Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mickey's Christmas Carol

I really like Charles Dickens', A Christmas Carol. I've seen probably every film and TV version there is, save for some of the older ones. If I had to pick a favorite, it'd have to be Mickey's Christmas Carol. Sure it's heavily truncated, but it has all the Disney characters you love, and it throws in a little humor. Otherwise I would say I enjoy The Muppets Christmas Carol, Scrooged, and the George C. Scott version. Mickey's Christmas Carol was released in December, 1983 and marked the first theatrical appearance by Mickey Mouse since The Simple Things in 1953. The thirty year gap is currently the longest, since Mickey Mouse cartoons have come out every so often since Carol. Like I said before, it is a pretty condensed version of the Dickens classic, but you get all the main points. They cut out the parts of the book pertaining to his childhood, and his present-day visit to his nephew Fred's house. For a twenty-six minute run time, they get through it pretty well. Think of it as a beginner's run through the story. It was my first time hearing of the story. While it was released in theaters in 1983, it has played on TV every year since then, making it hard to miss. My parents recorded pretty much anything Christmas related in the 80's, so this short movie was on a VHS, along with other Christmas Disney cartoons i.e. The Art of Skiiing, Donald's Snow Fight, and my personal favorite Pluto's Christmas Tree. I watched these every year and occasionally dig through our old tapes just to watch them again. I'm sure I could find them on DVD (Mickey's Christmas Carol was recently released on Blu-ray), but I still enjoy breaking out the old VCR (plus I can watch old 80's commercials).

The cast is made up of classic Mickey Mouse characters such as Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Minnie, Daisy, and some of the lesser-knowns. The funny part is that the other characters are taken mainly from The Wind and the Willows (Toad, Mole, Rat, Cyril Proudbottom, Angus MacBadger, and the weasels), and Robin Hood (Lady Cluck, the rabbit children, Skippy Bunny, Toby Turtle, Mother Rabbit, and Grandma Owl). There's even the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, apparently setting aside their differences to raise money for charity. Jiminy Cricket (Pinocchio), Willie the Giant (Mickey and the Beanstalk), and Pete make appearances as the three ghosts. Of course at the center of it all you have Scrooge. Scrooge McDuck was partly inspired by Ebenezer Scrooge, so it's only fitting that he play him. Unlike what I thought for most my life, Scrooge McDuck has been around since 1947 and therefore was not made a character for this specific movie. This was however the first time Scrooge was voiced by Alan Young who has voiced the character ever since. Any of the classic Disney characters are unfortunately not voiced by their original voice actors, except for one character: Donald Duck. Clarence Nash, the original voice for Donald, provided the voice one last time before he passed away in 1985.

While it may be my favorite of the Carol movies, it makes me the most emotional, even to this day. Don't get me wrong, it has its funny moments, mostly given by Willie the Giant and Goofy, but this short movie will also make you cry and hide under the covers. Someday I'll make a list of saddest moments in animated movies, and when that happens, this short will be on that list, only because of one thing: the death of Tiny Tim. Yes, I couldn't care less in any of the other versions, but for some reason when I see Mickey crying over Tim's grave and setting his crutch down I can't help but get emotional. Mickey doesn't cry! I'm not supposed to see that when I'm a kid! Mickey is supposed to be happy! I'm getting sad just thinking about it! Anyway, the part that still freaks me out to this day, or at least causes me to feel a little unsettled is the coffin opening scene. Scrooge is seeing the future (or possible future) and he finds out that he's dead. Pete throws him into the surprisingly deep grave and then the coffin opens up to a blazing hellfire. Oh my Jesus this freaked me out when I was a kid. He was literally going to Hell! The ghosts could have shown him that first off and he'd probably had changed his ways!

All in all it's a great adaptation that's perfect for kids, but can also be enjoyed by adults. You know, like most Disney films. It's always fun to see Disney characters from other films or classic cartoons, which is what makes this short so great. It's one of my holiday traditions, and I hope you'll make it one of yours. Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Evil Dead

I discovered The Evil Dead at a Meijer store in my hometown. For all you non-Michigan natives, it's like a Super Walmart except dirtier. I had been browsing through the movie section and spotted this horror movie with special packaging. It was behind a glass case so I couldn't pick it up, but for some reason I was utterly intrigued by this odd horror movie that I had never heard of. I actually can't remember when I finally watched The Evil Dead, but I believe it was late in high school. Keep in mind that I was not a big fan of horror movies when I was younger. Sure I loved Halloween and scary stuff, but movies made it a little too real. Somewhere along the line I got over my fear, mostly because I realized there were actually good movies out there in the horror genre. I have to be honest though, I watched Army of Darkness before The Evil Dead and The Evil Dead 2. This was before I knew that it was part of a greater trilogy of films and hadn't made the connection quite yet. Army of Darkness is a favorite of my dad's and if my father and I agree on a movie or TV show, well, that's a miracle in itself. I can't tell you how many times I've watched all three films, but it's a lot, trust me. There's just something about them. I really can't explain it. I could go on and on about how much I love these movies, but I won't. I'll just elaborate on the first film in the trilogy, mostly because it has the most interesting backstory.

The Evil Dead is one of those movies that shouldn't have seen the light of day. If any number of things had gone differently, we wouldn't have these movies, and possibly any movie directed by Sam Raimi. Yep, that means no Spiderman movies. This film also jump-started the careers of the Coen Brothers, so we might not have had such movie classics as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and O Brother Where Art Thou? Luckily for us nothing went wrong. The Evil Dead's unbelievable production all started with Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, two friends from Southeast Michigan who enjoyed making Super 8 mm films together. They duo directed a few comedies, but Raimi's attention soon turned to the horror genre. Raimi was trying to break into the film industry and knew he could do it if he made a short that would gain the interest of producers. Together they made Within the Woods, a film with a budget of $1,600. Raimi knew that if he could garner attention with his short, he could get investments to create a whole feature film. He surmised that he needed about $100,000 dollars to make what would later be called The Evil Dead happen. To get even close to this amount of money, Raimi had to not only ask producers for money, but strangers and family members. He even resorted to begging at one point. He eventually gained enough money to start the film, but not as much as he had hoped for. With enough money, Raimi and Campbell began to write a full treatment called The Book of the Dead, which was basically a remake of Within the Woods. The story centered around a bunch of Michigan State University students who go to a cabin in the woods and unwittingly unleash a terrible evil. Sound overdone? That's because it is, but it was original in the early 80's.

Raimi made Campbell the main character, Ash Williams, while the other roles were filled by either friends or people that responded to his ad in the Detroit News. The crew consisted of friends and family with members of the crew from Within the Woods. Raimi didn't have the money to hire a location scout, so they had to scout a location themselves. Raimi initially wanted to film right in his hometown of Royal Oak, MI, but he decided instead to film in Morristown, TN since Tennessee was the only state that seemed enthusiastic about the project. The crew quickly found a remote cabin that was miles away from the nearest building. The cabin itself had no plumbing, but was wired with a phone line. What could go wrong!? Well, just about everything. The cast and crew spent a total of twelve weeks at the cabin, with most of them staying in the dilapidated building. On the first day of shooting the crew got lost in the woods while shooting the bridge scene. Several cast and crew members were injured during the production but because they were in a remote area, attaining medical assistance was difficult. Conditions at the cabin got so bad that once all the interior shots had been finished, the crew began burning the furniture to stay warm. They eventually burned everything form inside the house, but most of the crew members still became sick from the constant cold. Needless to say, Raimi lost a few crew members over the span of the production. Things weren't much better for the cast. Each at one point in time had to wear special contacts for their Deadite versions, though since the budget was so low the contacts were as thick as glass. The contacts took ten minutes to put in and could only be worn for fifteen minutes because their eyes couldn't "breathe." If you wear contacts like I do, then you know what I'm talking about. Raimi loved to "torture" the actors because he felt that their pain and anger would translate well into horror. Basically Raimi put the actors through hell, even going so far as to poke Bruce Campbell's freshly injured leg with a stick.

