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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 26 - Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story (1995; Walt Disney/Pixar Studios)
Director: John Lasseter
Writers: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolov
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen

In July of 1928, Steamboat Willie became the first “talkie”, with a full spoken audio track playing over an animated short film.  It was a landmark achievement in filmmaking from an idealistic young director named Walt Disney.  A decade later, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first feature-length animated film and set the standard for the art of animation in its time.  Walt did much more for filmmaking than adapting classic fairy tales and building theme parks, though.  He designed and engineered the multiplane camera, allowing for the effect of perspective and depth in 2D animated films and was responsible for implementing many new forms of editing and effects that would revolutionize the way we look at the art of movies.

By the 70’s, however, Disney, as a company, was at an all-time low in terms of morale and success.  When Walt Disney died from cancer in 1966, the studio had a hard time keeping up the pace and begin producing fewer and fewer successes until the late 80’s saw the Disney Renaissance, a period of massive growth for Disney as a company.  In 1994, Disney gave us The Lion King, a massive achievement in filmmaking, and a year later, a small group of animators introduced the world to the first feature-length computer animated film: Toy Story.

Toy Story is an incredibly simple, timeless story told very, very well.  It follows the secret lives of toys when their owner, a boy named Andy, is not around.  They have a hierarchical ruling structure based on how much Andy loves them, with Woody (Voice of Tom Hanks), a pull-string talking cowboy, being the favorite and thus, the leader.  On Andy’s birthday he is given the next big toy, an electronic space hero named Buzz Lightyear.  Immediately Woody feels cast aside as Buzz appears to become Andy’s favorite new toy.  The only problem is, Buzz does not believe he is a toy, and thinks he is a real interstellar action hero.  Over time, Woody becomes so angry and envious of Buzz, that at one point he is accused by the other toys of killing Buzz when the space hero disappears.  This forces Woody to take action to find Buzz and prove his innocence, the two becoming friends in the process.  The film takes several turns in the story, with one surprisingly dark subplot involving a toy-torturing, truly messed-up kid who temporarily gains possession of Buzz and Woody.

Toy Story is a tale of unlikely friendship told through the a technology that was, at the time, still very new to general audiences.  Computer animation had been around for well over a decade but it was always very shallow-looking.  Bright colors and blocky figures dominated the artform, so imagine audiences’ collective surprise when Toy Story featured fully-animated characters in highly-detailed scenes.  It was a shock to most people, and it put Pixar near the top of the animation totem pole, right up there with Walt Disney Studios (a separate entity from Pixar) and Studio Ghibli.  The characters are interesting and relatable without being too cliched, the voice performances are all top-notch and art is still astounding by today’s standards, even after we spent years sitting through one mediocre CGI-fest after another, with the medium no longer being novel, just boring.  Toy Story is a reflection on a time when talented filmmakers were still very excited about a new art-form, and the potential of this new style of animation was still on the horizon.

NOTE: I would also point out that this was an early major screenwriting project for fan-favorite filmmaker Joss Whedon, so there's that, too!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 27 - Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999; 20th Century Fox Pictures)
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Jim Uhls
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter

Fight Club is the 1999 film adaptation of the novel of the same name from writer Chuck Palahniuk.  It is a funny indictment of unbridled consumerism, drawing comparisons to shopping from Ikea with enslavement and disease.  It is certainly an anti-establishment message shoved into a strange series of parallels and metaphors.  So, who better to put together a plot puzzle like this than the man who directed The Game and Seven?

Edward Norton plays a (sort of) unnamed narrator who is tormented by his endless fight with daily life and his sudden urge to buy increasingly-useless crap from the consumer catalog du jour.  Depressed and struggling with crippling insomnia, our narrator begins to attend various support groups for disease and addiction for things he does not even suffer from, only to feel… something.  This therapy works, until a woman named Marla (Carter) begins showing up for the same groups, becoming a plaguing distraction.  During a business trip, he meets an outgoing, fast-talking man named Tyler Durden (Pitt), who seems to have none of the same fears and worries he suffers from.  Essentially, he is the narrator’s polar opposite.  A freak disaster leads the narrator to contact Tyler and they meet up, becoming friends, and eventually, this leads to them fighting in an alley.  Over time, this one fight evolves into hundreds, all over the country, from multiple groups of Fight Clubs, and replaces any need for support groups and shoulders to cry on.  Things grow and grow, becoming even more desperate, and Marla is dragged back in with Tyler, with whom she begins a very, very loud sexual relationship.  With the narrator's own vision of what Fight Club becoming distorted into a movement that has grown far out of his control, the film’s tone becomes extremely dark and more than a little threatening, all leading to a climax that is surprising and kind of terrifying..

