Sunday, January 31, 2016

$UCCESSFU! FILMS SERIES: Star Wars, Record-Breaking and Redefining

It’s no surprise, really. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has revived public interest in the cinematic space saga that George Lucas first created in 1977. That practically goes without saying, what with all the merchandising and anticipation months prior to the film’s December 2015 release. Having broken just about every record in the history of movies since then (including the worldwide $1 billion mark in a record 13 days), audiences and critics have been reminded of the power of a franchise that doesn't just center on Jedis, Wookies, droids, lightsabers, battle cruisers, and villainous Sith lords.

Lucas was inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell, as well as Saturday matinee serials such as Flash Gordon, while penning his saga of a young farm boy who journeys to become a Jedi, a princess who co-leads a rebellion against a sinister empire, and the central battle between good (the Light) and evil (the Dark Side). And let’s not forget two droids, a Wookie, and a smuggler, as well as spiritual, mythic, and psychological motifs throughout. As Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger work.” The rest is history.

The 1977 original film
Fully titled Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope in subsequent years, the film became an instant blockbuster and worldwide phenomenon, spawning a whole new franchise and generation of filmmaking and storytelling forever. Says IMDb user “EggoMan” (on the 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back): “This is a truly wondrous film, and serves as a constant reminder that just because a movie is expensive and a blockbuster doesn't mean that it has to be shallow and two dimensional.” A New Hope remains a classic piece of science-fiction nostalgia, mythology, and entertainment, with an unforgettable score by John Williams that grabs you right away, revolutionary special effects that were detailed and jaw-dropping, and episodic stories and fantastic worlds that served as a substitute, in the universe of film, for what was apparently lacking for children in the 1970s. In fact, one of Lucas’s intentions was to create a story for children who were apparently growing up without fairy tales and classic stories. Late film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert remarked that the film contained a “childlike” sense of fun and entertainment.

That being said, this film (as well as its sequels, Empire and Return of the Jedi) bridge the gap between ages, generations, cultures, and countries. They also represent subtle amalgamations of different genres, and not just science-fiction. Says Forrest Wickman of Slate magazine, “There are few faster ways to incense a movie geek than by calling Star Wars ‘sci-fi.’ [It] may feature spaceships and aliens, but . . . its aspirations are definitely not those of science-fiction. Ask what Star Wars actually is, however, and you’ll receive as many answers as there are scoundrels at the Mos Eisley Cantina. Star Wars is a western . . . a samurai movie . . . a space opera . . . a war film . . . a fairy tale. A Jedi craves not such narrow interpretations. In fact, Star Wars – the original 1977 film that started it all – is all these things. It’s a pastiche, as mashed-up and hyper referential as any movie from Quentin Tarantino. It takes the blasters of Flash Gordon and puts them in the low-slung holsters of John Ford’s gunslingers. It takes Kurosawa’s samurai masters and sends them to Rick’s CafĂ© Americain from Casablanca. It takes the plot of The Hidden Fortress, pours it into Joseph Campbell’s mythological mold, and tops it all off with the climax from The Dam Busters. Blending the high with the low, all while wearing its influences on its sleeve, Star Wars is pretty much the epitome of a postmodernist film.”

(l-r) Rey, BB-8, and Finn in The Force Awakens
And so it is, once again, with the J.J. Abrams-helmed seventh episode in the franchise, a roller-coaster of excitement, action, humor, drama, nostalgia (real sets, practical effects, and 35mm Kodak film were used to great extent), and Shakespearean tragedy. Although it has been criticized for being too “retro” in terms of being like the original film, The Force Awakens is arguably a story of one generation’s lack of knowledge or little knowledge of a previous generation that involves certain people, stories, or news of yesteryear. Along with iconic characters Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han Solo, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca, Episode VII introduces newcomers in scavenger Rey, reformed Stormtrooper Finn, pilot Poe Dameron, droid ball BB-8, and the villainous Kylo Ren. All are on various journeys of different kinds. Rey (Daisy Ridley) waits on the deserted planet Jakku, apparently for a family she never knew. Finn (John Boyega) longs to escape a misguided life he was forced into. Poe (Oscar Isaac) leads a resistance against the menacing First Order (successor to the Empire of the original trilogy), of which Kylo Ren is a leading apprentice to the Supreme Leader Snoke. BB-8 carries a secret message that may bring balance to the Force again. (Sound familiar to all you die-hard fans?)

