Friday, December 30, 2016

Films of 2016: "La La Land"


Hollywood has certainly had a long history since the golden era of MGM in adapting successful stage and Broadway musicals into feature films (including recent hits Chicago, 2002; Into the Woods, 2014; and Les Miserables, 2012). But what director Damien Chazelle does in La La Land is different. Sure, it is an homage to the films of the aforementioned era (including, also, Casablanca and Singin' in the Rain), and it encompasses more than a century of various music genres. But this is perhaps the first real musical of the 21st century that is original. More than that, Chazelle (who recently directed Whiplash, 2014) has stated this is a musical for those who don't love musicals.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz musician (Sebastian) and an aspiring actress (Mia), both struggling to make it big in Los Angeles. Being a movie musical, they both express themselves through song, through dance, and through jazz. The 50s/60s-inspired setting--with modern day tweaks, of course--adds to the thrill. The opening segment, for one, begins with classic-style studio logos, including the CinemaScope title card (and screen ratio span), while showing a time span of over a century of music via radio-station-skimming.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
This fusion of fantasy and reality works brilliantly, as Sebastian and Mia try to make their dreams a reality, and are challenged by the notions of what is behind and what is ahead, especially in the case of jazz music. (One character tells Sebastian, "You're holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.") These characters even try going their own directions, hoping for the best. And still, they do try to remind each other if what they do is what they're passionate about, or if it's just work for somebody else's dreams. The same goes for, in spite of many disappointments and not feeling good enough, seizing opportunity while it's there and giving everything your all.

La La Land is thoroughly irresistible. Every number, from the opening segment on a freeway to Gosling and Stone tap-dancing on a hill to the phenomenal climax, is a showstopper. The same goes for the wonderful costume design, terrific score, and Gosling and Stone's winning performances. What a rarity to see a film like this being made in our current franchise-heavy culture.

Love is in the air.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Films of 2016: "Arrival" and "Midnight Special" Redefine the Science-Fiction Genre

 

There seems to be a trend growing in science-fiction so far this decade. Not only have several filmmakers from Alfonso Cauron (Gravity, 2013) to Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, 2014) to Ridley Scott (The Martian, 2015) resurrected interest in the space race, but this year alone seems to see a return to extra-terrestrial activity. And we're not talking about pot-bellied botanists or men in black. (Okay, maybe a little on that last one.)

Netflix's smash-hit series "Stranger Things" centers on the disappearance of a boy, as well as a mysterious girl and a malevolent creature, while police, government agents, and friends pursue them all. The series is a clever and engrossing homage to 1980s pop culture, particularly the sci-fi/horror films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, the novels of Stephen King, and "Dungeons & Dragons". (You can read my post on the series here.) Now there's director Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, which stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as a linguist and a theoretical physicist who make contact with aliens. And earlier this year, director Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special featured Michael Shannon as the father of a young boy with mysterious otherworldly powers, and who's being pursued by government agents and cult members.

Amy Adams in Arrival
THE ARRIVAL OF A NEW KIND OF SCIENCE-FICTION
The premise of Arrival involves mysterious spaceships that land in twelve different countries around the world. As the film opens, we glimpse moments in the life of linguistics professor Louise Banks (the always incredible Adams, in perhaps her best role to date), specifically her life from her young daughter's birth up until her unexpected death, leading to a life of loneliness and bleakness. (The accompanying string score is profound and emotional.) Even her lakehouse home is dark, bleak, and lifeless (a color scheme that seems to permeate most of the film).

The film jumps to a lecture hall Louise teaches at, with a clear lack of communication among her students--that is, until news spreads about twelve mysterious egg-shaped spaceships that land in different areas around the world. Military specialists soon arrive with a recording they need Louise's expertise on, and eventually she's shipped to a base in Montana, where one of the ships (known as "shells") hovers nearby. The military's objective (as any person or organization or government branch would want to know) includes finding out what these beings want, where they're from, and why they're here? Theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner, in an equally engaging role) wonders, "Are they scientists or tourists?" How do they communicate? How do they think?

Jeremy Renner in Arrival
This is a classic and engrossing storytelling devise of ordinary characters thrown in extraordinary situations. The transition and character development throughout the film is partly shown in the way Louise breathes as she initially approaches contact with the extra-terrestrial beings (whom she and a colleague name, amusingly, Abbott and Costello). And when Louise exposes herself physically and consistently to the aliens, she begins to see images (possibly or apparently memories of her daughter), leading her to wonder what they mean, as well as what the aliens' intentions are. They also soon provoke various questions: Are these things/memories that have happened? Or are they premonitions of what will happen? But when news spreads from other base sightings around the world of a possible war spreading, it creates fear amongst several countries. "We're in a world with no single leader," says one character.

All political controversy aside, the shot of the UFOs is one of the most unforgettable images on screen this year. The same for the crew's containment suits (rivaling what Ridley Scott did in The Martian and Prometheus). Even the sight of the aliens (called "heptapods") is a cross between squids and trees, with foggy, cloud-like symbols that represent their language. And the score by Johann Johannsson is haunting and mysterious, just as it is evocative.

Amy Adams makes contact in Arrival
Most surprising is that this film is not what you expect it to be. For some, they may be expecting a slam-bang sci-fi thriller with high-octane action and gripping drama a la District 9 (2009). For others, it may be an entertaining journey a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). But Villeneuve (Prisoners, 2013; Sicario, 2015) is more interested in the human aspect of his first-contact story. His main objective (as well as unconventional approach) is the illustration of communication, language and understanding, as well as regret, memory, time, and learning to live again. As one character says, "There are days that define your story beyond your life, like the day they arrived." That same character later asks, "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?"


