angst when he’s held back from competing on the track team at school. 

The Parr family (clockwise: from top): Bob (Mr. Incredible), Helen (ElastiGirl),
Jack-Jack, Dash, and Violet 
All of these characters can clearly do amazing things. Bob certainly wants to, more than the mundane job he has at an insurance company (which really doesn’t help people, to begin with). He also dismisses mediocrity and conventionalism—an interesting story element is that the Parr family have “leftover” dinner nights. But when he’s called back into action by a mysterious organization, he sees it as a golden ticket to relive his glory days, until he discovers a plot where former superheroes have been killed off by a desperate “wanna-be,” named Syndrome (voiced by Jason Lee), who takes things too far by replacing real heroism with copycat heroism. And it’s not long before the rest of the Parr family come to Bob’s rescue. 

Teamwork and family have been crucial story elements in every Pixar film to date, from Woody & Buzz and the other toys in the Toy Story films, to Mike & Sulley in Monsters, Inc. Here, the importance of working with others (not individually) gradually changes in Bob and in his entire family as they learn to embrace their abilities and identities and fight as a family. At the end of the day, it’s not “special powers” or gadgets that win. It’s those that have them and what they choose to do with them. In other words, doing together what we can’t do as individuals. A scene where Violet shields Dash from enemy bullets, followed by Dash speeding inside her force field, show how even more “incredible” they are.

A family of supers, ready for action
Trivial facts:
- “We’re superheroes. What could happen?” There were actually many enormous challenges in bringing this big movie to life, included the animation of human characters, clothing and fabric; said elements under water, in the wind, and so forth. 
- The city of Metroville is, according to IMDb, a combination of Metropolis and Smallville. On that same superhero note, some sources have found character similarities to Marvel’s “Fantastic Four,” as well as similar story elements to the popular DC graphic novel “Watchmen”.
- First Pixar film to get a PG-rating (“for action violence”) and with good reason, considering the intense situations its main characters often go through. 
- Director Brad Bird voices Edna Mode (“E.”). He originally did this as a temp track (much like the late Joe Ranft did for Heimlich the caterpillar in a bug’s life, 1998) and offered the role to Lily Tomlin, who, in turn, believed that Bird was the perfect person to voice the character. 
- Late veteran Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson make cameos as animated caricatures of themselves. 

“Good Food” and Fearlessness
The old generation of heroes in The Incredibles includes the Parr parents (Mr. Incredible & ElastiGirl) and other friends (e.g., Frozone), whereas the new generation includes the Parr children, as well as new super-suits and the aforementioned “wanna-bes”. In Ratatouille (2007), there are two generations of chefs, each countered by different forms of criticism. The first generation is represented by renowned chef Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), who was passionate about food, and about making fresh and original dishes for his guests at his equally-renowned restaurant. His main criticism comes from the infamous food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole), who refuses to believe in Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” 

The next generation of chefs inadvertently follows from the most unexpected source. His name is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), and he happens to have, as he puts it, “a highly developed sense of taste and smell.” His problem: he’s a rat, and he comes from a family that makes a living by pilfering garbage. Despite criticisms from his colony-leading father, Remy chooses to take risks and search for new edible ideas just waiting to be discovered and created, not to mention those that will “add something to this world.” When Remy is separated from his family one day, he ends up in the city of Paris, and at Gusteau’s famous restaurant, where the current head chef, Skinner (voiced by Ian Holm), has been recycling old restaurant recipes and even branding the founder’s name on frozen foods. Remy gets an opportunity to fix a dish that’s been tampered with, and he ends up making something satisfying out of it, much to the amazement of an unbeknownst food critic.

Remy and Linguini serve up surprising dishes
Remy finds an unexpected ally in the form of a newly-employed garbage boy named Linguini. Through the eventual use of puppetry and slapstick, they turn Gusteau’s restaurant into the toast of the town. But things do come at a cost, including friendships, family, identity, self-interests, and lifelong dreams. When Remy’s father tries to talk his son out of his unconventional ambitions, Remy refuses to go with the motions of how the world really sees him. “This is the way things are,” says his father. “You can’t change nature.” Remy retorts, “Change is nature. The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide.” Indeed, Remy’s words echo being real in our character, what we’re passionate about, and in recognizing that others play a significant role, whether large or small, in helping us in that. 