Rey is exceptional as a strong female lead in the Star Wars universe. Writes Alicia Cohn for Christianity Today, “Throughout the series, Star Wars has shown us a chosen character grappling with how to use his unmerited gifts. It established the pop culture expectation that a young man has the right to choose his own path. Now perhaps it’s time for an iconic coming of age tale about a young woman. It is particularly encouraging – particularly for the mothers taking daughters – that for once, a female coming of age story in popular culture might not involve a messy sexual awakening, but her own search for power, agency, and calling.”

Said Siskel and Ebert, on the construction of stories: “If a story is written well, if it is told well, if it is acted well, then it will reach across to audiences with its mythological influence.” This is part of what makes Star Wars timeless, as well as historically, culturally and globally relevant.

Oscar Nominations 2016: Not a Complete Lack of "Diversity"

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has certainly had a long history of not only the recognition and celebration of film in its eighty-eight year history, but also of certain exclusions that many people believed were just as deserving. The biggest backlash this year—and for the second year in a row—has been the exclusion of actors and filmmakers of color from the top acting and directing categories.

Many believed that such actors as Will Smith (for the football drama Concussion), Idris Elba (for the Netflix movie Beasts of No Nation) and Michael B. Jordan (for the Rocky spinoff Creed), as well as the music biopic Straight Outta Compton (which did receive a best screenplay nomination) deserved recognition. Such famous people as director Spike Lee (who received an Honorary Award at the Academy’s Governor’s Ball this past fall), Smith and wife/actress Jada Pinkett Smith have spoken out on their boycott of the ceremony, scheduled for February 28 with host Chris Rock.

(l-r) Will Smith in Concussion, Jason Mitchell in Straight Outta Compton,
Michael B. Jordan in Creed, and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation
While this news is concerning, and while the Academy has begun taking steps to include more diversity in its voting and nominating, it should be argued that “diversity” is not just limited to people of color. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines “diversity” as “to make diverse, or various, in form or quality,” “to give variety to,” and “to variegate.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas, etc.,” as well as “the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization” (my emphasis). Once again, “diversity” is not just limited to people of color or race.

Many of this year’s nominees fit the cultural part of the latter definition, representing such countries as Australia (Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller, Carol actress Cate Blanchet), Ireland (Room director Lenny Abrahamson and author/screenwriter Emma Donoghue; Brooklyn actress Saoirse Ronan), Mexico (The Revenant director Alejandro G. Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki), Germany (Steve Jobs actor Michael Fassbender), and of course England (The Revenant actor Tom Hardy, 45 Years actress Charlotte Rampling, Bridge of Spies actor Mark Rylance). In addition, film composer John Williams (who will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute this year) received a record fiftieth Oscar nomination (for scoring the latest Star Wars), and action film icon Sylvester Stallone (an Italian-American) received his first acting nomination (supporting actor for Creed) in nearly forty years—and for playing the same iconic character (Rocky Balboa) he created in the original 1976 film.

Best Director nominees, the world over: (l-r) Adam McKay (USA), George Miller (Australia), Alejandro G. Innaritu (Mexico), Lenny Abrahamson (Ireland), Tom McCarthy (USA) 
And speaking of action films, this is a rare year for the Academy regarding the fact that the films that received the most nominations are action epics that were box-office hits and critical darlings in 2015. The Revenant, a brutal western/historical drama, received twelve nominations. Mad Max: Fury Road, a post-apocalyptic chase-fest, received ten. The Martian, a sci-fi drama/comedy, received seven. And Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh episode in George Lucas’s space saga, received five. With these latter two films, this marks the third year in a row for recognized films that have arguably been reviving interest in space exploration and adventure (following 2013’s Gravity and 2014’s Interstellar).