A MIDNIGHT SPECIAL PUTS A NEW SPIN ON THE CHASE ADVENTURE

Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special
Midnight Special opens in a hotel room, with tape and cardboard covering the windows. A boy hides under a blanket, wearing blue goggles and reading a Superman comic book. Two adult guardians (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) get ready to go late at night and hit the highway, in a sequence that set the stage for the gripping, intense, and engrossing events on the way.

This science-fiction drama about a father (Roy Tomlan) and son (Alton Meyer) on the run from government agents as well as cult members has the elements that make up a worthy chase movie, as Alton shows he has extra-terrestrial powers (light beaming from his eyes and hands, hence the goggles, and catching radio signals), and Roy's objective is to get him to a specific place at a specific time on a Friday ahead.

Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, and
Joel Edgerton in Midnight Special
Other characters besides Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and Roy (Shannon, in a riveting and devoted performance) include his friend and former officer Lucas (Edgerton), the ranch leader (Sam Shephard), NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), and Alton's mother (Kirsten Dunst). This is a terrific, impeccable cast in a provocative story of faith, fatherhood, and pursuit of the unknown. In fact, as Arrival is, at its center, a mother-daughter story, Midnight Special is very much a father-son story, with real human drama and mystery that is perhaps stronger than the equally brilliant dialogue and script.

The motif of light is prevalent throughout, and suggests many different meanings, such as how it tells of people's places in the world, as well as what man-made religions (like the cult/ranch) make of it. (In fact, one interrogator in a scene makes an accusation that the ranch's "sermons" contain mysterious encryptions and/or coordinances to the aforementioned time and place.) The way Alton reveals light in his eyes and hands illustrates the intense phenomena that occurs, as it does when meteors crash at a totally unexpected moment, and the way he reacts to the sun. It's also interesting the way Nichols (who also directed Shannon in Take Shelter, 2011, and Mud, 2013) incorporates Superman comics into this story and raises all kinds of questions. Is the sun Alton's "kryptonite"? What is the significance of the date and time they are heading towards? Is there a place beyond our own where there are others like Alton? Perhaps guardian angels? What will happen when Roy lets his son go?

Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special
This theme of new life and a world beyond our own (and perhaps facing fears) recalls the type of world Gandalf describes to Pippin during a moment of doubt in The Return of the King. Furthermore, it exemplifies the question of what doesn't last long and what does (this world or our own?). There are certain elements from E.T. and Close Encounters that Nichols pays subtle homage to, yet he makes them completely his own, especially during what many may perceive as a pretentious moment. Yet, said moment illustrates this aforementioned theme very well. It's as if M83's track (and accompanied music video) "Midnight City" were made into a feature film. And a very restrained and mysterious one, at that.

WRITER'S NOTE: A featurette for this film can be found on YouTube titled, "Shine a Light" (watch here) while a track over the credits, titled "Midnight Special," contains the lyrics, "Shine a light on me."

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Classic Films: "Die Hard" (1988)


Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Ralphie Parker. Buddy the Elf. These are just a few characters we often think of when it comes to the holidays.

And then there's John McClane. Okay, maybe not the first name that immediately comes to mind for yuletide splendor and cheer, but definitely with cinematic action and mayhem. Nevertheless, and interestingly, many film buffs consider the 1988 action movie Die Hard a "Christmas classic." Sure, it's set around Christmas time (other movies that have done so include Lethal WeaponGremlins, and Batman Returns), as our hero (an NYPD cop) goes to visit his family in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. The real plot, however, gets going when McClane's estranged wife's office building is suddenly taken hostage by a group of German terrorists, while McClane himself slips out unnoticed and becomes the only hope they have.

It's a pretty straightforward and simple story, but in retrospect, Die Hard has a surprisingly strong narrative, along with cast of archetype characters from the hero McClane (Bruce Willis' most iconic role) to the villain Hans Gruber (the late Alan Rickman, in his unforgettable film debut) to the "bride" Holly (Bonnie Bedelia, now also famous for NBC's "Parenthood") to the supportive cop Al (a pre-"Family Matters" Reginald VelJohnson). It also happens to be one of the best structured movies ever written, with excellent examples of a setup, confrontation, and resolution (read Syd Field's book "Screenplay").

Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman)
Holly Gennero McClane (Bonnie Bedelia)
Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson)
Lest we forget, other films that weren't initially or ever intended as "holiday" films (including It's a Wonderful Life) are now regarded as such today. Watchmojo.com ranks Die Hard as the best "alternative Christmas movie" ever made. A few years ago, Christian media discernment site PluggedIn, in a way, commented that this film ranked better than others that are regarded as "holiday" movies (such as Jingle All the WayFred Claus, and even The Polar Express). Cinemagogue creator and pastor James Harleman even had an interesting sermon and theological discussion on the film earlier this year (read here).