A small budget meant that Raimi couldn't afford a camera dolly or other camera equipment, so he made up new camera techniques. The first invention was the "vas-o-cam", a mounted camera that was slid down long wood platforms to create a more fluid sense of motion. Instead of a Steadicam, he used what he called the "shaky cam", which involved the camera being mounted to a board and having two camera operators sprint around the swamp. Most of the moving shots involve the camera being attached to either a stick and pushing it through a window, attached to a bike and riding it through the swamp, or rigged up and ran over logs and cars so as to make it look like it's from the perspective of the never seen "evil force". Raimi is a huge fan of The Three Stooges and decided to borrow a filming trick from the popular slapstick comedies. If you know your Stooge history, after Shemp passed away, the studio had a bunch of shorts that weren't quite finished. Instead of re-shooting, they instead put in a "fake shemp". Sometimes it's easy to spot a fake shemp, but most of the time it's just a double with his back to the camera. Raimi decided to use this same technique when his actors were otherwise occupied or unavailable. Most shots of people with their backs to the camera aren't actually the actors anymore, but random crew members and for the most part Raimi's brother Ted.

Raimi had a ton of footage to edit and decided to enlist the help of Edna Paul and Joel Coen. Coen and Raimi became good friends during the editing process and Coen eventually stole Raimi's idea of making a smaller film to build the interest of investors, a tactic he used to make Blood Simple. After editing the film down to from 117 minutes to a more marketable 85 minutes and adding extra sound effects, the film was finally ready for a premiere. Raimi decided to celebrate finally finishing his movie by having an extravagant premiere. They chose the Redford Theatre because it was a favorite movie theater for Campbell as a child. Raimi wanted the experience to be special so he made custom tickets, installed wind tracks in the theater, and even ordered ambulances to park out in front to build atmosphere. The premiere drew one thousand people, a number far exceeding anything the cast had envisioned. The audience responded positively to the movie, so Raimi decided to take the movie "on tour" as a way of building hype.  Raimi showed the movie to anyone that would watch, booking meetings with distribution agents and others in the film industry. Raimi eventually found some luck with Irvin Shapiro, the man who was responsible for distributing Night of the Living Dead and other famous horror films. Shapiro commented that while the movie "wasn't Gone With the Wind," it had commercial potential. He hated the title Book of the Dead, reasoning that it made the movie sound boring. It was then that Raimi brainstormed some new titles, eventually landing on The Evil Dead, which was deemed the "least worst" title. Shapiro also advised Raimi to distribute the film worldwide to garner a larger income, though it would increase the movie's budget. Raimi decide this was sound advice and scrapped what little money he had left to distribute the film in other countries.

Luckily for Raimi, Shapiro was one of the founders of the Cannes Film Festival and had agreed to show The Evil Dead out of competition. Stephen King was present at the screening and gave the film a rave review. King called it his fifth favorite movie in the genre in an interview with USA Today and stated that he was deeply impacted by the movie. King would end up being one of the film's largest supporters in finding a distributor and even let Raimi use his quote about the movie in advertisement. What did King say? Oh, only that The Evil Dead was the "most ferociously original film of the year." King's comments garnered attention from critics who usually would have swept such a low budget movie under the rug. Raimi finally found a distributor in New Line Cinema for domestic release and Stephen Woolley's distribution company for the U.K., with both heavily promoting the movie. This was unusual, as most low budget movies never received a substantial amount of promotion or even a wide release. For one reason or another, both companies saw something special in The Evil Dead and decided it was worth the risk.

The Evil Dead was released in theaters in late 1981 and had an initially disappointing gross of only $108,000 in the opening weekend while showing at 15 theaters. Word of mouth soon spread and it became a "sleeper hit", eventually making $600,000 domestically and $2 million overseas. It was a huge success in the U.K. and became the best-selling video in the horror genre, out-doing such big budget movies like The Shining. The success in the European market was chalked up to heavy promotion and the more open-minded nature of the audience. That's right, we Americans are close-minded. The film proved to be controversial as Raimi wasn't concerned with censorship. The film was labeled so bloody and graphic that both it and its sequel were initially given an X rating (they are now both R), something usually given to porno movies.While the movie wasn't pornographic in nature, it was probably the most violent movie of it's time. This hurt the movie in some ways, but also made it more infamous. It was even banned in some countries. Now who's open-minded?!

Initial critical response to the movie was almost universally positive. Fangoria called it "the exception to the usual run of low-budget horror films" while the Los Angeles Times called it "an instant classic," and proclaimed it "probably the grisliest well-made movie ever." Not bad reviews for a movie that sounded like it was going to die a quiet death in the middle of a Tennessee swamp. The film continues to have stellar reviews to this day, with a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is considered to be one of the best horror movies of all time and has cemented itself as probably the biggest cult film of all time. The only thing that reviewers bring up as a negative in the film is the unfortunate tree rape scene. Yes, you heard me correctly. At one point in the movie a bunch of possessed trees rape a woman. Raimi still doesn't know why to this day he included it in the film and has regretted the scene since the release.

So what happened to the cast and crew after this movie was such a success? Sam Raimi went on to direct Darkman starring Liam Neeson, the popular Spider-Man trilogy, and most recently The Great and Powerful Oz. Of course he also directed the second and third films in the Evil Dead trilogy, with the second film becoming an even bigger success (and even considered better than the first), and the third having a much bigger budget but doing mediocre in theaters. Go figure. Joel Coen and his brother found success with Blood Simple and eventually became the big-shot directors they are today. Bruce Campbell, the king of B-movies, starred in the second and third Evil Dead films, had cameos in every other Raimi film and a few Coen Brothers films, and even was the star of a few short-lived TV shows like The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and Jack of all Trades. Campbell recently starred in My Name is Bruce, a movie about the crazy obsessions people have with his character and The Evil Dead in general, and co-starred in Burn Notice.

Let's get one thing perfectly straight. I like weird movies. I have odd taste in movies sometimes and I'm kind of used to others not agreeing with my choice in movies. That being said, I realize this movie isn't for everybody. I haven't exactly sold the movie by taking about the tree rape scene. Sure, that is probably the weirdest and most unnecessary scene I've ever seen in a movie, but the film makes up for it in every way possible. It's a cheap movie that looks cheap. The cast and crew are extremely inexperienced. Some parts of the movie are downright funny when they aren't supposed to be. But, that's part of the charm of this movie. The difference between this cheap horror movie is that it actually scares the crap out of you and keeps you coming back for more. It has a surprisingly solid story, one that has been copied countless times now. Fair warning though, if you don't like gore or other disturbing images, then this movie really isn't for you. Of the three movies it is definitely the most horror oriented. However, if you have a strong stomach and love yourself some good ol' B-movie fun, then you could do much worse than this movie.

Friday, October 11, 2013

German Expressionism

German Expressionism refers to a number of related creative movements beginning in Germany before the First World War and reached its peak in the 1920's. German Expressionism involves architecture, painting, and cinema, though I will only focus on cinema. Expressionism was largely confined to Germany due to the isolation it experienced during World War I. Germany had also banned any foreign films from being shown starting in 1916, so the country was in need of some homegrown cinema. Indeed, the amount of movies produced in Germany went from 24 films in 1914, to 130 films in 1918. By the early twenties, German cinema had gained an audience all around Europe and when Germany finally lifted its ban on foreign films, it found itself as an important player in the international film industry. Why were these early Expressionist films so popular, though?

European culture was in need of a change. It desired for something different, something that experimented with bold new ideas and artistic styles. German Expressionism fit that niche. The first Expressionist films made up for their lack of lavish budgets by using set designs with wildly non-realistic, geometrically absurd sets, along with designs painted on walls and floors to represent lights, shadows, and objects. These films often dealt with madness, insanity, betrayal, and other "intellectual" topics, very much unlike the action-adventure films that Hollywood was churning out. This trend was a direct reaction against realism. Its practitioners used extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than what was on the surface. Famous examples of German Expressionist films are Nosferatu (1922), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), Metropolis (1927), and M (1931). The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is probably the best example of German Expressionism. The whole story is told by a man in an insane asylum, so the recounted action takes place in a distorted world. Windows are jagged,  buildings are at funny angles, and everything just looks wrong.