In the 2010 Pixar short, “Day & Night,” there’s an excerpt from a radio broadcast by motivational speaker and writer, Dr. Wayne Dyer, juxtaposed with the personifications of daytime and nighttime, specifically on “fear of the unknown.” Says Dr. Dyer, “They [people] are afraid of new ideas. . . They are loaded with prejudices, not based upon anything in reality, but based on. . . ‘If something is new, I reject it immediately because it’s frightening to me.’ What they do instead is just stay with the familiar. You know, to me, the most beautiful things in all the universe are the most mysterious.” Says another character in Ratatouille, “The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Trivial facts:
- The film was originally conceived by initial director Jan Pinkava (“Geri’s Game”), who was replaced by Brad Bird during a reportedly difficult production. Pinkava is still credited as a co-director in the end credits. 
- Renowned chef Thomas Keller served as a consultant on the film, and is even featured in an insightful documentary short, on him and Bird, on the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film.
- Pixar artist Lou Romano (a production designer on The Incredibles) voices Linguini. 
- This was the last Pixar film to use the CGI-custom-made Walt Disney Pictures logo that debuted in Toy Story in 1995. 
- The word “ratatouille” was spelled phonetically in posters and ads, alongside the film title, to help audiences with its pronunciation. 

The Sky’s the Limit
And speaking of new ideas, probably the most original and oddest idea of all for a Pixar film was the story of an old retired balloon salesman and widow who ties thousands of balloons to his house and flies to South America. But when he finds a stowaway in the form of a young wilderness explorer named Russell, things take an unexpected detour. Add in a talking dog named Dug and a multi-colored flightless bird named Kevin, and it sounds like a bunch of unrelated things up in the air. The result that became Up (2009) couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the sky was the limit. 

Like the film’s main characters, Up goes to places Pixar has never been before. Places that are amazing, sometimes dangerous, and have full doses of reality. (Although dogs with collars that allow them to talk probably wouldn’t count in that last one, unless, of course, you suspend your disbelief.) Beginning with a romance between two dreamers, Carl and Ellie promise they will go to South America one day and live there like their hero, famous explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Their dream continues after they marry, work, and hope to start a family. But tragedy and disappointments strike in unexpected places. Through an unforgettable four-minute montage (told via imagery and Michael Giacchino’s bittersweet score), we see snippets of the ups and downs of life as Carl and Ellie pay the bills, are unable to have children, and end up in other circumstances that put their dreams on hold. And when Ellie dies, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) feels lonely, gray, and disappointed in never fulfilling their dreams. In fact, Ellie represents a bittersweet presence for Carl, as well as a driving force for him. According to the filmmakers, “If we don’t get the audience to fall in love Ellie, then they’re not along for the ride” for why Carl needs to go on this adventure. And what an adventure it is. 

Ellie and Carl
We’ve all heard of “escapist” entertainment, but there has never been such entertainment (or enlightenment) portrayed on screen quite like this. Up seems to draw inspiration from the works of Disney story veteran Joe Grant (Dumbo, 1941) and master animation director Hayao Miyazaki (Castle in the Sky, 1986). This is a story that takes to the skies and balances laughter, heartbreak, aging, angst, danger, adventure, and disappointments in life. As director Pete Docter and company did in Monsters, Inc., and as Brad Bird and company did in The Incredibles and Ratatouille, many parental and/or adult themes are explored here; never mind that this is a “cartoon”. The running motif of Carl hanging onto his house (and his stuff) illustrates his lifelong promise to Ellie, yet his unwillingness to let go and move on. In fact, the theme of surrendering dreams and recognizing the people and other cherished moments around us, including our own homes, becomes the most realistic theme in this story. Ellie’s “Adventure Book” from her childhood (without spoiling anything) can be a metaphor for how the adventures we each have in our own lives are not quite (nor always) what we expect or hope. 

Up bridges the gap between generations of moviegoers, old and young, including, but not limited to, such a moment between generations where a baton of sorts is passed down from the former to the latter. (How, I won’t say.) More significantly, this is a story that wonderfully and creatively caricatures people from our grandparents’ generation, as well as the stories and experiences they are full of. It’s a culmination of so many emotions, moments, and memories of life, and would serve as something of a precursor to Docter’s next feature film (set inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl). This is animated poignancy (and, according to the filmmakers, “simplexity”) at its best. 