What makes John McClane an engrossing and interesting (yet flawed) character is not just the way Bruce Willis portrayed him--as a cocky, smart-alecky everyman in a situation he didn't ask for--but also the fact that this character is a direct contrast to the macho characters of the 1980s (from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Predator hunter to Sylvester Stallone's Rambo to Peter Weller's Robocop). All McClane has are the clothes on his back (pants, undershirt), his gun, and (surprise!) his bare feet. In fact, director John McTiernan insisted that McClane be portrayed as "an everyday, flawed man that rises to the occasion in dire circumstances" (IMDb), even over the holidays. In the series' sequels, however, the character would become more unbelievable and cartoony. Nevertheless, McClane represents the modern-day cowboy, as well as the unconventional hero (or antihero, if you prefer), who does what nobody else will do. Hans Gruber even says to McClane, "So you're just another American who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?" McClane responds by comparing himself to classic western star Roy Rogers.


To be sure, as exhilarating of a movie as it is, Die Hard is also a very violent and profane one (obviously not for everybody), what with it's many pre-9/11 set pieces "with enough explosives and gunfire to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger" (remember the scene with McClane's bare feet and the broken glass?), very brief images of nudity, and, of course, Willis' infamous one-liner. On the other hand, those who are wise and discerning when and if they choose to see/watch it will arguably find some strong narrative and thematic components that counter the typical consumerism of the holidays, and may instead find a flawed character who's more determined than anybody else and tries to restore things, including his relationship with own family. Yippee ki-yay, indeed.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Cine-Thematic Retrospect of the Dark Knight: The Caped Crusader "Returns" to A New Franchise or, What Wouldn't Keep "Forever"


One of the interesting things in looking back on the history of comic book characters making their leap to the silver screen is learning about (and learning from) their periods of highs and lows, as well as the notion of creative control or lack of it, whether from Hollywood's end or the filmmakers behind said films. I've written in previous months (and, to a degree, extensively) about Batman and his big-screen interpretations from 1989 to present. In fact, it was the 1989 feature that gave new life to the character after a two-decade absence, not to mention my first recollections of the character while growing up (read my review of the film here). Since then, I've had two other fond childhood memories of the character and the franchise: the award-winning animated series that premiered on Fox in 1992 (which was influenced by Burton's films), and the 1995 third feature, Batman Forever. (I even did chores one time to save up money to buy the videocassette when it came out.) 

The original movies from the late 80s to the late 90s have generally been regarded and often criticized for their style over substance, action over story, and villains over heroes. The first movie had an artful and dark tone, for sure, while the second film, Batman Returns, initially upset critics (and especially soccer moms) with its grim and nightmarish atmosphere. This led Warner Brothers to aim for a lighter, blockbuster action-packed, and more family-friendly approach to the next installment (despite the fact that the previous big screen outing, the 1993 animated feature/spin-off Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, was PG-rated.) Having rewatched Forever recently, I stand heavily divided on it, as far as I'm concerned. 

Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman in Batman Forever
Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever
On the positive side, first of all, Val Kilmer is an effecting Bruce Wayne and an interesting and distinct Batman. (The actor has a hypnotic and mesmerizing voice to begin with.) The motif of duality and split personalities is prevalent not just in Kilmer's rendition, but also in the supporting cast of characters from Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), abnormal psychiatrist Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), acrobat-turned-sidekick Dick Grayson/Robin (Chris O'Donnell), and scene-stealing mad scientist Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Jim Carrey). Carrey's scenes, in fact, give the film a physically comedic aspect similar to Jack Nicholson's scene-stealing role as the Joker in the original film and Michelle Pheiffer's mischievous role as Catwoman in the first sequel. And Robin's origin story is well told in this version. 

But despite a brilliant flashback sequence showing Bruce Wayne's past, the two disadvantages of Kilmer's rendition (despite his evident complexity) are his character's lack of mystery and terror, and his sex appeal. Moments of sexual references and sensuality between Kilmer's Caped Crusader and Kidman's Meridian are unnecessary, especially when trying to appeal to a broader audience. Plus, the now-infamous rubber Batsuit nipples personally bother me, as they did many viewers. 

The newly-styled Batmobile in Batman Forever
Val Kilmer and Chris O'Donnell in Batman Forever
George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell in Batman & Robin
Clooney has stated that doing this film was one of his biggest career regrets,
while O'Donnell confessed, "When I made Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a
movie. When I made [this one], I felt like I was making a toy commercial."
And while the complexity of the Caped Crusader does surface at times, all of that really takes a backseat to the pop entertainment and action that permeates this film. The filmmakers have stated that the look of Gotham City here was inspired by the comics of the 1950s, and even paid homages to the first appearances of Robin and the Riddler at the time. On the other hand, one reviewer compared Gotham City in this film to Las Vegas, while one of the film's producers described it as "Saturday Night Fever on acid." And some of the action sequences (including the stylish Batmobile driving up the side of a building) are pretty cool and spectacular. But that's also, perhaps, the film's biggest disadvantage in terms of over-the-top style (Jones' Two-Face is extremely overkill, for one). And this would dominate the critical and commercial disappointment that was 1997's Batman & Robin, and to a fault that many feared killed the franchise then. 