The anti-realism of Expressionism quickly died out, fading away after only a few years. Though the movement was short, its effects are still felt today. Directors, influenced by the look of these intellectual films, now asked for more creative control on how the lighting and scenery were set up as ways to affect the mood of the film. Expressionism gained more influence over Hollywood when the Nazis gained power and many German filmmakers emigrated to the United States. The two genres that were most influenced by German Expressionism were horror films and film noir. Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios made a name for themselves by producing such famous horror films of the silent era as Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera. German filmmakers such as Karl Fruend (the cinematographer for Dracula) set the style and mood of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s with their dark and artistically designed sets, providing a model for later generations of horror films. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, and Carol Reed introduced the Expressionist style to crime dramas of the 1940s, expanding Expressionism's influence on modern film making.

German Expressionism still is used in cinema to this day, with many directors paying homage to those silent movies that had to use camera tricks, lighting, and unique sets to help tell their story and establish a mood. Woody Allen's 1991 film Mirrors and Fog is an homage to German Expressionist filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and Georg Wilhelm Pabst. Ridley Scott's Blade Runner borrows stylistically from German Expressionism masterpiece Metropolis. Tim Burton is probably the biggest proponent for the use of German Expressionism in film today. Batman Returns is considered a modern attempt to capture the essence of the movement. The angular building designs and severe-looking city squares of Gotham City evoke the loom and menace present in Metropolis. Edward Scissorhands borrows much from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, even modeling the eponymous character after Caligari's somnambulist servant, Cesare. Similarly, Dr. Caligari was the inspiration for the grotesque, bird-like appearance of The Penguin in Batman Returns. Other works of Burton's that would be considered examples of German Expressionism would be Sweeney Todd, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, Batman, and Beetlejuice. There are many, many other films that borrow heavily from German Expressionism, but that would take forever just to name them all. Just know that every time you watch a horror movie, there is a good chance that it was influenced in some way by German Expressionism.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

All Dogs Go To Heaven

Don Bluth first came up with All Dogs Go To Heaven after The Secret of NIMH, though it was supposed to be a short story inside of an anthology, and it had the main character as a canine private eye. The dog private eye would be a shaggy German Shepard and was made with Burt Reynolds in mind. Unfortunately, Don Bluth Productions went bankrupt about this time, so the idea was shelved for a few years. It was finally dusted off in 1987, with new plot centered around the title, All Dogs Go To Heaven. The title had come from the name of a book that was read to Bluth when he was in fourth grade, and though others related to the project wanted to change the name, Bluth was adamant, finding the title to be provocative. All Dogs was Bluth's first production to be made in his new state of the art studio in Dublin, Ireland, and as such he and Goldman and Pomeroy were forced to relocate. The biggest shift was that this film was not backed by Amblin and Universal, and therefore Bluth didn't have to worry about George Lucas and Steven Spielberg having any creative control over his work. It also meant he had to do this basically on his own.

Bluth was able to get some decent voice talent with this film, netting not only Burt Reynolds for Charlie, but also Dom DeLuise for Itchy, a fun pairing since the two had previously starred in several movies together, most namely Cannonball Run. The actors asked if they could record their lines together-an unusual request since most voice actors did their work individually-which Bluth agreed to. The simultaneous recording led to a lot of ad-libbing, with some of the lines making it into the film instead of the scripted lines. Even Bluth admits to this day that their lines were better than his script. 

Once again Bluth found himself competing with Disney, this time with The Little Mermaid. Yikes. Without the big name studios backing Bluth up, All Dogs wasn't promoted nearly enough as it should have been, which caused the movie to tank in comparison to The Little Mermaid. In all, All Dogs made $27 million at the box office, making just enough for the company. The Little Mermaid on the other hand made over $210 million and blew away their $40 million budget. The film received mixed reviews upon its release, with most critics focusing on the lack of good characters, disjointed plot and forgettable songs. Many critics pointed out that this film was not really appropriate for children, noting that the movie dealt with such mature subject matter such as drinking, gambling, smoking, violence, death, and Hell. The movie has since done extremely well on video, becoming one of the highest selling VHS's of all time. It has also, like most of Bluth's work, gained a cult status, specifically for the same reasons critics found it so inappropriate for children. 

I loved this movie as a kid, though maybe not as much as Fievel Goes West. I'm not sure anymore what drew me so much to it as a child. I hadn't watched it since I was very young, so I decided to pick it up and watch it for old time sake. I didn't like it. It wasn't enjoyable at all. I saw all those imperfections that critics had brought up. Plus, I had totally forgotten about the alligator, which if I'm not mistaken was meant to be a caricature of voodoo/hoodoo practicing African-Americans in New Orleans. Wow, just wow. The only character I actually cared about the whole time was Anne-Marie, the young girl who can speak to animals. Charlie and the rest are completely unlikable. I really want to talk about how great this movie still is and how fun it was to watch it again, but it just wasn't. It was like re-watching Rock-A-Doodle, which I wouldn't recommend. I will say that this movie is better than anything Bluth puts out later on, with the exception maybe being Anastasia. Stick with Bluth's first three films, they're much better. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Land Before Time

An American Tail was a hit, and it allowed Bluth a period of time where he didn't have to worry about one of his companies going bankrupt. The next film being planned with Steven Spielberg (George Lucas jumped on board too) was described as a story like Bambi, but with dinosaurs. The early title was The Land Before Time Began, and it was originally planned to have no dialogue, similar to the Rites of Spring segment of Fantasia. Spielberg and Lucas decided that this would alienate children, so they made it a talking dinosaur movie. A lot of research went into the movie, with many of the film's animators and production teams visiting natural history museums and especially the Smithsonian. The film featured many different types of dinosaurs, but the research team didn't do a perfect job: in the setting of the movie, five species of dinosaurs depicted would have already been extinct. Oh well, kids aren't going to nit-pick that sort of thing. Plus, people are trying to tell me that there's no such thing as a triceratops, so now Cera isn't real! Scientists, stop messing with my childhood! You took Pluto away, don't tell me certain dinosaurs didn't exist!

A lot was changed in the movie as time went on. Littlefoot was originally going to be named Thunderfoot, though they had to change it when they found out a triceratops in a book was named that. I think Littlefoot has a better ring to it. Thunderfoot doesn't fit the character of Littlefoot, really. Maybe if Littlefoot wore cool sunglasses the whole movie. I'd pay to see that movie! Cera's character was originally going to be a male named Bambo (why so close to Bambi?), until Lucas decided that Bambo should instead be a girl and have a clever name instead of a stupid one. Also, I had no idea until a few years ago that Cera's name was spelled that way. I just assumed it was Sara, or some variation of how we spell it. My mind was blown. I mean, come on, triCERAtops?! Who does that? Spielberg and Lucas took one look at the finished project and realized that they had made one scary dinosaur movie. They had to tone it down a little or they would be stuck with a PG rating. This may be a common thing today, but back in the eighties it was pretty risky to let your animated film get a PG rating. The only two I can think of that did it around that time were Watership Down and Disney's The Black Cauldron. With Bluth complaining the whole way, Lucas and Spielberg cut about nine minutes of the film, mostly consisting of Sharptooth scenes, making the film only sixty nine minutes long. That's barely longer than Dumbo! Littlefoot's mother dying was deemed too emotionally scarring and the character of Rooter (the old clubtail dinosaur) was introduced to soften the blow. Doesn't matter, it's still probably the most tear jerking scenes in all of animation. Even the theatrical version seen in 1988 is different from the version you see on DVD. In the original, Littlefoot's mother is shown being bitten by Sharptooth on the neck and back, but apparently it was later deemed to intense. While the movie isn't the darkest of the Bluth films, it's easily the most depressing.

The cast of dinosaurs centers around an Apatosaurus (Littlefoot), a Triceratops (Cera), a Saurolophus (Ducky), a Pteranodon (Petrie), and a Stegosaurus (Spike). In the story, a tyrannosaurus named Sharptooth (I always thought it was Sharktooth as a child, I can't be the only one!) attacks a group of dinosaurs while a random earthquake happens. Littlefoot's mother fends off Sharptooth, who falls into a deep crevice, though it costs her her life. Due to the earthquake, both Littlefoot and Cera are seperated from what's left of their families and have to set out to find them. Their ulitmate destination is the Great Valley, a place that hasn't been ravaged by volcanoes and earthquakes; a place where food is plentiful and there are no sharpteeth. Along the way they are joined by Petrie, Ducky, and Spike. They run into trouble along the way involving other, more dangerous dinosaurs, though in the end they defeat Sharptooth and make it to the Great Valley. I know that was a short run-down, but there isn't much to this story in terms of plot. What I will go into however is the relationships between the dinosaurs.