Kevin, Russell, Dug, and Carl
Trivial facts:
- Screenwriter/director Tom McCarthy, known for indie favorites The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008), contributed to the story with Docter and co-director Bob Peterson. 
- Carl’s facial expressions and gruff personality were reportedly inspired by late veteran actors Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau. 
- Bob Peterson (who voiced Roz in Monsters, Inc., and Mr. Ray in Finding Nemo) voices the dogs Dug and Alpha. 
- This was the first animated film in history to open the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.
- An exact replica of Carl & Ellie’s house was built in Herriman, Utah, in the early 2010s.

A Hero’s Brave Journey
Brave (2012) presents a completely different world than the one Carl and Russell journey to in Up. Set in the highlands of Scotland (in a kingdom known as DunBroch), this ancient medieval world is amazing to look at, from the kingdoms to the mountains to the waterfalls to the wood sprites (known as “Will o’ the Wisps”). It may not be the first film audiences think of from Pixar in terms of its storytelling, but it’s still worthwhile. 

Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald) is a Scottish princess who, despite the insistence of her stern mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), would much rather arch and be adventurous than take on the responsibilities of a princess. (Even ElastiGirl believed that female heroes, and not just men, should fight.) This takes a critical turn when Merida refuses to go through with betrothal, by means of one of the descendants of the three clans fighting for her hand in marriage, and decides to change her fate. Merida tells us earlier that, according to legend, fate is “the one thing we search for, or fight to change.” Fleeing the kingdom upon drawing a line between herself and her mother (literally with a tapestry, as well as figuratively), she comes across a witch’s cottage and makes a deal for a spell that will change her mother. (“That will change my fate.”) This curse she brings upon her mother and her kingdom leads to an unexpected (and unusual) twist that showcases the lessons that mother and daughter learn not only about each other, but also about their family, what leads to a broken and fallen kingdom, and what must be done to make things right. 

Some critics and audiences have accused this film of being too-Disney, considering the reportedly-hypocritical fact that Merida has become an official “Disney princess” in merchandising and so forth. And while there is some truth in that, what the filmmakers were aiming at (and succeeded in) was telling a story about an unconventional female protagonist (a first for the studio) who goes beyond the expectations of what a princess is or should be, as well as giving her depth and complexity in learning what it means take responsibility and doing what’s best for her family and her kingdom. Even one of the clan lords comes to see that to win one’s hand, he must first win her heart. Similar to Remy’s words on deciding to make a difference in terms of change and influence, Merida illustrates the ancient themes of “fate” and “destiny”, specifically in terms of the direction she takes in life and what she will do. (This is a theme that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and should be discerned.)

The characters and accents in Brave are very authentic, thanks, in part, to the contributions of a vocal cast that includes Scottish actors McDonald, Billy Connolly (King Fergus), Kevin McKidd (Lord MacGuffin), and Craig Ferguson (Lord Macintosh). The action is, at times, more serious and intense than in previous studio efforts, maybe even more than The Incredibles. And Patrick Doyle’s evocative score (echoing James Horner’s score from Braveheart, 1995) adds to the epic and emotional sweep of this world, as well as the mother-daughter story at its center.

A mother-daughter moment from childhood
Trivial facts
- This film, along with John Carter in 2012, was dedicated in memory of former Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, who passed away the year before. Brave also has something in common with The Hunger Games (also released in 2012), in that Merida and Katniss Everdeen, respectfully, are both archers. 
- The original title of this film was “The Bear and the Bow,” with Disney story veteran Brenda Chapman as the initial director and Reese Witherspoon as the original leading voice. Chapman was later replaced by Pixar story supervisor Mark Andrews (The Incredibles, "One Man Band") during production difficulties (as was Witherspoon, due to scheduling conflicts). Chapman is still credited as co-director and was reportedly happy with the final film, and that Andrews stayed true to her vision. Plus, the bear element remains essential.
- One critic noted that the animation of Merida’s curly red hair (reportedly done by “six graduates of Brigham Young University’s highly vaulted computer-animation program,” IMDb) was solely worth the price of admission.

Friday, November 20, 2015

REVIEW: "Steve Jobs" (2015)

According to the meticulous, compelling and complicated 2011 biography by author Walter Isaacson, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs played a significant role in seven major industries: personal computers, animated films, music, phones, tablet computing, digital publishing, and retail stores. The latest film, from director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Newsroom), chronicles only three major product launches in the former industry, as well as the career of a highly-esteemed and equally-reviled man. The launches include the Macintosh in 1984 (a year before Jobs was ousted from Apple), NeXT in 1988, and the iMac in 1998 (following Jobs' return to Apple a year prior).