When interviewed years later on the aforementioned response to both films from director Joel Schumacher, executive producer Michael E. Uslan described it as follows: 

The best way I can answer that is probably to talk generally about the industry, as opposed to talking specifically about Batman. There are times when you need to step back and realize that movie studios today are not necessarily the same things that they were many years ago. Many movie studios are international conglomerates now. They own everything from theme parks to toy companies to T-shirt companies to video companies. There's a lot of different wheels to be greased. Sometimes, over the decades, the tail started wagging the dog. In some cases, decisions were being guided more by toys and Happy Meals than by creative filmmaking. The danger there is that the entertainment you're making starts to feel like an infomercial for toys, as opposed to great film. Rather than being in a position where a studio dictates that a movie should be light, bright, and kiddie-friendly and family-friendly, with three or four heroes and three or four villains, and each one having two costume changes and two vehicles, to satisfy the toy and merchandising requirement, I think just letting filmmakers-great filmmakers-just go out and make great films, with a belief that if they make great films, you're going to sell merchandising and video games and things anyway, is the best way to do it. (IMDb) 

Tim Burton behind the scenes of Batman Returns
Michelle Pheiffer, Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns
Uslan makes a great point in starting with films first, and then having toys and merchandising spin off from that. I think one of the reasons Batman Forever and its mind-numbing follow-up don't hold up today is because, at the time, they seemed to fulfill the supposed expectations of what Hollywood thought a conventional comic-book movie should be (with hip and pop soundtrack music thrown in), instead of allowing filmmakers to bring their own creative and unconventional visions to life. (The same thing happened with the Superman franchise in the late-70s to the late-80s.) The former runs contrary to why Burton's respective films in the series stand out, what with their artful, intriguing and provocative undertones. (To be fair, Returns is more episodic.) On the other hand, all of the films here (preceding Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy) showcase Batman's adaptability to both art house-style filmmaking and summer blockbuster entertainment (for better or worse), as well as to comic books and animation and other mediums.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Films of 2016: "Captain America: Civil War" a.k.a. Avengers 2.5: Clashes and Downfalls


This year's slate of comic-book films has shown an ever-growing (and sometimes unconventional) trend in how superheroes and other related characters are viewed in today's culture and world. Are they heroes or vigilantes? Good or bad? Perfect or flawed? Necessary or destructive?

The debatable Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finds the two most iconic characters in DC history clashing over opposing worldviews following the events of 2013's Man of Steel, which featured a climactic showdown in Metropolis that resulted in polarizing 9/11-like imagery. Even the main characters are made bleak and broken, implying they've fallen from their idealism and are viewed as examples of misguided heroism. X-Men: Apocalypse finds Marvel's mutant team against an adversary team of mutants, headed by the ageless enemy Apocalypse. Suicide Squad finds a rogue's gallery of DC villains (including Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and Captain Boomerang) tasked with a deadly mission in exchange for clemency, and who find themselves against other villains such as the Joker. Marvel's Deadpool doesn't exactly count, although it does satirize the superhero craze of the 21st century thus far, what with the titular antihero's fourth wall breaks and unapologetic attitude.

(l-r) Tony Stark, Lt. James "Rhode" Rhodes, Natasha Romanoff, Steve Rogers,
Sam Wilson, Vision, Wanda Maximoff
In Captain America: Civil War (reportedly the beginning of "Phase 3" in the ever-growing and popular Marvel Cinematic Universe), government leaders propose a new act to keep the Avengers and company in check, following global events that have left devastating results both socially and economically. One scene, in particular, finds the character Vision discussing a theory related to similar events that have occurred even before the Avengers assembled (in the 2012 film).

Vision: In the 8 years since Mr. [Tony] Stark announced himself as Iron Man, the number of known enhanced persons has grown exponentially. And during the same period, a number of potentially world-ending events has risen at a commensurable rate.
Steve Rogers/Captain America: Are you saying it's our fault?
Vision: I'm saying there may be a causality. Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe. Oversight... Oversight is not an idea that can be dismissed out of hand.

The story pits and challenges various and specific themes against each other, such as heroes vs. government, submission vs. independence, protection vs. imprisonment and/or control, and also the consequences of war and the aforementioned casualties involved. At the center of this story is a clash in worldviews between "heroic" characters (particularly Captain America/Steve Rogers and Iron Man/Tony Stark), and not so much them against real-world figures and organizations.


What's great about Civil War is that it doesn't go the route of "the world is ending again," but instead focuses on the character developments and conflicts regarding said characters' roles and their motivations. And it equally works as an engrossing and deservedly-praised blockbuster full of impressive action set pieces (including a centerpiece standoff at an airport, complete with constant wit and surprises), as well as developing and engaging characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man steal the show, while Scarlet Witch and Vision are given better depth). By this point, we'll arguably never look at these characters the same way again, and (just maybe) hope that the best is still yet to come. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Strange and Unusual Golden Era of Tim Burton (1985-1994)


With the Halloween season this week, as well as the recent release of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, now is an interesting time to look back on the early and undeniably-idiosyncratic career of one of the most unique and imaginative film directors of our era. Often known for his love of the macabre and the strange, Tim Burton has played a role in several different and specific genres and mediums (some of them all at once): animation, comedy, supernatural, horror, comic book, modern-day fantasy, and biopic. His early work from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties specifically set the tone for his later works. Here's a look back at those films.

LIVE ACTION CARTOONS
Pee-Wee Herman (a.k.a. Paul Reubens) in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Burton began his career as a Disney animator in the early-Eighties, with his short films "Vincent" and "Frankenweenie". Although not the first movie most people often think of from him, Burton's feature-film debut, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), stars the ever-popular man-child creation of Paul Reubens, who travels across country in a comedic quest to find his stolen bicycle. Echoing the classic sensibilities and physical humor of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jerry Lewis, this film also displayed Burton's visual style: bizarre, quirky, expressionistic, absurd, and all in the style of a live-action cartoon. And although it's essentially a comedy, Pee-Wee is kind of a hard film to categorize.