Whether you knew it or not as a child, you were watching a big story about tolerance and acceptance of people different from you. At the beginning of the film we learn from Littlefoot's mother that there are four other main groups of dinosaurs that they live around, "Three-horns", "Spiketails", "Swimmers", and "Flyers." We also learn that historically these dinosaurs don't associate themselves with each other and generally mind their own business. This conversations stems from Cera's father insisting that Cera not play with a "Longneck." This is an easy reflection of race/class relations in our own culture. Two children of different backgrounds or race play with each other for a time, until one of the parents insists that they stay away from each other. The other child questions their parents, who tell them that's just how it is. Maybe you've been in that situation yourself, or have seen examples of it in your daily life, but the movie does a good job of setting up a realistic scenario of how fear of other kinds of beings will lead to chaos instead of union. Both Littlefoot and Cera are OK with playing with each other until they are told by their parents that it's not acceptable behavior. Each gets a different response; while Littlefoot's mother says that's just how it is, Cera's father makes Longnecks out to be an inferior group. Cera's attitude throughout the movie carries her parent's indoctrination, though it doesn't help that she's kind of bossy to begin with. It's only through their travels together that they realize that's there's nothing wrong with associating with other dinosaurs. In fact, they probably all would have perished had it not been for each other. I know I didn't pick up on most of those things when I was a kid, but I did know by the end that you shouldn't dislike someone just because they are different.

Released in 1988, The Land Before Time was a huge hit for Bluth, grossing over $84 million dollars worldwide (around the same as An American Tail, though Land Before Time did better domestically). Disney's Oliver & Company came out around the same time,  but came in about $10 million less than Land Before Time. Critics liked the film more than An American Tail and confessed that it was more like a classic Disney movie than Oliver & Company. The only common complaint against the film was that it spent more time on tragedy than it did on the sense of discovery and natural history. The film has spawned twelve direct-to-video sequels and even a television show. I've honestly probably only watched one of the sequels, but I remember it being garbage. So why isn't this film my favorite of the Bluth films? Well, honestly Cera and Littlefoot kind of bug me. I loved this film as a kid, but it's lost some of its sheen in more recent viewings. I love all the other characters, but for some reason Cera and Littlefoot just rub me the wrong way now. Still a great animated film, though, and a classic Bluth film.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An American Tail

Don Bluth Productions may have been bankrupt, but that didn't stop Bluth from teaming up with Rick Dyer of Advanced Microcomputer Systems and founding Bluth Group (Bluth really liked his own name I guess). The group ended up creating one of the three games stored at the Smithsonian (the others being Pong and Pac-man), Dragon's Lair.  Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, coming out in 1983 and 1984, respectively, were both played on Laserdisc, so it gave the game a more realistic look, something revolutionary at the time for video games. Unfortunately for Bluth, the video game market crashed in 1985 and Bluth Group also had to file for bankruptcy. Things were not looking good for Bluth, but in 1985 he got a second chance in movies thanks to businessman Morris Sullivan. Together with Bluth's dependable team of producers, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, they created Sullivan Bluth Productions. Another lucky stroke for Bluth was the interest of Steven Spielberg in helping produce and distribute his pictures. Together they created the story of a small Jewish mouse who moves to America.

An American Tail tells the story of Fievel (or Feivel) Mousekewitz, a young Jewish mouse that lives in Shostka, Russia in the mid 1880's. Fievel and his family are run out of their home by an army of Cossacks and their cats, leading them to jump on a boat for America. Papa Mousekewitz assures his family that there are no cats in America, and it will be a land of freedom and prosperity. A huge storm causes Fievel and his family to become separated and they believe that he has drowned. Instead, Fievel had stowed away inside a bottle and eventually lands in New York City. He is encouraged by French pigeon named Henri, and sets off to find his family in this new world. Things aren't easy for either Fievel or the Mousekewitz family in America. While Fievel is tricked into being sold to a sweatshop by conman Warren T. Rat, the Mousekewitz family is trying to adjust to their new life in America and realizing it's not all that it's cracked up to be. Instead of freedom from cats and prosperity, they find a ton of cats and little opportunity for the American Dream. Fievel escapes from the sweatshop with a street-smart Italian mouse named Tony, and they run into a rally centered on dealing with the cat problem. The speaker at the rally is an Irish immigrant named Bridget, who agrees to help Fievel find his family. They go to the local politician, a drunk mouse named Honest John, who says he can't help Fievel since his family isn't registered to vote.

Fievel and the gang attend another rally and Fievel comes up with the idea of scaring away the gang of cats that roam the area: they'll build a large mechanical mouse in the image of the legendary figure, the "Giant Mouse of Minsk." Fievel gets lost on the day they are supposed to release the secret weapon and stumbles into Warren T. Rat's hideout. It is here that Fievel realizes that Warren is not a rat at all, but a cat! They capture Fievel, but he is eventually let go by a soft-hearted cat named Tiger. The cats chase Fievel out of the hideout and are led to the dock where the mice have the secret weapon in waiting. The giant mouse comes out, fireworks shooting out of its mouth and everything, and the cats are so scared they jump into the water, eventually boarding a steamer headed for Hong Kong (not sure if this is supposed to be a joke about Chinese food being made of domesticated animals or not). After the battle, Fievel starts to give up hope of ever finding his family, but he eventually hears the violin music his father plays and is finally reunited. The film ends with Henri showing the Mousekewitz family his completed project, The Statue of Liberty.

Using rotoscoping again to make the humans look much more life-like, thereby differentiating their animation style from the more cartoon looking animals, Bluth once again had a beautiful looking film. The film, released in 1986, ended up grossing the most of any non-Disney film, taking in almost $85 million dollars. In comparison, Disney's The Great Mouse Detective made about $22 million less, so Bluth was finally hitting his stride while Disney was floundering. While critics had loved The Secret of NIMH, they really didn't care for An American Tail. Critics called it an expensive movie with no real humor or interesting narrative. Roger Ebert commented that the story was "dark and gloomy" and that "very few children would understand or care that the Mouskewitz's are Jewish." Though critics didn't appreciate the film, it has still developed a cult following, as has most of Bluth's films. The movie spawned a sequel, Fievel Goes West, a project that Bluth was not a part of, but Spielberg did produce. The movie was panned by critics, but is still popular among members of my generation.

Both An American Tail and Fievel Goes West were mainstays in my childhood. I never owned either film but would rent them often, especially the second film. I can still remember going to see the movie in theaters for my 6th birthday, then going out to Pizza Hut afterwards. I only bring up the second film because I won't be writing an official post on it. Over the years, An American Tail has become one of my favorite Bluth films, probably tied with The Secret of NIMH. I can really appreciate the historical aspects in the film, from the different groups of immigrants trying to make it in New York City, to the sweatshops that employed children, to the Tammany Hall politicians that only seek to gain influence, to the embittered loneliness that most felt when first coming to this country; a country that for many was not a land of opportunity, but more of the same. I honestly don't know why critics hate this movie so much, it's a really good movie with a decent narrative. Sure it's darker than most Disney movies, but maybe some kid's movies don't need to be squeaky clean. My last note on this film will be its unintended(?) impact on Art Spiegleman's graphic novel, Maus. Maus is a book detailing Art's fathers struggles during WWII and the holocaust. What does this have to do with An American Tale? Well, Spiegleman had been working on his book since the late 70's, a book that portrayed Jewish people as mice, German's as cats, and so on and so forth. Spiegleman was convinced that Spielberg or Bluth had stolen the idea for Jewish mice and set out to outdo them. Instead of suing them for plagiarism, Spiegleman asked his publishers if he could release the first part of his book before the movie came out, that way people wouldn't think he was stealing from the movie. The publisher's agreed and Maus Volume 1 came out in 1986, with Volume 2 coming out in 1991. You still have to buy them separately. Be warned, Maus is nothing like An American Tail, but it is a very good graphic novel that delves deep into the experience of  a Jewish man trying to survive the Holocaust.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Secret of NIMH