Because this is more of a dramatization than a straight biopic, Sorkin uses these three product launches as three separate one-acts (30-40 minutes each), focusing on the behind-the-scenes action, as well as the relationships and conflicts between Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and his colleagues/employees. The film also focuses on his brilliant but complicated personality and worldview, and how it affected the things that he did as well as the people around him. His relationship with his daughter Lisa (played at different ages by Mckenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine, respectfully) is portrayed significantly. (When Isaacson interviewed Jobs for the 2011 biography, one of Jobs’ regrets was the way he handled ex-girlfriend Christann Brennan’s [played by Katherine Waterson in the film] pregnancy, as well as his refusal to accept responsibility as the biological father.)

Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet),
and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) backstage at 1984's Macintosh launch.
Other key players in this representation include assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), one of the rare people who put up with or could get through to Jobs in his career and life; former Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), who ousted Jobs from Apple in 1985; co-founder and engineer Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who demands acknowledgement from Jobs for what made the company in the first place; engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg). Just as he did with The Social Network (2010), Sorkin presents people/characters who have helped create our modern world today with phases of products that interest people, as well as the personal costs in doing so.

Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) tries to get straight with Jobs at 1988's NeXT launch.
Technologically, each segment was shot in three different mediums. The first segment (1984’s Macintosh) was shot in 16mm film; the second (NeXT), on 35mm film; and the third (iMac), on digital, each illustrating the advancements in Apple technology over the course of two decades portrayed in the film. This structure, along with the story, also gives a very cinematic take on Jobs' apparent rise, fall, and rise again—with creative licensing, to be sure. (Current Apple CEO Tim Cook has accused the film of being “opportunistic”.) The fact that the film opens with archival footage of Arthur C. Clarke (author of "2001: A Space Odyssey") provides a glimpse of the earliest computers, and possibly an influence on Jobs' career. There are Shakespearean undertones and themes, including pride, power, egotism, alienation, and betrayal (e.g., Julius Caesar), as well as references to Bob Dylan music (whom Jobs was a huge fan of in real life), the 1984 Macintosh ad, Apple's "Think Different" ads of the late 90s, and the subtle transition from the computer age to the Internet boom.

Jobs (Fassbender) in his trademark wardrobe at 1998's iMac launch.
Simply put, the film is brilliantly-acted (with Fassbender capturing the spirit and personality of Jobs), written and well-made. Just don’t buy into the “reality distortion field” that this version of Jobs’ life is the only version. Isaacson’s book is so much more detailed and compelling. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 2: Back to the Shorts

Following the success of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Animation Studios went back to making short films, which they hadn’t made since 1989’s “Knick Knack.” Beginning with “Geri’s Game," the shorts have become a tradition with every theatrical film from the studio, and have given up-and-coming filmmakers opportunities to showcase their talents and creative abilities. (John Lasseter did the same thing, beginning with Monsters, Inc. in 2001, by giving other Pixar veterans feature-film-directing reigns.) And each short represents a unique story and perspective.

Geri’s Game” (1997) is apparently set in fall in a park, as an elderly man plays chess with himself—literally showing split personalities between his current self and possibly his younger self. The animation, particularly of human characters as well as leaves, took director Jan Pinkava (who later conceived the idea for Ratatouille) a year-and-a-half to create. (Appeared before a bug's life in theaters in 1998.) 

For the Birds” (2001) centers on a group of snooty little birds being taunted by a bigger bird on a high wire, with silly and riotous results. (The sound effects, and the animation of the feathers, are cute and funny.) Directed by Pixar art director Ralph Eggelston, this was the last short to be produced at the studio’s former headquarters in Point Richmond, CA, before relocating to their now-famous studio in Emeryville. (Appeared before Monsters, Inc. in theaters in 2001.) 

Boundin’” (2003) was written and directed by character designer Bud Luckey (the artist responsible for making Woody a cowboy). It’s a folk-like tale of a dancing lamb in a high mountain plain who, one day, gets his wool shaved and feels meaningless—until an old jackalope appears with words of wisdom. This was the first Pixar short to feature dialogue between characters, which would also be the case with subsequent shorts of successful franchises, including Monsters, Inc., Cars, and Toy Story. (Appeared before The Incredibles in theaters in 2004.) 