(l-r) Matt Damon in The Martian, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant,
and Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road
For the record, here’s a list of whom and what I wish should have gotten recognized this year:
- Actor Jacob Tremblay, for his remarkable performance as Brie Larson’s five-year-old son in Room (my number-one pick for the standout film of 2015).
- Inside Out, for Best Picture. While it was recognized, not surprisingly, in the Best Animated Feature and Best Original Screenplay categories, this Pixar hit is another example of a film that transcends its medium (animation) and is simply a great story and film.
- Actress Charlize Theron, for Mad Max: Fury Road. She agreeably stole the driver’s seat from Tom Hardy in this non-stop thrill-ride, leading a revolt against a totalitarian villain. It’s the quiet and subtle intensity that makes Theron compelling and unforgettable.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for Best Picture. Why not? Avatar (another billion-dollar hit) got a nom back in 2010, as did the original Star Wars from 1977.

Generally, my main issue with the Oscars is that most of the films that get nominated every year don’t come out until the end of the year. (This year is exceptional, along with the fact that I did get to see most of the nominated films before their announced accolades.) At the same time, this isn’t the only awards show there is. In a recent interview with Graham Norton, rapper/actor Ice Cube touched on this notion, adding the misguided thought of “not having enough icing on the cake.”

All in all, it’s really no proof of who is best-of-the-best, no matter what background or ethnicity or country one comes from.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pixar Filmography, Volume 4: "The Good Dinosaur," A "Good" and Amazing Adventure

The Good Dinosaur represents an addition to two famous aspects of Pixar’s near-30-year history. First off, it contains another “what if” premise. What if toys came to life when children weren’t looking? What if monsters scared kids at night because it’s their job? What if mankind had to leave earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot? And in this recent case, what if the asteroid that, destroyed dinosaurs millions of years ago actually missed earth? 

Arlo's family on the farm
What proceeds is a clever take on what dinosaurs would be like today, imagining leaf-eaters as farmers and meat-eaters as cowboys. It’s as if John Ford directed his version of The Land Before Time. One could call it “The Land In Another Time”. All subtle and playful evolutionary undertones notwithstanding, The Good Dinosaur is also a visually-amazing and viscerally-rousing experience. The story follows young and fearful Arlo as he gets lost down the river one day and journeys to get home, with the unlikely help of a human boy named Spot. (Did I forget the mention the twist on "a boy and his dog"?) The landscapes and natural elements are truly breathtaking, adding to the episodic and emotional journey of these characters. You'll need Kleenex's for at least one or two tear-jerking scenes, including a moment where Arlo illustrates his missed family with sticks and as Spot follows suit.

Spot and Arlo light up the night
The other aspect this film represents for Pixar is that it has, perhaps, the longest production of any feature film at the studio. Originally conceived by veteran story supervisor Bob Peterson (who also worked on Monsters, Inc. and Up), the production reportedly lasted six years with various story issues and layoffs at the studio, partly due to the three-year lump they faced between 2011 and 2013. According to Pixar executive vice president Jim Morris, they wanted to make sure the film was “great”. Peterson was removed from the project in 2013 and moved onto another Pixar film, while artist Peter Sohn replaced him as director. Even the film’s major cast (including Neil Patrick Harris, John Lithgow, Judy Greer, and Bill Hader) was replaced due to story changes, and the original theatrical release date was moved from May 2014 to November 2015. 

T-rex "cowboys" around the campfire
Like Mother Nature, as Butch the T-rex (voiced by Sam Elliot) says around a campfire in one scene, the filmmakers couldn’t outrun the aforementioned issues. But they did get through them with determination, skill and heart, like Arlo and Spot. The final film may not be great, as Morris and company had hoped. But it is still worthwhile in its visuals (probably the most photo-realistic since WALL*E) and in its story of perseverance and overcoming fear. Sohn’s technical and emotional commitment really shows, particularly in the film’s quiet moments that echo such classics as Dumbo (a personal influence on Sohn) and Finding Nemo. And you may never think of farmers and ranchers and, of course, dinosaurs the same way again. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Standout Films of the Decade: 2014

WRITER'S NOTE: Though not the best year for box-office hits, this year was still, in some ways, exceptional, particularly for Marvel.

1. Unbroken
Powerful true story of Olympic gold medalist and war hero/survivor Louis Zamperini, chronicling five periods in his life, from youth, running, war service, 47 days aboard a raft, and finally his captivity in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. Brilliantly directed and executed by Angelina Jolie, this adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s (Seabiscuit) bestselling book shows the perseverance of a man who reminded himself (and the world), “If I can take it, I can make it.”