If you've read some of my blog posts concerning Disney movies in the 1980's, then you'll probably remember the name Don Bluth popping up every once in a while. For those who don't remember, Bluth was an animator for Disney for many years, first working on Sleeping Beauty in the late 50's, though working more for the company in the 70's. Disney still had a few hits in the 70's, but it didn't match anything they had made in their early years. Bluth, along with eighteen other Disney animators decided to leave to form their own animation company. Bluth complained that Disney had lost their way and he wanted to create new and exciting animation that would bring it back to the forefront of entertainment. With his small group of animators, Bluth started Don Bluth Productions, and went about working on their first short film, Banjo the Woodpile Cat. Besides the short film, Bluth and his company were also tasked with doing the animated segment of the live-action film, Xanadu. The reason I'm bringing up Bluth is because he is a very important part of animation history. Not only did his company churn out some of the best animated movies of all time, but because of this, Disney got their act together and started making hits again. So, I wanted to do a series on Bluth and his films, though there are much fewer than Disney has released. If you didn't bother to read the title, I'm going to be talking about his first major release, and one of my favorite animated films of all time, The Secret of NIMH.

The Secret of NIMH is based off the book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O' Brien. The book tells the story of Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field mouse who must save her family from human interference. When her son, Timothy, becomes very sick around the same time the farmer, whose land they live on, decides it's time to plow the field, they must find a way to move their home, though the move would likely kill Timothy. Mrs. Frisby is stuck on what to do for her son, until she is directed by an owl to speak to the rats that live in a nearby rosebush. Speaking to the rat's leader, Nicodemus, she finds out that the rats have all gained human-level intelligence from being tested on by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and have thus learned to read, write, and master certain forms of technology. The rats agree to help Mrs. Frisby due to the fact that her husband, Jonathon, was one of their own that had helped them escape from the laboratory. Ironically, the rats also need Mrs. Frisby's help in moving them, as they want to stop their dependence on humans (they steal electricity from the farmer). A small group of the rats didn't agree with this plan and set off on their own, getting killed in the process, which leads to exterminators being called to kill the rats. Mrs. Frisby must help the rats by drugging the farmer's cat, Dragon, so they can move out in the open without fear. Mrs. Frisby is caught by the farmer's son and locked in a cage. Only with one of the rat's help, Justin, is Mrs. Frisby able to escape and tell the rat's of the humans plans to kill them. In the end, everybody makes it out, and little Timothy gets better. 

The book ended up winning the Newberry Award in 1972 and was offered to Disney for film rights. Disney apparently wasn't interested in a story about lab rats and mice, but Bluth was a few years later. Bluth asked Aurora Productions to buy the rights to the film, though the deal brought with it a budget of $5.7 million dollars and 30 months to complete the film. Keep in mind that's a short amount of time to make a film, and not a lot of money to make it with. Bluth set out to make a film like the ones from Disney's Golden age, with better character development and classic animation techniques. He felt that Disney was using cheaper and cheaper modes of animation just to save a few bucks, which made the films less visually appealing. Bluth attempted to use a few new techniques in his film, namely rotoscoping (multiple passes on the camera to achieve transparent shadow), and back lit animation. Nicodemus' eyes appear to glow due to light being shone through the color gels. What Bluth got was something altogether new to animation, and something that no one had ever seen before. This style of animation, however, was extremely labor intensive and called for very long hours for the animators, and no pay to show for it in the short run. The animators were given portions of the profits instead, something unheard of in the animation world. Bluth and his producers even had to mortgage their homes so they could pay for the film, so stakes were a bit high. 

The movie differs from the book in a few ways. Probably the biggest difference is the name of the main character. Aurora contacted Wham-O to see if it was alright if they used the name Mrs. Frisby since it was so close to the name "Frisbee." Wham-O denied their request to use Mrs. Frisby, and now Bluth was stuck. All the lines had been done already and some of the actors couldn't even be brought back in to re-read, namely John Carradine. Bluth decided to go with a name that was so close, that they could convincingly make it to where Carradine's character, the great owl, sounded like he was saying the new name. So, because of Wham-O, Mrs. Frisby changed to Mrs. Brisby. Kind of silly, right? Many of the characters that had very small parts, or weren't actually shown in the book had much larger parts in the movie. Jenner, the leader of the rats that don't want to stop mooching off the humans becomes the villain in the movie. In the book he is mentioned briefly and is never shown. Jeremy the Crow goes from a bit part at the beginning of the book, to full on comedy relief for good portions of the movie. The book lacked any magic, but Bluth decided to change that by making Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, basically a wizard, complete with a magic amulet. Mrs. Brisby is still a widowed mother, but Justin turns into sort of a love interest. 

The film was ultimately distributed by MGM in 1982, who apparently didn't have much faith in the film since they did no advertising for it, so Aurora had to take the brunt of the responsibility for that. Though Bluth and Aurora planned on a wide release of 1,000 theaters, MGM instead went with 100 on the film's opening weekend. It slowly improved to 700, but the damage was done. Being released against E.T., the film only made a little over 14 million dollars, barely twice as much as its budget and therefore ended up putting the studio in the black. That, coupled with the writer's strike forced Don Bluth Productions to file for bankruptcy. This is not the end for Bluth, though. He would be saved, later, by a businessman and a famous director. For all the financial woes that befell the production, the movie was a huge critical success, being called one of the most vibrantly animated films of its time. The film became a hit on video and with cable showings and subsequently became a cult classic. 

This film is very much a part of my childhood, namely because it's mostly likely the first animated movie I had ever watched. My parents had recorded it off the TV sometime in the early eighties and my brother and sister and I watched the heck out of it. Not only was the animation beautiful, but the story intriguing and characters exciting. That being said, it's probably the darkest of all of Bluth's films, save for maybe All Dog's Go to Heaven. Between Jenner, the Great Owl, Nicodemus, and Dragon, the film has some creepy and frightening characters, though it wasn't any of them that scared me the most as a child. The scene that still gets me to this day is when Mrs. Brisby is trapped inside that cage inside the farmer's house. The drowning aspect combined with her accidentally cutting her arm open still makes me cringe. Though not as widely known as some of Bluth's other films, this is probably one of the best. Also, how many kid's movies has a widowed mother as the hero? Pretty sure this is the only one, and that's pretty cool. Oh, and it also has the best song during the credits. So bad, but so good. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Disney's Wreck-It Ralph

Here we are, back in Disney already. I wanted to wait until this movie came out on video before saying anything about it, since there may have been some who hadn't seen it yet. Anyway, Wreck-It Ralph has actually been an idea that's been floating around since the late 80's. The working title, High Score, was chosen early on, and the name has changed several times due to new ideas and developments. In the late-90's it was going to be called Joe Jump, and in the mid-2000's, Reboot Ralph. So, you can tell they were getting closer and closer to the title they eventually stuck with. You can kind of tell by the earlier titles, but the spotlight wasn't originally going to be on a villain looking to be a hero, but just on a hero character. In fact, before Ralph became the main character, it was supposed to focus on Fix-It Felix. John Lasseter and others in the creative team ultimately decided that they would rather tell a story from the perspective of a villain. Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of a villain from a classic arcade game that's tired of being the villain. He decides that he's going to become a hero, and to do that, he must earn a medal, at least that's what he thinks he needs to do. Ralph starts game-jumping, though it's extremely dangerous due to the fact that if a character dies outside of their game, they stay dead. Ralph unwittingly puts his game and others at jeopardy and it's up to him to prove that he is capable of being a hero.