One Man Band” (2006) involves two rival European street musicians who compete for a little girl’s money. Directed by Mark Andrews (story supervisor for The Incredibles) and Andrew Jimenez, this short is driven by various musical styles via a stupendous and brilliant score by Incredibles composer Michael Giacchino. (Appeared before Cars in theaters in 2006.) 

Lifted” (2007) is a Spielberg-esque parody of flying saucer adventures, with a twist on an alien abduction that turns out to be a test—largely due to a complex control console. Directed by veteran sound designer Gary Rydstrom, the pantomime and deadpan results are a stroke of comedic genius. (Appeared before Ratatouille in theaters in 2007.) 

Presto” (2008) plays with the old “magician-pulls-a-rabbit-out-of-the-hat” trick in a Chuck Jones/Three Stooges-style comedy of slapstick proportions between a famous magician and a carrot-addicted bunny. Directed by veteran Pixar animator Doug Sweetland, and reportedly set in real time, the opening credits of this short pay wonderful homage to classic Walt Disney cartoons from the 1950s. (Appeared before WALL*E in theaters in 2008.) 

Partly Cloudy” (2009) takes the age-old thought that babies come from storks, focusing then on how storks get babies (like postal service, the storks deliver the babies, but it’s the clouds that make them). The story eventually centers on the relationship between a dark cloud and a worn-down stork who delivers the former’s pain-inducing creations. Director Peter Sohn was inspired by the famous opening sequence in the Disney classic Dumbo, as well as his relationship with his mother growing up. The expressions and emotions of panic, worry, anger, sadness, and happiness are understandable without a single word of dialogue. (Appeared before Up in theaters in 2009.) 

Day and Night” (2010) creatively, cleverly and meticulously combines 2D and 3D animation in one of the studio’s most complex shorts. Directed by Teddy Newton, this story centers on anthropomorphized representations of daytime and nighttime, both in the same world but with different perspectives. (Appeared before Toy Story 3 in theaters in 2010.) 

La Luna” (2011) tells a fable of three generations of an Italian family, as a little boy travels with his father and grandfather to the moon for shooting stars. Directed by Enrico Casarosa and featuring a Fellini-like score by Michael Giaachino, this wonderful story is about finding one’s direction in life. It also respectfully honors a family heritage and, in a way, illustrates the theme of passing the baton from one generation to the next. (Appeared before Brave in theaters in 2012.) 

The Blue Umbrella” (2013) is a bittersweet and lovely story (possibly an homage to the classic Oscar-winning 1956 short film, “The Red Balloon”) of two umbrellas who meet on a rainy night in New York City. Directed by Saschka Unseld and featuring a captivating score by Jon Brion, as well as anthropomorphized objects and buildings. (Appeared before Monsters University in theaters in 2013.) 

Lava” (2014) is another love story, only between two volcanoes who long for companionship over thousands of years. The results are beautiful and universal. Directed by James Ford Murphy. (Appeared before Inside Out in theaters this past summer.) 

Coming soon
Sanjay’s Super Team,” about an Indian boy who imagines Hindu gods as superheroes, combining childhood fantasies with his family’s religion—something Pixar had never tackled before. (Will appear before The Good Dinosaur in theaters, beginning November 27.) 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

REVIEW: "Room" (2015)

When I was little, I believed that my hometown of Dodgeville, Wisconsin (which, I think, had a population of more than 2,000 people), was the whole world, and that Iowa (where my family and I would visit my grandparents and relatives sometimes) was another planet. Like most children growing up, I learned that the world is much bigger and has more room than imaginable for so many people, places and things. 

The “world” that young Jack grows up in in the movie Room (based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue) is minimalistic. "Room" is a confined space surrounded by four walls, with a kitchen sink, a toilet, a bathtub, a T.V., a kitchen table, a bed, and a wardrobe where he sleeps at night. Now age five, it is by far the only world he has ever known. His "Ma" is also there with him, comforting, playing with, and strengthening him with arts and crafts, exercises, games, and stories of the things Jack sees on T.V., or the things that come in at times (such as a mouse) and above the sole roof window (such as an autumn leaf). Some of these "stories" are those of cats and dogs, trees, and people. Ma also references classic books as “Alice in Wonderland” (what is fantasy and what is reality) and “The Count of Monte Cristo” (about a prison break).