Pee-Wee experiences the dark side and the interesting side of the world as he meets an offbeat cast of characters, from ghostly truck drivers to criminals to bikers to Alamo tourists, all up to a memorable chase on the Warner Bros. lot (not seen on screen since Blazing Saddles in 1974). And as memorable as he is (the film has become a cult classic in the pop culture zeitgeist since then), Pee-Wee Herman is also one of the strangest characters ever brought to the screen, what with his quirky mannerisms and voice, not to mention his inventive household of toys and contraptions. (Remember his breakfast machine?) He even considers himself a "loner," despite his friendship with Dottie (who constantly begs him for a date to the drive-in) and sweet moments with diner waitress Simone (who dreams of going to France). It's no wonder the film's tagline on the poster read, "The story of a rebel and his bike" (possibly a silly play on James Dean or Marlon Brando).

Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas
Speaking of cartoon features, Burton would jump back and forth between live-action and animated projects over the years, specifically in the medium of stop-motion animation for the latter. And his style has mostly remained in tact, whether conceiving, producing and/or directing his pet projects The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012), or a film version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), as well as his sophomore effort--a supernatural horror-comedy called Beetlejuice.

MACABRE
If Pee-Wee set a standard for Burton's brand of quirkiness, then Beetlejuice (1988) set a standard for his brand of macabre. In the same category as Ghostbusters made four years prior, this supernatural horror-comedy puts a twist on the "haunted house" notion, as a newly-deceased couple (Alec Baldwin and Genna Davis) are "haunted" by the new owners of their home, and they don't really know what to do about it. As one character says, "live people ignore the strange and unusual." They soon call on a "freelance bio-exorcist" for help, only to find him as a ghoul with a wild and crazy (and perverted) personality.

Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice
Michael Keaton is a hoot as the titular character, and Bo Welch's production design give the film an animated zaniness and spookiness. Yet, the film laughs its way through misguided spirituality and convoluted perspectives on the afterlife. For one thing, it seems people in the latter apparently don't want those in the real world to know there is life after death. This knack of macabre, as well as misguided spirituality, would be evident in Burton's later horror-inspired films, such as Sleepy Hallow (1999), Sweeney Todd (2007), and Dark Shadows (2012).

DARK COMIC BOOKS
For the first time since the release of Richard Donner's take on Superman in 1978, Batman (1989) became the quintessential film that set a new benchmark for what a comic book movie could be ("dark" and "definitive," as executive producer Michael E. Uslan describes). It was also a revolutionary achievement on so many levels, not least of which was the film's dark, expressionistic world of Gotham City (courtesy Oscar-winning production design by Anton Furst), the unconventional casting of Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and the now-famous (and wordless) marketing emblem with the black bat symbol caged in gold.

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman
While not perfect, the film is poetically symbolic in illustrating characters with duel personalities, as well as themes in terror and danger, heroism and villainy, and the provocative debate of which character or notion creates which. Burton played a key role in this seminal redefining, and the film holds up to this day, despite its old-fashioned (and dated) moviemaking techniques and Prince music.

Burton did return for the sequel, Batman Returns (1992), and showcased characters with animal-like qualities and split personalities (The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin), which made the film intriguing. But it wasn't enough to make up for Burton's creative control going too far, resulting in a brooding, often nightmarish, cinematic atmosphere (another example of Burton's knack for the macabre).

MODERN DAY FANTASY
Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands
Yet, between both of these films, Burton found time to bring to the screen another pet project, one that goes back to a drawing he reportedly made as a teenager. A contemporary version of Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein set in suburban America (reportedly based off of Burton's hometown of Burbank, CA), Edward Scissorhands (1990) also stands as a modern day fairy tale. It illustrates Burton's recurring theme of lonely social outcasts--in this case, an incomplete (and imperfect) creation (Johnny Depp) with razors for hands, who is taken in by a kindhearted Avon lady (Dianne Weist) and falls in love with her daughter (Winona Ryder).

Like the titular character, the film is imperfect, and contains some unnecessary sexual content that's not family-friendly. It's also a bit violent at times, and even tragic (dare I say, depressing) with its lonely social outcast motif. But there are some, if not many, beautiful moments, such as the memorable scene where Ryder dances in the snow.

Burton would go on to direct other fantasy films (some, period fantasy), like Big Fish (2003), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016). But he may not have made those films had it not been for Edward Scissorhands (and screenwriter/frequent collaborator Caroline Thompson), which still contains an odd sweetness and heartache unlike anything Burton had tackled before.

BIZARRE BIOPIC
Johnny Depp in Ed Wood
The final genre in this look back is the biopic. And Burton found his niche in this genre by telling the fact-based story of Edward D. Wood, Jr., considered by many to be the worst film director of all time. Played flawlessly by Johnny Depp (in his second collaboration with Burton), Ed Wood (1994) tells the story of a passionate filmmaker unaware of his own flaws (he would reportedly do scenes in no more than one take, and even cross-dressed on occasion), who went on to direct such hated films as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Considered a love letter to B-movie cinema that will please die-hard cinephiles, it also features an Oscar-winning performance by Martin Landau as the legendary-yet-aging-and-troubling Bela Lugosi. This notion of B-movie-making may have echoed into Burton's next feature, the mean-spirited special-effects comedy Mars Attacks! (1996), and he wouldn't return to the biopic genre for another twenty years, when Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski came to him with Big Eyes (2014), based on the true story of painter Margaret Keane.