Along the way, Disney decided that they wanted to make Wreck-It Ralph like Toy Story and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, namely putting in a bunch of characters from other companies. In the same vein, they didn't want to put their main characters as licensed property, like Mario or Sonic, since they felt it would put too much weight on the movie. Fans are fickle things. It's basically why every movie based off a video game has failed. So, they made their own characters and put licensed ones around them, mostly as cameos, not really as main characters per se. Disney wanted this movie to be special, so they pulled out all the stops to get characters from not only current games, but classic arcade titles, too. The list of cameos include: Bowser, Dr. Eggman, Neff from Altered Beast, Q*bert and its villain characters, Chun-Li, Cammy, and Blanka from Streetfighter, Pac-man and a few of his ghost nemesis, Paperboy, the two paddles from Pong, Dig-Dug, The Qix, Frogger, Peter Pepper, Sonic the Hedgehog, and many more. This isn't even counting all the mentioned references in the movie. It's a video-game lover's dream. Mario and Luigi are some of the bigger name characters that don't appear in the movie, but are mentioned off-hand. A rumor had been going around that Nintendo wanted too much money to have the two plumbers in the movie, but this was untrue. Disney really wanted to put them in, but couldn't find a way to use them without taking the spotlight off the plot. Even Sonic is only seen for a split second, and it's in a public announcement video. It wasn't easy for Nintendo to get all these characters. Some of the companies either refused outright, or wanted to tell Disney how they were going to be portrayed. Dig Dug and his cohorts were originally going to be the homeless video game characters, but Namco didn't like the idea of Dig Dug being in that state. Dig Dug was ultimately demoted down to a half second cameo. Disney instead approached Atari and asked if they could put Q*bert in the role instead, to which they agreed. 

Disney is in the middle of their on-and-off CGI and hand-drawn animation stint. It all started when The Princess and the Frog did well, marking a welcome return to hand-drawn animation for Disney. They couldn't just leave CGI for good though, so they are doing one then the other. Tangled was their CGI, then Winnie-the-Pooh was their hand-drawn, which brings us to the CGI-rich Wreck-It Ralph. It was thought that perhaps they could make everyone true to life from their video games, so older game characters would be 8-bit. This seemed like a good idea, until they realized that if they made Ralph 8-bit, it would be hard to root for him. This film marks the introduction of bidirectional reflectance distribution functions. Yup, that was a mouthful. Basically, this tool helped the animators by making reflections look far more realistic, and allowed them to go through scenes in real-time thanks to a new virtual cinematography Camera Capture system. Disney even sent people to candy factories to get ideas for the Sugar Rush segment of the film.

Wreck-It Ralph has one of the most interesting combination of voices I have ever seen in an animated film. John C. Reilly (Step-Brothers) voices the lovable hero-wannabe villain Wreck-Ralph, while Sarah Silverman (The Sarah Silverman Program) voices Vanellope, the Sugar Rush racer who is labeled a glitch. Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) voices Fix-It Felix, Jr. the much loved hero of Fix-It Felix, and Jane Lynch (Best in Show) voices Sergeant Calhoun, the gruff, yet tragic lead character of Hero's Duty. Other voice talents include: Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling, Ed O'Neill, Adam Corolla, Horatio Sanz, Maurice LaMarche, and John DiMaggio. Alan Tudyk is the one who voices King Candy, and I don't know about you, but as soon as he opened his mouth, I knew they were trying to do a Ed Wynn impression. Ed Wynn was the guy who voiced The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. You'd know his voice anywhere. 

Disney put around $165 million dollars into this movie, so they were definitely hoping for a big return. This isn't anywhere close to Tangled's budget, which was over a hundred million over Wreck-It Ralph. The smaller, but still pretty big gamble paid off, eventually grossing $436 million worldwide. Critics were impressed by the movie, too. Most focused on the beautiful animation and the different styles of each world. Others talked about the fun plot, which ingeniously catered to both boys and girls. The few bad reviews focused on the second half of the film, which stays in the Sugar Rush game for its entirety. Christopher Orr of The Atlantic called it "overplotted and underdeveloped." So, the love wasn't universal, but Disney had a solid hit. Now I'm going to talk about how I felt about the movie. I did enjoy it a lot, being someone who grew up on video games. Now, for someone who isn't keen on video-games, the movie might be a little annoying. Sure, you can appreciate the plot and animation, but you don't get any of the references. I believe that video-games will be around forever, but not some of the characters that have been featured in them. In thirty years even, there will be less and less people who really know what Dig Dug was, or other classic arcade games. I feel like this movie is going to look dated in the future, and not become one of the timeless Disney classics that we all look back on. The movie just seems too...gimmicky in a sense. Most of our Disney tales are retold fairy tales and classic stories. Then you have something like Wreck-It Ralph. It seems more like a Pixar idea to me. Pixar is the king of taking us into the unknown world of things like toys, bugs, superheroes, fish, cars, rats, monsters, robots, and old people! Video games seems like a logical next step, but Disney took it instead, and Pixar did a princess movie, Brave. I honestly think they could have switched the two and no one would have batted an eye. I don't know, maybe i'm just cynical, but I just don't think that Wreck-It Ralph will be one of those movies that people will always remember in the Disney canon. It's like Mickey's Polo Team, a Disney short from the late 30's. It's a funny episode, but better if you happen to know who the heck all those people are. Like I said before, I really like this movie, but I can see why some don't.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Best Picture Winners: 2008-2012

Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Distributed by: Warner Bros.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a poor young man from the slums of Mumbai. The story starts with him being a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and after getting almost every question right, the police yank him from the show and want to know how a boy from the slums can know all the answers. To convince the men that he wasn't cheating, he tells his life story and how it supplied him with the answers to each of the questions. There's a lost love story in there somewhere. All you need to know is that this was the feelgood movie of the year. It wasn't a light movie, however, as some feelgood movies are. It's directed by Danny Boyle, who directed Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, so you really shouldn't walk into this thinking it's going to be sunshine and roses. No, there's death, gangsters, mutilation, and kidnapping. The love story and unconventional plot make it rewarding, however. The film became a sleeper hit, and just like that- the front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar. The other nominees included: Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There was an uproar this year, as everyone was extremely curious as to why neither The Dark Knight, nor WALL-E was nominated for Best Picture. This outrage and low viewership in the last couple years led the Academy to change the number of nominees to ten the next year. I can see why people were a bit upset, The Dark Knight probably was the best film released that year, but I don't think the Academy could have given the Oscar to a "super-hero" movie. Case in point: They didn't even nominate The Dark Knight Rises with the extra nominee spaces. To be fair, though, it wasn't nearly as good. The Academy was clearly in the mood for something different, and for something inspired, as they decided on Slumdog Millionaire than the other nominees, which may have seemed a little too old hat. I did enjoy Benjamin Button, though. It's still an unusual choice, given the Academy's hesitation to reward foreign films. They usually just let the Best Foreign Film category give them an honor and call it a day. This, I'm afraid, is what is going to happen to Amour in this year's (2012) Oscars. It goes to show that if you have a great story, it doesn't matter where your movie was made. It also helps if you have a renowned, visionary British director. Slumdog Millionaire isn't without its controversies, however. There were rumblings about the movie's producers were allegedly exploiting the young child actors,  paying them under one thousand pounds. The actors playing young Salim and young Latika were plucked from illegal slums in Mumbai, and went right back to them after they were done. This was in comparison to the child actors for The Kite Runner, who were paid upwards of nine thousand pounds. It was reported later that Boyle himself provided homes for the actors after their slums were destroyed. The reports couldn't stop the film from winning, however. Along with Best Picture, the film won Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Song, and Best Cinematography among others.