Director Lenny Abrahamson (center) on-set with
Jacob Tremblay (left, as Jack) and Brie Larson (right, as Ma)
But when "Old Nick" visits occasionally, we learn the reality of the situation, particularly for Ma, is much more harrowing and traumatic. Ma, whose real name is Joy, tells Jack she was abducted when she was 17, and has been held captive in "Room" (which is really a backyard shed) for seven years--five of which Jack was present. In fact, it's Jack who gives her hope and life through her depression and through these hellish circumstances, and a reason to fight for their lives. And when she decides to tell Jack one day that there is life beyond "Room," he refuses to believe it. Nonetheless, she says that they will plan to trick "Old Nick" to escape and get out into the world.

And that's only the first part of the story.

It's really no spoiler that Jack and Ma do escape, fearfully yet bravely. This is a story not just about a mother and child escaping the literal confines of a room. It's also about the emotional room of post-traumatic stress and depression they (especially Ma) go through in the real world, as well as the support, love, and accountability they receive from family and others in the process of hopeful recovery.

Actress Brie Larson (who won critical acclaim for the 2013 film Short Term 12) reportedly isolated herself for a month, went on a strict diet, and met with a trauma specialist and a nutritionist to prepare for her role as Ma. (Here’s a link to a great radio interview she gave in September.) She also bonded wonderfully with young Jacob Tremblay (who plays Jack), particularly over favorite colors and Star Wars trivia. Their chemistry really shows and carries the film. 

Looking through books in Ma's old bedroom
To say this film leaves you breathless (which it does) and that it's an emotional powerhouse (which it is) are understatements. It’s a story that is, at times, difficult to watch; other times, emotionally raw; and other times, tender and loving. It doesn’t sugarcoat its themes. It gets down to the bare bones. It's a real film that informs, challenges and instills viewers with these themes.

Adjusting to the outside world is, obviously, not easy for the both Ma and Jack. For Ma, her freedom from “Room” doesn't fully give her comfort, as she believes her youth and innocence were destroyed long ago by abuse and captivity. For Jack, seeing the world for the first time is overwhelming and amazing. (His narration throughout the film poetically expresses his thoughts and feelings.) Despite this apparent loss of innocence on Ma's part, Room illustrates hope and love in the midst of hellish circumstances.

When Ma believes, at one point, that she’s not a good enough mother, Jack reassures her (“You’re still Ma”) and she chooses to recover and press on for the sake of her child. A little boy who saved her out of her depression and gave her something to live for, just as she has been his guardian and has helped him find joy and laughter and strength and comfort through the aforementioned circumstances. This decision to recover and press on gives Jack an opportunity to experience love, laughter, and family anew. For Ma, it becomes a rebirth and an opportunity to live again. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 2: Collaboration and Creativity, Part II

Motor Running In A New Direction 

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, Bob Iger, and John Lasseter
Toy Story director John Lasseter returned to the director’s chair with Cars in 2006, the same year he was made Chief Creative Officer of both the Pixar and Walt Disney animation studios. Bob Iger replaced Michael Eisner as the latter company’s CEO, while then-Pixar CEO Steve Jobs became the company’s largest shareholder and Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull was appointed President of both studios. 

Cars was to be Pixar’s last film under their initial contract with Disney. But thanks to a new acquisition deal in 2006, it represented the beginning of a new relationship between both studios (and the beginning of a new direction for the Mouse House, for that matter. Likewise, Pixar would go in a different direction with new ideas for film projects that were outside their perceived norm). 

Cars echoes back to Lasseter’s first short film, “Luxo, Jr.” (1986), in terms of bringing inanimate objects to life. He was also inspired by his love of automobiles growing up (his father was a car-parts manager), and by a cross-country road trip he took with his wife Nancy and five sons for a summer following the success of Toy Story 2 (1999). In addition, Nancy encouraged him to make this film for both car/racing fans and for non-fans as well. The result is a dazzling world of color, speed, humor, and 50s nostalgia, and Lasseter’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, world, and characters really shows. The animation is first-rate (the opening sequence, for instance, puts you right into the action of the race track). The filmmakers balance within the physics of how automobiles work--not to mention the chrome coatings on each vehicle, as well as the “ray tracing” that allows them to reflect their surroundings--while subtly incorporating cartoony aspects such as the use of windshields for eyes and tires for limbs. It’s also interesting that tractors in this world resemble cows while Volkswagen Beetles resemble insects.

