Sunday, August 28, 2016

Standout Films of the Decade: 2010s

Yours truly, a reel FilmFreeQ

The BBC recently assembled a group of 177 film critics to rank what they consider to be the best films of the 21st century so far. As most critics tend to do, their choices consisted of incredible artistic and filmmaking merit. Yet a large majority of them are films with bleak worldviews or stories, including The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan's unprecedented sequel featuring Batman against his famous nemesis, the Joker, from 2008), top pick Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch's haunting, surreal Hollywood thriller from 2001), and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson's dark version of late-1800s to early-1900s America, with an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, from 2007). Yet, a few other films managed to lighten up the list, including four Pixar animated features that have become instant classics (2003's Finding Nemo, 2015's Inside Out, 2007's Ratatouille, and 2008's WALL*E).

For the following list, I've picked four films from this decade so far (you can read my lists under the title of "Standout Films of the Decade," of which the following summaries come from). For me, these films not only encompass a sense of longevity and timelessness. They are also artistic, with both moral and spiritual merit. To be fair, these films do have some difficult (even some depressive) subject matter in their contexts, yet these are films that have universal significance and deal with experiencing life anew. (Click on film titles to read my respective full reviews.)

4. 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.

3. Room
No other film last year has shaken me nor moved me as much as this one. Based on the bestselling novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay), Room is hard to watch at times, due to its strong subject matter. But at its heart, it’s a powerful and loving story of a mother and child who escape captivity and discover the world. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are remarkable, heartbreaking, and thoroughly engaging. A unique portrait of childhood innocence, family heartache and drama, and unbreakable love.

2. Toy Story 3
Third time proves the rarest charm in this third outing in the popular Pixar series of toys coming to life when owners aren't looking. With owner Andy off to college soon, the remaining toys question what will become of them, and accidentally get shipped to a day care center, headed by the tyrannical Lots'O Huggin' Bear. The results are an amalgamation of different genres, childhood memories, and themes of ownership, independence, death, and life. A great ensemble cast of characters in a truly universal story.

1. The Tree of Life
Director Terrence Malick's ambitious project on the creation of life (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey) juxtaposed with a Texas family in the 1950s didn’t play well in theaters (its non-linear direction reportedly caused several walkouts, as well as several boos at the Cannes Film Festival, where it ironically won the top-prize Palme D’or award). Rotten Tomatoes says it very well: “Terrence Malick's singularly deliberate style may prove unrewarding for some, but for patient viewers, Tree of Life is an emotional as well as visual treat.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Twisted Adult Animation Resurfaces in Seth Rogen Comedy

August 21, 2016

The (red band) teaser trailer for the recently-released CGI comedy Sausage Party (which premiered back in March) finds a group of grocery food items as they discover the shocking truth of their existence. Bizarre, over-the-top, and unbelievably subliminal, writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (the same guys responsible for such raunchy comedies as Pineapple Express and This Is the End) deliver the latest example of twisted, hard-R adult animation, joining the likes of such fare as South Park and Family Guy. (A green brand trailer was released a few months later, and while a little tame, it's still pretty crazy.)

This isn't the first time animation has been made strictly for adults, despite the medium's universal appeal thanks to the likes of Disney and Pixar. And let's not forget Warner Bros. track record of memorable Looney Tunes cartoons. But in the last quarter-century, several films and T.V. shows have taken daring and provocative turns, from such animators and/or directors as Ralph Baskhi (1972's X-rated Fritz the Cat, 1992's Cool World), Matt Groening (The Simpsons), Trey Parker & Matt Stone (South Park), and Seth McFarlane (Family Guy). They have showcased subtle adult references and/or content out of bounds for the youngest of viewers, thereby challenging the mere notion that the medium is just for little tikes. Now I'm all for the fact that animation can be used to tell any kind of story whether for adults or children--hey, even directors known for live-action features, such as Richard Linklater [2001's Waking Life], Wes Anderson [2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox], and Charlie Kaufman [last year's Anomalisa] have shown their knack for the medium--I do have to scratch my head when it comes to R-rated content, or content that sneaks it's way into other film fare, whether G-, PG-, or PG-13-rated. The following are examples of animated films for audiences and critics to ask specifically if these kinds of projects (or just their content) are really necessary. 

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
First things first, there's no denying this live-action/animated Disney-produced feature is a cinematic marvel. The filmmakers deserve every accolade they've received for bringing cartoon characters to life in the real world. And the writing and homages are very clever and creative. Unfortunately, when promiscuous sexual content (mostly in the form of an unbelievably cleavage-bearing femme fetale) and often intense and violent situations (some scary and unpleasant) get added in, the result is an experience that is intriguing for some adults but problematic and bizarre for others. In fact, Michael Eisner, co-president of the Disney studio at the time, considered the film "too risque" to be released under the Disney brand, and recommended it be released under the studio's Touchstone Pictures banner, which had been releasing more adult-oriented films like The Color of Money, Three Men and a Baby, and Ruthless People.

Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996)
The two dim-witted metal-head teenagers from creator Mike Judge's popular and controversial MTV series from the Nineties end up in a cross-country man-hunt after their T.V. is stolen. The two mistake a murder hire for possible sexual escapades and pervade the entire film with, according to the MPAA, "continuous crude and sexual humor".

Antz (1998)
PDI/DreamWork's first computer-animated feature (and only the second of its kind, following 1995's Toy Story) features an all-star cast, including Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sylvester Stallone, and Gene Hackman, as well as some impressive visuals. It was also the first of the studio's early features that were more adult-oriented, with an A-list voice cast and subtle crude gags, as well as language to make it more "permissible" for adults. DreamWorks would subtly continue this trend in their next few features, particularly the Shrek films (2001, 2004, 2007, 2010) and Shark Tale (2004). (Fortunately, that wouldn't last long.)

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
Possibly the adult animation movie to end all adult animation movies, Parker & Stone satirize (and push the boundaries of) censorship, parenting issues, war, race, and religion. They ultimately turn each on themselves, as Cartman, Kenny, Kyle and Stan sneak into an R-rated Canadian movie, repeat everything they hear and outrage their parents, who in turn declare war on Canada. Throw in Satan and Saddam Hussein as villains, and the most language in an animated movie (at a running time of 81 minutes). Cassette cases for VHS sales and rentals included a parental warning "that 'South Park' is intended for mature audiences."

Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights (2002)
Essentially a feature-length version of Sandler's ever-popular "Hanukkah Song," the SNL-veteran brings his silly, crude schtick to this raunchy, often mean-spirited, holiday comedy about a town delinquent who is put on probation with an underappreciated basketball referee and his quirky sister.

The Simpsons Movie (2007)
America's popular dysfunctional family from Fox's long-running animated sitcom hits the big screen as Homer causes havoc in Springfield and forces his family to go on the run from angry mobs and government agents. Though it featured family-friendly trailers like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Horton Hears a Who during it's theatrical release, the rating's description ("irreverent humor throughout") should be taken seriously.

Rango (2011)
An Oscar-winning and visually-eye-popping animated feature (the first from George Lucas' effects company Industrial Light and Magic) about a thespian chameleon who winds up in a western town and becomes a local hero after inadvertently killing a villainous hawk. Despite being backed by Paramount and Nickelodeon as a family feature, the film's story and various references (from Chinatown to Dirty Harry and even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) will easily fly over the youngest of kids' heads while causing parents to scratch theirs.