Winner: The Hurt Locker
Director: Katheryn Bigelow
Distributed by: Universal Studios

The Hurt Locker is about three soldiers (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty serving in the Iraq War, all working in Explosive Ordinance Disposal. There's not a real overarching plot to the movie, just glimpses into the three men's lives as they go through the war. I guess it's sort of like The Deer Hunter in the way that each man chooses different lives for himself-whether it be going home to start a family or staying in the service to do what they love. In the same vein, the movie also lacks a real antagonist. The tension revolves around the character's internal conflicts and brief battles against snipers. It's a fine war movie, though of course you always have to question whether what you are seeing is an accurate representation of war. The film drew ire from current and past service members who complained that there was just too many things wrong with the film-so many that it couldn't really be enjoyed by servicemen/women. The uniforms were wrong, the men lacked discipline. they lacked communication gear, and the whole "let's split up" scenario near the end was something nobody would do in a real-world war scenario. I understand their gripes with the movie, but the thing is: it's a movie. While it is trying to tell a story about real-life, the freeing thing about movies is that they aren't real life. Creative license has to be taken into consideration. Film-makers have to make a movie, and to do so, they have to inject the movie with a few falsehoods. There are tons of TV and movie cliches that are completely false, but are used to create drama or suspense. OK, I'll stop talking about creative licenses in movies. While some may not have appreciated the movie for it's inaccuracies  the movie still proved to be a critical darling. What it wasn't, was a hit. The film was actually released in 2008, though it was in Italy, so when it came out in 2009 in the U.S., it was eligible to be nominated. When it was finally released in the U.S., it only brought in a little over $17 million domestically. While it brought in an additional $32 million coming from overseas, that still makes it the lowest grossing Best Picture winner of all time. The funny thing is that it still did better than all the other movies about the Middle-East conflict. I just think it's hard for people to swallow war movies when said war is still going on. This didn't stop the Academy from awarding The Hurt Locker with the top prize. It won out over films like Avatar, Inglorious Basterds, Up, and Up in the Air. There's a few more, seeing as they changed it to ten films, but they don't matter in this race. The front runners were The Hurt Locker, Avatar, and Inglorious Basterds, though I think the Academy was hesitant to let James Cameron become "King of the World" again. Also, a revisionist tale about a group of Jewish soldiers killing Hitler? Totally awesome, but not really a Oscar winner. What The Hurt Locker showed us, more than anything, is that a movie that does very modestly can overtake a box-office mega-hit. It's comforting, really. It's not always the popular kids that win,  but sometimes it's their ex-wives.

Winner: The King's Speech
Director: Tom Hooper
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company

The King's Speech deals with Prince Albert (Colin Firth), Duke of York, the second son of King George V of England. You'd think that it would be fun to be Prince, but he's in a little bit of a pickle. In the mid-thirties, his father had died and his brother (Guy Pierce) has ascended to the throne. While his father was still alive, he told him that he must prepare himself to become the King instead, as the older brother will ruin them. Prince Albert has a stutter that keeps him from talking too much in public venues, but his father tells him he must get over this, as radio contact with the English subjects is absolutely necessary. Prince Albert's wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), convinces him to see an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The relationship between the Prince and Logue doesn't go so well at first, but they eventually become friends. It is when Prince Albert's brother abdicates the throne to marry a divorced woman, and the world teeters on the verge of another World War that Prince Albert needs Logue the most, as he will now be King George VI. It's a great film, and surprisingly funny. Rush and Firth are great together and it's great to see Helena Bonham Carter is something else than one of her husband's movies. The King's Speech main competition that year was True Grit, The Fighter, Inception, and probably the biggest of all: The Social Network. This was an interesting year because the two front-runners represented two sides of our culture. On one, you had the historical movie, the kind that usually win, and the safe bet, though a great film. On the other, you have an equally great film, but more relevant to the times, more edgy and less safe. Many blamed the old-fashioned Academy voters for letting another "Oscar-friendly" movie win. People lamented that a picture that was representative of our current lives didn't win; a film that spoke to current times, not the past. So, it's hard to say if this is truly an upset year or not. It's really hard for me personally to say which film is better, or more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar. Let's just say, that I was surprised when I heard it won, but not that surprised. The King's Speech is actually a movie we probably should have seen way earlier, but the writer, David Seidler, had to wait until Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mother died, which happened in 2002. Critics praised the film, especially the acting, and the movie did well at the box office. Actually, now that I think of it, it was probably the superb acting in the film that gave it the edge over The Social Network. The Academy voters, being made up of actors, among other movie making jobs, tend to side with productions with big performances. Not that Jesse Eisenburg wasn't good in The Social Network, it's just he's not as good as Firth or Rush. The King's Speech also won Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor (Firth).

Winner: The Artist
Director: Michel Hazanvicius
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company

I feel it's more than fitting to end my coverage (for now) with a film that is like the first winner, Wings. The Artist was unusual because it was black and white and silent. This marks the first truly black and white film since The Apartment, the first silent film since Wings, and the first French movie to win Best Picture. Usually those three things wouldn't guarantee it an audience let alone an Oscar. I'm not making fun of France, I'm just saying that the Academy tends to be a little bit xenophobic when it comes to the top prize. While the premise may seem a little strange, or gimmicky, the film is anything but. The film stars Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, a popular silent film star who can't seem to accept that "talkies" are the future. He falls in love with the new "it" girl, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a girl who goes from an extra in one of Valentin's silent films to a headliner in talkies a couple years later. Silence ensues. It's a great representation of the pains actors and actresses were going through during the transition from silent films to talkies. The film is so well made and charming, that you'll almost forget you're watching a contemporary film. The nominations changed yet again to having a limit of ten, but not necessarily getting to that number. Each film has to be nominated a certain amount of times to be considered for the list, thus why this year and the next have nine nominees. The Artist was up against the likes of: The Descendants, Moneyball, War Horse, Hugo, and The Help. I was honestly fine with either Hugo or The Artist winning. Both dealt with silent films and both were amazing. The biggest competition for The Artist, however, was probably The Descendants. Nothing could stop The Artist, though, not even George Clooney! The Artist was a gigantic hit with the critics and with audiences, raking in $133 million dollars. Not bad for a silent movie! If Hollywood loves anything, it's a homage. While it didn't win Best Director, it did win Best Actor for Dujardin, which was well deserved.

Winner: Argo
Director: Ben Affleck
Distributed by: Warner Bros.

No, you aren't reading this incorrectly, Ben Affleck did in fact get his second Oscar. Though I have not seen any of his three movies that he directed, I've heard they are actually really good. The proof appears here, as his latest outing, Argo, won Best Picture at this years Oscars. Argo tells the story of CIA operatives that attempt to rescue U.S. diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis. How do they do this? Well, they pretend to be a Canadian film crew filming a terrible B-movie named Argo. What could go wrong!? Like I said, I haven't seen the movie yet, so I can't give you a real spot on analysis of the movie, plus I'm assuming that most of you haven't seen it either. Argo had a tumultuous road to the winner's circle, as it wasn't really until late in the game that it became the front-runner. What changed? Ben Affleck being snubbed, that's what. Yes, Affleck was not nominated for Best Director, though his film was nominated for Best Picture. This is something that has only happened three other times in history, the last being 1989's Driving Miss Daisy. I think it was a bit easier when there were only five slots for Best Picture, in this respect, because it was almost a given that the director of each Best Picture nominee was going to be present in the Best Director category. Now, with up to ten nominees, you have a lot of pissed off directors. Affleck was visibly upset during the ceremony, and it was made all better by the Best Picture win. He even had a great acceptance speech, though it was a little bit rushed at the beginning. So, if you think about it, Argo probably wouldn't have won had Affleck been nominated. The Academy works that way sometimes. A lot of people felt bad that he was left out, so they decided to give him a better prize (he received an Oscar because he was a producer for the film). Argo's chances were further helped by the fact that it won top honors at all the other award ceremonies. Argo beat out: Silver Linings Playbook, Amour, Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Life of Pi. The other films that had their time as front-runners were: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Les Miserables. I could have seen the first two winning, because the Academy loves a movie about history, or one about mental illness. Lincoln had it's win with Daniel Day Lewis getting Best Actor, Django Unchained got Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor with Christoph Waltz, Amour won Best Foreign Film, Life of Pi won Best Cinematography and Best Director, Les Miserables won Best Supporting Actress with Anne Hathaway, and Silver Linings Playbook had Jennifer Lawrence win Best Actress. So, I feel almost all the films got a big consolation prize, except maybe Zero Dark Thirty, which tied for Best Sound Editing and Beasts of the Southern Wild which was the only Best Picture nominee this year not to win any awards. Argo won it out though, not only because of the Affleck snub, but because people genuinely liked it. Critics loved the film and it's up to over $206 million in world wide box office receipts. The film also took home an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Best Picture Winners: 2003-2007

Winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Director: Peter Jackson
Distributed by: New Line Cinema