It’s easy to see why kids love this movie and its characters. (They’re talking cars, for goodness sakes.) For adults, however, these characters could be viewed as intriguing caricatures of real people. Paul Newman’s features, for instance, were incorporated into the character of Doc Hudson (whom he voiced). Lightning McQueen, meanwhile, was reportedly inspired by characteristics of Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Kid Rock, to illustrate likability and cockiness. The voice cast is one of the most diverse of any animated feature film—Wilson, Newman, Larry the Cable Guy (Mater the rusty tow truck), Bonnie Hunt (Sally), Cheech Marin (Ramone the spray-painting Impala), Tony Shaloub (Luigi the tire store-owning Fiat), George Carlin (Fillmore the VW bus), Michael Keaton (Chick Hicks the runner-up racer), and John Ratzenberger (Mack the semi-truck), to name a few. There are even cameos from car caricatures of Jay Leno and Arnold Schwarzenegger, of all famous people. 

Lightning McQueen (center), racing against Chick Hicks (left) and "The King" (right)
Cars not only speaks of life being about the journey and not the finish line and success, but also of bringing life back to a community that time and the world had long forgotten (Route 66). Hotshot racer Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is on his way to California for the Piston Cup championship after an unprecedented three-way tie between himself and two other racers. On the way, he gets lost and ends up on Route 66, and in the town of Radiator Springs. Because of his inadvertent road damage, he is sentenced to community service by fixing the road before he can leave for California. 

Like Tom Cruise in Rain Man, McQueen is challenged and eventually inspired by the other characters in this small community. He learns that there are far more important things in life than what “winning the race” means, including the fact that trust within friendships (such as his new friendship with tow truck Mater) is not to be taken lightly. He even gets a glimpse of what it’s like when the world leaves others (such as Doc Hudson) high and dry.

Residents of Radiator Springs on Route 66
This film arguably recalls a particular element from Field of Dreams. The scene where Porsche car Sally (who believes Radiator Springs is “a town worth fixing”) explains her backstory to McQueen, where she once had a successful-but-unhappy life and eventually ended up in Radiator Springs, represents leaving a former life behind for something better. In Field of Dreams, the character of “Doc” Graham explains that he left the Major Leagues as a young man and returned to his hometown to be a doctor, living there for the remainder of his life and making a difference in his community. Coincidentally, Cars would turn out to be Paul Newman’s last film role as the voice of Doc Hudson (Newman died in 2008 from lung cancer), just as Dreams (1989) would be Burt Lancaster’s last film role, as “Doc” Graham, before the actor's death in 1993. Newman’s last film credit, however, was reprising Doc Hudson in the Cars short “Mater and the Ghostlight” (2006). 

Again, this kind of film can appeal to kids and adults, including, but not limited to, country folk, racing fans, cars fans, and baby boomers. The film does suffer from a few overdone elements of commercialism and fame. But maybe that’s the point in contrast to the simpler small-town lifestyles represented in Radiator Springs.

Doc Hudson and Lightning McQueen
Trivial facts
- This film commemorated the twentieth anniversary of Pixar, founded in 1986. 
- There are many references to Toy Story in this film: the Lightyear blimp (referencing Buzz Lightyear), the “Dinoco” sponsor (the same name of the gas station that Woody and Buzz got lost at), and McQueen’s car number 95 (Toy Story was released in 1995). The “Cozy Cone” hotel in Radiator Springs could be a possible homage to a scene in Toy Story 2, where Buzz and the gang walked across a busy street under orange cones. 
- Lightning McQueen was named after Pixar animator Glenn McQueen, who died of a heart attack in 2002. The film itself is dedicated to co-director Joe Ranft, who tragically died in 2005 (less than a year before the film’s release). 
- There’s a reference to Shakopee, Minnesota, and “Crazy Days” in the scene where the minivans are driving through Radiator Springs. 
- The soundtrack includes artists like Sheryl Crow, Brad Paisley, James Taylor (the bittersweet “Our Town”), Rascal Flatts and John Mayer (new renditions of “Life Is A Highway” and “Route 66,” respectfully). 
- The scenes during the credits would be a first for the studio, which they wouldn’t do again until Toy Story 3 (2010). For added fun, car versions of characters from Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and a bug’s life appear, with their respective voice actors.