WRITER'S NOTE: The real Zamperini (pictured above, with Jolie) passed away five months before the film’s release.

2. The LEGO Movie
Probably the best movie of the year for everybody and anybody. Far exceeds the expectations of those who initially sneered at the idea of another cash-cow decision from Hollywood for a feature film based on toys (a la Transformers). Though CGI, the look and feel of the film very much mirrors old-school stop-motion, signifying the essence of the Danish company. And the story actually works, with “normal guy” Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) as the one “specially” chosen to save the Lego universe from being glued together by the maniacal Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell). Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who also made the entertaining Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs) add clever gags, cameos, and fun to the mix. Like the film’s song, “everything is awesome!”

3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Those who thought Iron Man was an obscure-but-surprising Marvel hit back in 2008 get a pleasant surprise in this out-of-this-world action-romp about space criminals who form an unlikely alliance to stop a madman from galactic destruction. Funny, off-color, visceral, nostalgic (with its 70s-music soundtrack), impeccably cast (Chris Pratt is a breakout, supported by Zoe Saldana as lethal Gamora, Dave Bautista as vengeful Drax, and vocal efforts from Vin Deisel as tree-like Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon), and entertaining.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Marvel Studios continues Phase Two in its “Cinematic Universe” as Steve Rogers (Captain America) struggles in the modern world, and has good reason for who to trust and who not to. What follows is a plot that drives more as an intense (and sometimes frightening) political thriller than a superhero adventure, allowing Marvel to stretch its legs into new territory a la The Dark Knight. Brilliant cast (including Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Redford), and explosive direction from brothers Anthony & Joe Russo.

5. Interstellar
Director Christopher Nolan's ambitious and intellectual science-fiction drama sends Matthew McConaughay and Anne Hathaway, leading a small team of astronauts, to the far reaches of space as they discover a wormhole that could lead to another world for the inhabitants of a dying earth. Epic in its scope and emotion, provocative in its subject matter, and mesmerizing altogether. Looks great in IMAX.

6. Still Alice
Julianne Moore gives a well-deserved performance in this moving drama of a college professor who contracts early Alzheimer's disease and slowly begins to deteriorate mentally. A painful yet loving portrait, written for the screen and directed by Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, based on Lisa Genova’s bestselling novel.

7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Follow-up to the 2011 reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years later, as a pandemic has wiped out a majority of the human race (leaving a few survivors, led by Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman), and a tribe of intelligent chimpanzees (led by Caesar) roams the woods. Directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In), Dawn is more than just a visual triumph. This film is a provocative, intense, and emotional story of interspecies communication and conflict. The always-incredible Andy Serkis (Caesar) makes another significant contribution to motion-capture technology as well as to cinema.

8. Big Hero 6 
The folks at Walt Disney Animation Studios follow their surprisingly-successful hits Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen with an obscure Marvel comic series, with the Mouse House’s own pizzazz thrown in. Blending the architecture of San Francisco and Tokyo, as well as presenting a colorful Avengers-for-teens team, Big Hero 6 features worthy morals that transcend mere-Disney magic. The result is a colorful, action-packed, entertaining, and emotional ride.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Pixar Filmography, Volume 3: Sequels Necessary?

There’s no question about it. The Twenty-first century, more than any other period in the history of film and box-office success, has been occupied mostly by franchises. Up until a few years ago, Pixar had (mostly) built a strong reputation for original stories that challenged the status quo and became idiosyncratic in and of themselves. That may have somewhat changed in the late 2000s with the announcement of a third chapter in a film series involving talking toys. (A sequel to Cars and a prequel to Monsters, Inc. would soon follow.) 

Breaking Away

“We don’t make sequels just for the sake of making them,” said Pixar editor Lee Unkrich (in an interview in early 2010), “but in this case, we truly love these characters [Woody, Buzz, and company] and this world. They’re the foundation of our company. We think of them as people. We don’t think of them as cartoon characters, and so we really wanted to visit that world again. But we didn’t want to do it if we couldn’t come up with something great.” 