Billy Crudup and Albert Finney in Big Fish
Burton's various works within those twenty years would be considered hit-or-miss--some critically-successful, some financially-successful, sometimes both. Some recommendable; others, not so much. But one thing is for certain: much like Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan, nobody makes films (including those from the first decade of his career) quite like Tim Burton, no matter how "strange and unusual."

Monday, October 24, 2016

Films of 2016: "Sully," A Real Hero


There's a moment in Sully (based on the true story of flight captain Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger and the safe-landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009, in what became known as the "Miracle on the Hudson," resulting in the survival of all 155 passengers and crew on board) where one character says, in the aftermath of said event, "It's been a while since New York has news this good, especially with an airplane." Truth be told, 9/11 and this event were two headlined events in New York in the past decade. And while they were ultimately unexpected, both displayed signs of hope and courage because of those who made a difference in saving lives.
                                                                                 
And while the new film, masterfully directed by Clint Eastwood, recreates this event (seen from different points-of-view throughout, with IMAX cameras), it also chronicles the investigation that took place in the aftermath. From the view of members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), computer simulations that recreated the flight indicated Sully would have (and should have) made it back to the nearest dock. This leads Sully (the always-up-to-it everyman Tom Hanks), who apparently suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to question if he carried out the right actions in what he described as "a forced water landing." He also contemplates the consequences that could come, not to mention the alternatives of what could have happened. (A few brief moments reveal 9/11-esque imagery.) As Sully states, despite his forty years of experience as a pilot, "In the end, I'm only going to be judged on 208 seconds [from the moment the plane lost both engines to when we actually landed]."

Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart
Yet, halfway through the film, we get a perspective from that of the passengers aboard the flight that day, as well as from Air Traffic Control and first responders on the bay area. With that in mind, Sully showcases the definition of what it means to be a hero, including the actions and choices carried out in the process. Whether it's getting the job done, highlighting experience and instinct over numbers, or recognizing the role of humanity, Sully clarifies his role as somebody who was simply "doing his job". 

Sully, "a real hero"
In fact, during the hearings, Sully notes that the NTSB has "not taken into account the human factor." Sully even states that it wasn't a singular "miracle" (meaning that not one person was involved in saving everybody on board), but a collaborative one. To reiterate, "We [just] did our job." That being said, another thing Eastwood's film does really well (despite its 90-minute running time, which some may criticize) is that ordinary people can still do heroic things.

WRITER'S NOTE: The following track from 2010, by electronic bands College and Electric Youth, was partly inspired by the real-life events of this film. 


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pixar Filmography, Volume 4: "Finding Dory" Is A Worthy Addition


Although known primarily for their original films, Pixar Animation Studios has released a total of five sequels or prequels to only four of their films, from Toy Story to Cars to Monsters, Inc. (A third Cars is scheduled for release next year, and a sequel to The Incredibles is currently in the works.) Depending on who you ask or talk to, one is either astounded or let down by said follow-ups. And the studio's latest addition, a follow-up to their 2003 hit Finding Nemo, had initially fit that bill for some regarding the latter reaction. (I certainly went in with low-to-middling expectations.) In fact, director Andrew Stanton, who initially didn't plan on making another film, felt led to do so after viewing a 3D version of Nemo back in 2012 and reportedly believing that Dory's story was "unresolved". (Watch the interview and video here.)

The story is set one year after Marlin the clown fish (voiced by Albert Brooks) rescues his son Nemo (voiced by Hayden Rolence) from a dentist's office in Sydney, Australia. Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), who aided Marlin on his quest, begins having flashbacks of memories as a child, and of her parents and home she has long forgotten. She eventually has Marlin and Nemo return the favor by helping her in her own quest to find her family and therefore finding her home.

Dory as a child, with parents Charlie (left) and Jenny (right)
Dory eventually ends up in the Marine Life Institute in California and meets a chameleon-like octopus named Hank (voiced by Ed O'Neill) with an agenda of his own (not to mention a coffee pot he stores Dory in when they team up). Other new characters include near-sighted shark whale Destiny (voiced by Kaitlyn Olson) and beluga whale Bailey (voiced by Ty Burrell), sea lions Fluke and Rudder (voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West), and Dory's parents Charlie and Jenny (voiced by Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton).

Like the first film, Dory brilliantly illustrates individuals with disabilities (Dory's forgetfulness, Destiny's nearsightedness, Bailey's lost echo location abilities), as well as parents who worry for their children's lives (much like Marlin did for Nemo's previously). Yet, it also showcases the theme of fearlessness and determination, despite the inevitable fear of being forgotten as well as what it means to find "home". And in what may initially seem like a portrayal of an unsympathetic institution, several characters describe the Marine Life as a "fish hospital," with no signs of animal harm done by human characters (with the exception of a few slapstick pratfalls and physical comedy by said animals). In fact, the Institute's chief narration guide (one of the film's funniest gags, no spoilers) makes a point in saying, "It's our hope that every animal we rescue will one day be returned to the ocean," and topping it off with the Institute's theme of "rescue, rehabilitate [not keep captive], [and] release."

Hank and Dory
The animation is breathtaking, particularly the "Open Ocean" exhibit (pictured below), as well as the character animation of Hank (who steals every scene he's in). There are clever homages to previous Pixar films, such as the Kid's Zone recalling the Caterpillar Room toddlers from Toy Story 3. Returning characters include sea turtle Crush (voiced by Stanton) and sting ray teacher Mr. Ray (voiced by storyboard artist Bob Peterson). The preceding animated short Piper (like the previous short Lava, released before Inside Out) is a wonderful companion piece to Dory, telling the story a baby bird who overcomes his fear of the ocean waves and forms a friendship with a crab. And stay through the credits for some additional fun and surprises.