Fight Club is a brutal rejection of casual consumerism.  It mocks marketing, and even has the Club members use that marketing as a weapon against the system they feel has enslaved them.  The mood shifts from comic to thriller steadily throughout the film, but from the very beginning there is a sense of unease.  We are told early in the film that “With insomnia nothing’s real.  Everything’s far away.  Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy…”, and that is exactly what much of the first act feels like.  Scenes are very dreamlike, full of strange imagery of floating catalog price information and CGI penguins.  There are subliminal images that flicker and disappear, almost like hallucinations, and the whole production has this very cold, artificial feel to its benefit.  The surrealist elements of the film never feel too out of place since we are meant to be seeing this world through the eyes of a troubled man.  

David Fincher was the perfect choice to direct this movie.  He is able to weave incredibly complex and layered narratives into a cohesive and captivating story.  He is probably better at this than just about any other director working in Hollywood today, with successes like Zodiac and The Social Network telling stories that span several years with a great deal of coherence, something that is very difficult to do without losing your audience.  Fight Club just may be one of the most ambitious film adaptations of all time.  Not because of thousands of fighting soldiers and castles that need to be modeled and CGI’d, but because it is a story told in first person, from the perspective of an individual who sees the world very differently from the way most people do.  Fincher’s ability to put you in the eyes of this one broken and desperate man is simply astounding.  

Now, I am trying to stay vague with this article because if you have not seen this movie yet, it is a must-watch.  It is violent, gritty, and even a little convicting.  You could have been doing something great, and you did nothing productive.  In a shocking and brutal, but funny scene, Tyler holds a young man at gunpoint for “wasting his life” and not pursuing his dream career, for which he lets the man live with the promise that he will pursue a better life.  It is mean, but it is also honest.  Fight Club certainly has a little bit of preachiness to it, which is usually a turn-off, but I never got the feeling that this was based on some schizophrenic’s insane ramblings like I did with tripe like The Day After Tomorrow or overwrought, heavy-handed ripoff material like Avatar.  I was entranced by the film’s fun visuals and darkly humorous tone.  The screenplay is freaking outstanding and every performance is damn good.  Brad Pitt gives what is probably my favorite performance of his career as Tyler Durden and Edward Norton is bringing his A-Game as an awkward, nerdy doormat who is transformed into a tough-as-nails, takes-no-crap badass over the course of the movie.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 28 - Rushmore (1998)

Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray

Wes Anderson makes his first appearance on my list with his 1998 film Rushmore.  This is Anderson’s second feature film and the first one he did to really get promotion, thanks to a more recognizable cast and a higher-profile marketing campaign.  Rushmore is a strange film, as is typical for Anderson, only, it is strange in a proper way.  I will go more into Anderson’s style of filmmaking later but suffice it to say for now, if you have not seen a film by Wes Anderson, then  you have not really seen anything like it.

Rushmore is the story of a super-intelligent teenager named Max Fisher (Schwartzman) who has a great deal of influence at an exclusive private academy called Rushmore.  He is followed by his much younger protege who more or less acts as his secretary as he heads and organizes a bevy of time-consuming clubs.  As a result of his devotion to extra-curricular activities, Max’s grades are suffering and he finds himself at odds with the headmaster, who places him on academic probation.  Meanwhile, a beautiful young teacher named Ms. Cross becomes the target of Max’s affection, a crush that comes between him and his much older friend named Herman Blum (Murray), when she and Blum begin dating.  The plot shifts to focus primarily on Fisher and Blum’s fight over Ms. Cross, which increases in desperation.

If the synopsis seems a little broad, that would be because it is a Wes Anderson film.  Anderson’s stories are usually a series of layered plots that are intermingled with the film never focusing firmly on just one for too long.  There is enough of an underlying focus for the story for there to actually be a movie, but it never becomes the center of the film, it is just there to tie together the various other subplots.  Rushmore is a constant stream of sight gags and an odd awkwardness that may come off as ineptitude, until you actually watch the entire film.  The strange pauses, fourth-wall-breaking montages and tone throughout the film all add up to a strange experience, but a funny one.  Chances are, however, that if you do not like one Wes Anderson movie, you will probably dislike all of them, with the one exception of the more recent Moonrise Kingdom, which was an excellent movie, and a definite evolution for Anderson as a filmmaker.  

Rushmore is a funny, slightly disjointed and unhinged movie about teenage awkwardness and social standing and it challenges norms of filmmaking in just about every scene.  Anderson has made it part of his style to break the established “rules” of direction, and what comes of it is both a funny film, and a unique artistic idea.  All of his movies have a distinct palette as well, which further add to their identity.  Anderson makes a distinct sharp yellow the chromatic focus of every scene, with browns and soft greens becoming compliments.  These earth-tones are then contrasted with foreground elements like Max’s bright red beret.  Another interesting trademark of Anderson is how he makes certain performances stand out in scenes by have them follow slightly more subdued acting from other lead characters.  This makes some more dramatic scenes seem louder than they really are, giving the illusion of a heightened series of events, without ever breaking the sardonic feel of the movie.