Released eleven years after the first two films, and in an era that’s become more tech savvy for kids and young adults, Toy Story 3 (2010) surpassed expectations and amazingly improved its story with perhaps the most profound portrait of community and family ever put on film, and not just a Pixar one at that. It also did so in a way the previous films didn’t. The first movie (released in 1995) was a buddy picture, focusing primarily on the relationship between Woody and Buzz Lightyear. The second film (released in 1999) was a search-and-rescue story, led by Buzz and company on a quest to save Woody from a greedy toy collector before being shipped to a Japanese toy museum. In this third outing, directed by Unkrich, it’s not just Woody and Buzz’s lives at stake, but all of Andy’s remaining toys, as they attempt a prison escape from a daycare center. 

The film opens with a fantasy combining different genres from western to science-fiction, only to be revealed as a creative (and constantly surprising) mash-up in Andy’s imagination, and as his childhood memories are recorded by his mother. But as Andy gets older and is ready to go to college, there are certain things he doesn’t seem ready to let go of, nor is he sure what exactly to do with them. The same goes for the remaining toys (including Jessie the cowgirl, Rex the dinosaur, and Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head), as they wrestle with what will become of them. “Is our time ending?” “Will our purpose (as toys) be complete?” “Will we ever be played with again?” 

The gang's back, and making a break for it.
The film does shake things up for Pixar, just as The Incredibles did with superheroes, adult themes, world dominance, and spy thrills; as Ratatouille did with international cuisine, and in art-house fashion; and as Up did with the oddest idea made profound, tear-jerking, and funny. True, it’s still the same toy characters. But it’s an entirely different genre, so to speak (e.g., prison escape), and is still funny, touching, and universal. That’s not to say the film isn’t dark or mature in its themes. It does continue to deal with the relationships between toys and their owners, as well as the issue of being outgrown or forgotten. It also portrays the concept of toys living without owners, and the misguided feeling of meaninglessness. Self-appointed daycare leader Lots’o Huggin’ Bear (or, Lots’O, voiced by Ned Beatty) stands out as the most complex and the most tragic character in the film. It seems he wants other toys, especially new ones, to suffer as he did (having been replaced by a new one himself). The message of doing what’s best for everybody, and not what we think is best or want we want to be best, comes into play here, as does the theme of family versus imprisonment—the former of which Woody and company obviously exemplify. 

The film respects the legacy of the first two films, while introducing old and new characters to a new generation of filmgoers. Its success led to three short spinoff films, as well as two T.V. specials on ABC. Without spoiling anything, the film does have a sense of continuation, in terms of being the end of one chapter and the beginning of another one. It evokes the lesson of learning (or choosing) to let go and move on, while not forgetting where we come from, and respectfully and lovingly illustrates the opportunity to continue to live life. As Woody says, “This isn’t goodbye.” 

Fast and Furious

After Toy Story 3, including fifteen years of a string of consecutive hits with critics and audiences, one would think that Pixar could do no wrong. The following year, however, they experienced what would be the beginning of a three-year slump. 

Director John Lasseter was inspired to make Cars 2 (2011) after the 2006 original’s international tour. The final film mainly takes original characters (and new ones) around the world. Specifically, Lasseter imagined what Mater the tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) would do and how he would react in the real world—in places he’s never been before. In the film, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) serves more of a supporting role as he races in the World Grand Prix. Meanwhile, Mater, through a series of manic mishaps and misunderstandings, is caught up in international espionage with experienced secret agents. The irony is that his auto expertise, hometown experiences, and enthusiasm inadvertently serve him well in the secret agent field. (Talk about an unlikely hero.) The plot also involves Gremlin cars, and a supposed conflict between electric and gas-powered vehicles (a convoluted plot element that many film critics didn’t like. WALL*E certainly had an ecological/environmental subtext as well, though that film still had heart).

While the first film recalled nostalgia of the 50s and 60s, this film replaces that in favor of Hot Wheels action, entertainment, and spy thrills. The film is great fun to look at, what with its “car”-ification of characters and countries, and its meticulous designs of Japan, Italy, and London. The film also includes as diverse a voice cast as the first film had, including John Turtorro as an Italian Formula One race car, and Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer as spy cars with gadgets. The subplots involving international espionage and world racing give the film global appeal, which last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron also did really well. This gives Cars 2 a visual, childlike charm, yet is a bit concerning, considering that some characters do end up dead. One such scene, with an interrogation, involves torture and ends with an exploding engine. 