The "Open Ocean" exhibit
More importantly and surprisingly, Finding Dory simultaneously works as both a sequel and something of a prequel, as well as something of a spinoff and a worthy companion piece, a la The Godfather: Part II (1974) or The Empire Strikes Back (1980). In terms of further expanding its worlds and key characters, particularly its titular unforgettable heroine (who was voted on social media as the most liked Disney or Pixar character), Stanton and company have again succeeded, whether or not viewers will find it unforgettable.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Netflix 2016: "Stranger Things"


Despite my admiration for certain T.V. shows from ABC to Nickelodeon to animated series growing up, I've always been more of a movie person (as those who know me really well can certainly tell you). But there are times when a series will really grab me or intrigue me, whether it's the quirky adventures of Doug Funnie on Nickelodeon or the comedic-dramatic day-to-day agendas of the Braverman family on Parenthood. Netflix's recent summer hit Stranger Things (the throwback brainchild of the Duffer Brothers) is the latest case in point.

The basic premise involves a boy named Will who mysteriously disappears one night while riding his bike home. As his worried mother and teenage brother, along with Will's three best friends (Mike, Lucas, and Dustin), set out to find him, the latter three find a mysterious girl where their friend disappeared. With a shaved head and lab gown, they soon discover that this girl (whom they name "Eleven," or "L") can do things with her mind, and even has the ability to make contact with those in another dimension, while on the run from mysterious testing-facility agents and a terrifying monster.

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder)
Stranger Things is an amalgamation of sorts to 1980s popular culture and sci-fi/horror, from Steven Spielberg (E.T., Poltergeist, The Goonies) and John Carpenter (The Thing, Starman) classics to "Dungeons and Dragons" to Stephen King novels, this highly engrossing series recalls the nostalgia of growing up in the aformentioned decade while emphasizing (and sometimes critiquing) the thematic undertones and events of the era. There's an interesting moment in the second episode (er, "chapter"), for instance, where one high school character describes another as "such a cliche". This moment represents the types of conventions seen in t.v. and film of the decade to the way said conventions are seen today, and then expanded upon.

Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown)
While intriguing, extremely well-acted (most film buffs will recognize 80s stars Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine) and well-written (each episode, without spoiling, does end by promising the best is yet to come), this isn't a series for everybody. In fact, many scenes are very tense-ridden, including moments of pre-teenage kids in danger. (There's even an unnecessary moment that juxtaposes a teenage girl who loses her virginity, and another character who gets killed off in another dimension--possibly suggesting the end of innocence.) And as J.J. Abrams did with the equally-nostalgic Super 8 (of which this series may have also been partly inspired by), language, especially spoken by pre-teenage characters, is an issue. Nevertheless, the show's combination of coming-of-age childhood, science-fiction, and supernatural horror and phenomena is equally intriguing and scary. And that's something only a real film buff can say about a T.V. series inspired by the movies.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Films of 2016: "Ghostbusters"


Since 1989's release of Ghostbusters II, fans have been hoping for a third outing in the franchise that began with the 1984 original, directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Dan Aykroyd, the late Harold Ramis (both the film's writers), Ernie Hudson and Bill Murray. All have been on board for a possible sequel between 1989 and 2014, except for Murray. Aykroyd was interviewed in the early 2000s and commented,

"Ghostbusters 3" will never happen. Unless Bill Murray agrees. Everyone else would love to do it--Columbia, [Harold Ramis], myself, [Ivan Reitman]. It's a five-way rights situation and Bill is locking up his piece of the rights because he feels that was work he just wants preserved and he doesn't want it diluted. As an artist I can respect that. (IMDb)

(l-r) Dan Achroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis in the 1984 original

Recalling the first two films, Murray once commented,

The first 45 minutes of the original Ghostbusters is some of the funniest stuff ever made. The second one was disappointing because the special effects guys took over. I had something like two scenes -- and they're the only funny ones in the movie. (IMDb)

One of the things that made the original such a hit (as well as a hilarious and scary special-effects comedy, the first of its kind) was the ad-libbing freedom the three main actors, particularly Murray, had in establishing the tone of the film, and not just their characters. There's an interesting video that talks about the outline and structure of the film, and how the initial draft differs heavily from the film many know and love today.

(l-r) Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig and Kate McKinnon in the 2016 version
The latest release from director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy) does a reboot, as well as a gender-swap, by casting Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones as the quartet of paranormal exterminators in modern Manhattan. The filmmakers even went so far as reversing the secretary role, with Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, filling in for Annie Potts. Many fans were reportedly outraged when they heard the news, particularly when the first trailer premiered earlier this year. (It was soon ranked as one of the most disliked videos in YouTube history.) The original cast and crew including Murray, on the other hand, gave their endorsement (as seen in this video from Jimmy Kimmel last summer).