This was an exciting year for Peter Jackson and everyone for LOTR, but not a lot of other people. In probably one of the most predictable Oscar years, LOTR took home just about everything it seems. It was nominated for eleven Oscars, and it took home eleven Oscars. Everybody knew it was going to happen. The Academy was just waiting till the last film to reward the series. Too bad it was for probably the weakest of the trilogy. I love the first film and the second one is my favorite, but the third is just...well...the end. I love this film too, but I mean, come on, you can't beat the second one with the ents and the Battle of Helms Deep. All three films probably represent the best trilogy of all time, save for Star Wars. This was an unfortunate year for all the other Best Picture nominees, as they had to try and overcome the clear favorite of the race. It was futile however, and some pretty decent films like Eastwood directed, Mystic River, and the indie surprise, Lost in Translation. Then there was Master and Commander and Seabiscuit. Meh. Any other year Mystic River probably could have taken home the prize, but noooo, it just had to come out in 2003! Luckily for other films, LOTR was not nominated for any acting awards, but they did win just about every technical award, along with the Oscars for Adapted Screenplay and Director! LOTR remains to be the only fantasy genre picture to win the Oscar, and third film to win eleven Oscars (the most ever) the others being Ben-Hur and Titanic. This was probably the most boring Oscars I've ever seen, though. They could have given it all the awards and called it a night, and it would have saved everyone there about four hours of bad jokes and dance numbers. Oh, and I didn't bother with a plot, because I know you've all seen this movie. Everyone has.

Winner: Million Dollar Baby
Director: Clint Eastwood
Distributed by: Warner Bros.

Million Dollar Baby, if you take the title literally, is the story of a baby that wins a million dollars through a crazy turn of events. It's basically a combination of Blank Check and Baby's Day Out. Actually,  it's the story of a girl, Maggie (Hilary Swank), who longs to be a boxer. She coaxes a retired boxing coach, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), into training her and he enlists his old boxer friend, "Scrap Iron" (Morgan Freeman), to help. They both train her into a decent fighter and she eventually accepts to compete in a championship match. Let's just say, it doesn't end like you think, and it involves a stool. I'm not going to go any further into the movie, since there may be some people who still would like to check the film out. A little over ten years later, we have a Clint Eastwood directed film, starring Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, except this time they aren't cowboys, they're old boxers. I guess the formula works! All Eastwood has to do is keep starring with Freeman in films and he's got Oscar gold! See, that was the problem with Mystic River, no Eastwood or Freeman. The film was a hit with audiences and critics, though some didn't like the controversial ending. It didn't stop it from knocking out other nominees like: The Aviator (another film that didn't deserve the Oscar that the Academy was waiting to give Scorsese), Ray, Sideways, and Finding Neverland. So, not a bad year at all. I'm telling you though, it's the whole Eastwood involvement. It helps that many of the Academy voters are from his era. Baby ended up winning Best Director, Best Actress (Swank), and Best Supporting Actor (Freeman).

Winner: Crash
Director: Paul Haggis
Distributed by: Lionsgate

I have to imagine that this film winning caught even Haggis by surprise. It wasn't the front-runner, and it wasn't released during the "Oscar season." Probably the most controversial win in recent Oscar history, the film had divided critics and audiences. It deals with eight different stories during an average day in L.A. In these stories that slowly intertwine, we see the effects of racism, fear, and prejudice. The movie takes an interesting take on racism though, as it shows those reacting to racism as being racist in some ways themselves. No one is perfect. But, Haggis makes it clear that many of the actions are done out of misconceptions or from ignorance  not outright malice. It has an ensemble cast, including: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, and Matt Dillon. Most criticism came to the movie after it won Best Picture. It went from being one of the best films of the year, to being preachy garbage. I couldn't believe the backlash this movie got. I personally like the movie, but I do admit that it should have never won. Its competition that year was: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Goodnight, and Good Luck, and Munich. That's one heavy year. All films were serious, and some were even pretty dark. The clear favorite was Brokeback Mountain. Then a funny thing happened: it didn't win. Why? Well, some think that there was a lingering fear of homosexuality in the Academy at the time. Others believe that Crash spoke to the Academy in a fundamental level. The movie was based in L.A. and that's exactly were the aged voters live. Whatever the reasons, it turned into a huge controversy that ruined Crash's reputation. It hadn't even been nominated for any of the top Golden Globe prizes, so how did it get anywhere in the Oscars? It only took home three Oscars in the end, the unexpected one, one for Best Original Screenplay, and one for Best Editing. Woohoo. See this movie if you haven't, if only to judge for yourself whether it deserves all the hate.

Winner: The Departed
Director: Martin Scorsese
Distributed by: Warner Bros.

So it finally happened. The Academy could finally give Scorsese his long deserved Oscar that they had decided to withhold until now. Is The Departed the best of the Scorsese bunch? No, but it's up there, and its definitely better than his last couple outings. The Departed deals with an undercover cop (Leonardo Di Caprio) who is deeply ingrained in the Irish mafia in Boston, and an undercover mafia member (Matt Damon) who is deeply ingrained in the Boston P.D. They both realize there's a mole in each group and must race to expose the other. The supporting cast includes Jack Nicholson as the mafia boss, and Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin as men in the Boston P.D. Like I said, this was a long overdue Oscar win for Scorsese, but some feel it was a lifetime achievement award, and not a legitimate win. Scorsese himself said the reason he won this time was because, "this film actually had a plot." The Departed's competition that year consisted of: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Queen. Not a bad year actually, but I really think that the Academy finally found a movie worthy of the Scorsese Oscar. The film was rated as many critic's number one movie of the year, and was at the forefront of the Oscar race. Probably the only gripe against the movie was that it wasn't as good as the Chinese original called Internal Affairs. The only thing that was a bit off this year was the snub of Guillermo del Toro's, Pan's Labyrinth, a film which was the highest rated for the 2000's on Metacritic. It probably couldn't have beat The Departed, but it could have at least went in instead of Babel. Pan's Labyrinth is a very good film, and it's too bad it didn't get recognized. The Departed also won for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It's a great mob movie, so if you're in the mood for something Scorsese, but something more recent, check it out.

Winner: No Country For Old Men
Director: The Coen Brothers
Distributed by: Miramax Films

I didn't really pay that much attention to the Oscars after LOTR won in 03'. If the films that were up for Best Picture interested me, than I'd make a conscious effort. I don't think I even watched 04's Oscars at all, and only peeked in on the next two. This year was different. I was very interested to see which film would win: No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood. I'd seen both films and loved them both. Who was I rooting for that year? Well, if you know me, than you know that I love the Coen Brothers. I own most of their movies and some (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Barton Fink) are among my favorite films. Sure, they've had a few bumps like The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, and The Hudsucker Proxy (which is still a good film) but their still better than a lot of the films out there. OK, maybe not The Ladykillers, that was pretty bad. That being said, I'm going to try and be unbiased. I wasn't unbiased the night of the Oscars, though. I really wanted the Coens to get their due. They did, of course, and also collected statues for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. They became the fifth directors to collect three Oscars for one film, giving that they wrote, directed, and produced the film. No Country For Old Men, adapted from the book by Cormac McCarthy, deals with an old sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to track down two men. One of the men, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), had stumbled upon a drug deal gone wrong in the desert and took the $2 million dollars that he found in a duffle-bag. The other man, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is the hit-man sent out to retrieve said money. The film is excellent, I'll just say that now. I'm not doing a great job in describing it, so please go see it. I'm not sure if it's better than Fargo, but it's pretty high up on my list. The best out of the bunch is Bardem, who plays the bowl cut-sporting assassin with scary resolve. He is basically unstoppable evil. The film is actually a lot like Fargo. Both movies deal with an old fashioned cop that it appears is powerless to stop the growing evil invading their town. That's what's so great about both these movies; they both have a collision of innocence and violence. The name of the movie comes from the lament of the elderly sheriff, who throughout the movie bemoans the changes that are happening. Juno, Michael Clayton, and Atonement were the other nominees, though they were never favorites to win. No, it all came down to Men and Blood. While Daniel Day-Lewis' performance may have been astounding, it couldn't take the momentum away from the twisted western the Coen brothers had made.