Lightning McQueen and Mater
There’s not much character development, although these characters do pick up where they left off in the last film. The importance of friendship is challenged. Yet, that message is not forgotten in the form of residents of Radiator Springs. The theme of identity and reality check, particularly in how others see us or how we see ourselves, proves significant as well. Along with that is the point that our imperfections remind us of our mistakes and are deemed “valuable” by how we grow from them. Lastly, the races don’t matter as much as the spy thrills, which plays well into the reiterated theme that winning isn’t everything. Plus, it’s the small things that save the day.

Cars 2 is considered to be the studio’s biggest critical misfire. (It carries a 39 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with mixed-to-negative reviews.) Many critics considered the film a “lemon,” like the adversary cars themselves. The same went for the tied-in merchandising. There were a minority of critics, including the late Roger Ebert and Peter Travers, who did enjoy the film. Lasseter, like McQueen, also stood by and defended his pet project and stated he’s proud of the film, particularly audiences’ response to it. In my opinion, when you read more about Cars 2 on, you may appreciate it a little more. 

Animal House

Monsters University (2013) presents a creative and funny representation (er, “monsterization”) of college life, parodying frat houses and archetypes, including the underdogs. Quite literally, it’s an “animal house”. The film finds how Mike and Sulley (voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman) met—in college. Both dreamed of becoming scarers, yet both did not begin as the best of friends. (As the film’s tagline states, “Before they were incorporated, they were educated.”) 

Mike is portrayed as the book-smart student, while Sulley is the lazy and ignorant but natural-born scarer from a famous family. Soon-to-be-rival Randall is portrayed as Mike’s one-time roommate, known as “Randy” and wearing glasses. (The latter wants to join the in-crowd from the get-go.) For most of his life, Mike has been looked down as somebody who had no potential in him to do great things. Like the original, both Mike and Sulley want to be best at what they do, although Mike is clearly more ambitious than Sulley is. (For Sulley, the message is just because some of us come from a great family, that’s not enough to make ourselves “great”.) Their bitter initial rivalry soon costs them, and gets them kicked out of the “Scaring Program.” But when Mike sees an opportunity to get back in, by means of an annual “Scare Games” competition, he strikes a deal with the stern Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren), and soon he and Sulley end up in the outcast fraternity on campus, titled “Oozma Kappa” (or, simply, “OK”. Think an “Island of Misfit Scarers”). 

Oozma Kappa fraternity: (l-r) Squishy, Don, Sulley, Mike, Terri, Terry, and Art
Director Dan Scanlon (“Mater and the Ghostlight”) pays homage to the 2001 original, including some scenes on the scare floor and brief cameos from some original characters. There’s so much attention to detail, as well as different “scare” techniques involved. The comedy is great and hilarious, thanks, in part, to the cast of supporting characters who help carry and/or steal the show. Such include undeclared student Art (voiced by Charlie Day), middle-aged Don Carlton (voiced by Joel Murray), and Squishy (voiced by Peter Sohn). There’s even a pig mascot. And while fun, the movie changes the backstory of how Mike and Sulley met. (In the original, it’s implied they’ve known each other since fourth grade.) 

On one hand, if it would have been more about the supporting characters (and had mentioned that Mike and Sulley had known each other long before college and rivaled as far back as then and ended up in the same school), it could have been better. Yet, if you think of it as an alternative film apart from the original, it’s fine. And it is entertaining.

Its central messages are worthwhile, particularly doubts and expectations towards Mike and Sulley, respectfully. There are also themes of identity and reality, in terms of what we are each capable of and not capable of, yet recognizing our differences and uniqueness, and how examples can bring out the best in others and change the world, step by step. As with the first film, the theme of dying to dreams is present; dying to everything we work for and an awareness of what we work for. I’m reminded of dreams and ambitions I had in college, in terms of wanting to be “great” as Mike wanted to be. Yet, I eventually chose a different direction and saw how I could still contribute to what I was passionate about. In terms of how these characters learn that, the film’s story is written brilliantly and surprisingly. 