Both generations of casts on Jimmy Kimmel
(Front row, l-r: Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig;
Back row, l-r: Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Bill Murray) 
What puzzles me a bit is the contrast between the critical response and the audience response to this film (an opposite effect of what happened with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year). Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 73 percent "fresh" rating with a consensus that reads the film "does an impressive job of standing on its own as a freewheeling, marvelously cast supernatural comedy--even if it can't help but pale somewhat in comparison to the classic original," while IMDb gave it an audience score of 5.4 out of 10. That being said, it sometimes doesn't matter what the general public says about a remake or reboot or what have you, as long as the original creators appreciate what you do and give you their endorsement. In this case, the classic phrase, in a way, never sounded so good. "Who you gonna call? [The original] Ghostbusters!"

While it's not a perfect movie (and it does have its problems for discerning viewers, particularly in its often scary and scientific supernatural elements, as the first movie did), it does stand on its own while showcasing the brilliant comedic skills of its leading ladies, most of them SNL vets like their predecessors (who also make cameo appearances). (Wiig and McCarthy have worked with Feig in Bridesmaids; Jones exceeds expectations of those who considered her character a stereotype in the trailers, and McKinnon steals the show with her quirky deadpan, goggle-eyed expressions and mannerisms.) Even better, the film doesn't reduce them to mere female stereotypes as some might believe, but instead portrays them as hard-working and dedicated individuals. Plus, the film's special effects don't really get in the way of what they are capable of. And some of the effects are incredible to watch, although it would be hard to top the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and Slimer from the original.

("I couldn't help [saying that]. It just popped in there.")

Monday, September 26, 2016

DC's Film Franchise a Lukewarm Start--But Hope for the Future?


The "DC Extended Universe" (DCEU) has gotten off to a surprisingly rocky start, perhaps as much as the anticipation that preceded it. What with the releases of this year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the rival studio to Marvel has showcased some of the latest examples of blockbusters that represent a gap between critical and audience reception (or in some cases, a comparison of both). In fact, both films hold a 20 percent vicinity score on Rotten Tomatoes.

What is the reason then? Could these films really be poor in quality? Did critics and/or audiences each respectfully fail to understand the filmmakers' visions? Were the filmmakers too ambitious or too ahead of their time? Were they breaking new ground with stories that have relevance in today's culture? Did the studios reportedly interfere and demand cuts for these films (leading to extended director's cuts on home video later)? Is it just art and action for their own sake, or is there actually substance behind it or added to it? Or maybe it's all of these things, one way or another. 

There certainly has been a long history of films that have met with lukewarm or poor reception upon their initial release, only to be met in later years with universal acclaim. Such examples include Citizen KaneFantasia, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (WatchMojo.com has an interesting YouTube video on the subject.) Now, I'm not saying that history may eventually warm up to the ultimate duel between DC's most iconic heroes and their well-known rogue's gallery. For now, though, it's easy to see why audiences and critics continue to be divisive on these films.

Dawn of the Justice League in Batman v Superman
In retrospect, the "Extended Universe" for DC films began in 2013, one year after director Christopher Nolan concluded his highly-regarded Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. Director Zack Snyder's Man of Steel rebooted Superman's origin story in the same way Nolan and company did, by grounding the titular character in reality and setting him in a grittier world. What was different about Snyder's (and co-writer David S. Goyer's) take, while engrossing and well-meaning, was how grim and destructive it got, especially during the film's climax.

Snyder returned to the director's chair with the follow-up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Set two years after the climactic events of the previous film, Superman is viewed as a threat and alternatively as a hero by the world. Bruce Wayne a.k.a. the Caped Crusader (Ben Affleck, in surprisingly fine form) views him as the former, and a clash of worldviews ensues in one of the year's most debatable and provocative films. Snyder's DC films (as well as the 2009 big-screen adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen) have been criticized for being too dark and serious, much like Tim Burton's Batman movies from 1989 and 1992. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film "smothers a potentially powerful story - and some of America's most iconic superheroes - in a grim whirlwind of effects-driven action."

To be sure, there certainly is a lot of action, CGI destruction, and much incoherence in the film's plot and execution -- at least according to views of the theatrical release. (An "ultimate edition" just released on video this past summer was praised even more than the initial release, with one reviewer on Amazon.com commending said version for filling significant plotholes and even discussing the film's philosophical and ethical undertones in meticulous detail.) Alongside Affleck, viewers got to see the scene-stealing feature debut of Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Fast & Furious's Gal Gadot), as well as fleeting cameos from future DC heroes.

Suicide Squad's rogues gallery
Suicide Squad is essentially an ensemble of DC supervillains, including the Joker, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and Killer Croc. Having seen the theatrical cut, what starts out intriguing (with snippets of key characters and dark humor, not to mention an engaging soundtrack) becomes incoherent, lacking in character (much of Jared Leto's scenes as the Joker were left on the cutting room floor), and disappointingly conventional of superhero movies (i.e., a "save the world from total destruction" scenario). According to the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, the film "boasts a talented cast and a little more humor than previous DCEU efforts, but they aren't enough to save the disappointing end result from a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing."

On August 11 last month, an alleged former employee of Warner Bros. reportedly wrote an open letter to the respective studio executives, criticizing the studio's slate of theatrical releases since 2013, including DC's films. Despite these criticisms, the latter movies have made a lot of money at the box-office, and stand as two of the top ten highest-grossing films of 2016 worldwide. In addition, the folks at Warner Bros. and DC have taken steps to ensure that they're get back on the right track with their slate of future releases (read here), which will continue next year with the highly anticipated solo outing Wonder Woman and the equally anticipated ensemble Justice League.


Here's hoping they'll be more exciting and entertaining, and less grim and bleak. (Well, let the following teaser trailers give you some assurance.)