To Infinity and Beyond . . . With What's Next . . .

As far as the critical and industry view goes on Pixar making sequels, the studio's lineup includes new installments for Finding Nemo (next summer's Finding Dory), Toy Story (a fourth film, reported to be a "romantic comedy"), Cars, and The Incredibles. As far as original stories go, there's the recently-released The Good Dinosaur (a good and amazing film) and the upcoming CoCo (from Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich). We also can't make the mistake that Pixar will always make perfect movies, though we can be excited for them. (You can read an old post I wrote on the matter here.) Even some of Disney's films weren't great. Even so, we can expect (and hope) that Pixar will continue to make worthwhile films with stories and characters that are transcending and universal, even if they're new installments in franchises. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Standout Films of the Decade: 2013

WRITER’S NOTE: The following track, I think, fits my list of films from this year very well.

1. Gravity
A breathtaking, harrowing, and visceral (3D) experience like never before. Director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron, co-writer (and son) Jonas Cuaron, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki immerse moviegoers into the beautiful and mysterious atmosphere of space and never let go. Sandra Bullock is a tour-de-force as an astronaut in a universal story of adversities, life, death, and rebirth.

2. Frozen
Disney Animation has reached another significant and unexpected milestone—perhaps a first since The Lion King. A fairy tale that is grounded in reality. Oh, sure, it’s still an adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson classic "The Snow Queen" as well as a musical. (It even takes it's visual cues from the 1950s artwork of Disney veteran Mary Blair.) But its characters (particularly sisters Anna and Elsa) wrestle with and experience the reality of relationships, family, and overcoming fear. Furthermore, it’s not so much romantic love as familial love that’s center stage here.

3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins’ bestselling dystopian novels for young adults improve in this adaptation of the second book in her series, as heroine Katniss Everdeen (an engrossing Jennifer Lawrence) returns to her home district in Panem after her and teammate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) survive the dreaded "Hunger Games" competition. But they get way more than they bargained for when they're forced to be representatives every year and eventually forced back into the arena after a series of rebellious acts against the equally dreaded Capitol and its leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland). A thoroughly compelling, haunting, and engrossing story that forces viewers to consider what should be and what shouldn't be deemed as "entertainment," and how one act (and/or person) can spark a revolution. "Remember who the real enemy is."

WRITER'S NOTE: The above song is just one of many on this film's soundtrack, one of the best I've heard in a long while.

4. Captain Phillips
Tom Hanks made an impressive comeback this year in two films, including this intense true story of the 2009 hijacking of the American MV Maersk Alabama cargo ship by Somali pirates. Shot with gritty realism and direction by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum), this film challenges audiences with themes of opportunity (including misguided views) and the costs of desperation when it goes the wrong way as well as too far.

5. All Is Lost
Film legend Robert Redford owns the screen (superbly, as well as literally) in a simple yet subtly-complex story of a lone sailor who is lost at sea. Echoing elements of Cast Away and possibly Life of Pi, J.C. Chandor’s direction, along with Redford’s presence and expertise, make this a unique film experience.

6. Warm Bodies
The Walking Dead and World War Z weren’t the only respective small-screen and big-screen outings that featured a zombie apocalypse this year. This adaptation of Isaac Marion's novel, written for the screen and directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50), takes a unique and quirky spin on the genre with a love story. Headed by performances from Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer, there's a sense of hope and meaning in this film's bleak world compared to other films in the aforementioned genre.

7. Saving Mr. Banks
The story of Mary Poppins’ journey from book to the big screen is recounted in this worthy drama as author P.L. Travers (a brilliant Emma Thompson) struggles through the adaptation process, and as Mr. Disney himself (a wonderful Tom Hanks) constantly tries to win her over. Not so much a behind-the-scenes account as a character study of Travers and her own childhood and family. Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), and featuring a bittersweet score by Thomas Newman (Finding Nemo).

8. Despicable Me 2
Illumination Entertainment returns with a sequel to its 2010 predecessor that is not only funnier and full of more Minion mayhem (although that’s an obvious given), but improves in its story as Gru and his three adoptive girls long for a significant other, all while Gru is recruited as a spy, with a fellow secret agent, to track down a villain at large. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” has become a worldwide anthem.

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