Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Incredibles (2004)

The Incredibles
Disney, 2004

Principal Cast:  Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee
Director:  Brad Bird
Producers:  John Lasseter, Kori Rae, Katherine Sarafian, John Walker
Screenwriter:  Brad Bird
Cinematography:  Andrew Jiminez, Patrick Lin, Janet Lucroy

After falling out of favor with the public, the government forces all superheroes to give up their secret identities and stop their crime-fighting ways.  Bob Parr, once known as Mr. Incredible, struggles to live an everyday, mundane life as an insurance adjuster.  Parr, as well as his wife and children, are all blessed with superhuman powers, which he feels should be celebrated and not hidden.  When a mysterious stranger needs the help of "Mr. Incredible," Bob jumps at the chance, behind his wife, Helen's, back.  But when Bob is captured by the super-villain Syndrome, it's up to Helen and the kids to save him.

Awards & Nominations
Academy Awards
Best Animated Feature Film of the Year - Winner
Best Achievement in Sound Editing - Winner
Best Writing, Original Screenplay - Nominee
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Nominee

Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films
Best Animated Film

"Everyone's special, Dash."
"Which is another way of saying no one is."

Toy Story.  Finding Nemo.  Wall-E.  Up.  These are the most common titles you hear when people mention the best Pixar films.  While these are all fantastic films, it's a shame that no one remembers to mention The Incredibles.  Personally, I'd list every Disney/Pixar production in the Essential Films.  OK, maybe not Cars.

The point is, The Incredibles, simply put is a great film. It succeeds on multiple fronts.  It succeeds as a great cartoon.  It succeeds as a great family film. It succeeds as a great action comedy.  And it succeeds as a superhero film.

Let's start with story.  Brad Bird is a very accomplished screenwriter who knows exactly how to blend sentimentality with comedy and fantasy. Other great examples of this are Ratatouille and The Iron Giant.  More than that, he can pace a story well and really develops his characters well.  Let's look at the three main characters:  Bob (Mr. Incredible), Helen (Elasti Girl) and Buddy (Syndrome.)  Each of these characters' motives are clear and they are driven by something everyone can relate to.  Bob has superhuman strength... he's saved lives and fought bad guys.  Now he has to live in hiding because the laws of the country he fought so many years to defend made him give up his lifestyle.  He's stuck at a desk job, subjected to the tyranny of his diminutive, but tyrannical boss.  Bird uses Bob's secret return to a superhero lifestyle as an analogy to having an affair.  He starts working out, buys a new, flashy car... hell he even gets a new [super] suit.  It's a superhero mid-life crisis.

Helen, meanwhile is the homemaker, she gave up the superhero life not just because the law told her to, but because she clearly wants to be at home, raising children. She is protective of her family, and doesn't want them exposed.  Her motivation is clear, if she, her husband or even her super-powered children are exposed, it means a complete disruption of her family life.  But this protectiveness of her family takes an active role when she has to literally save Bob's life.  A woman saving a man's life in a superhero movie?  That's new.  

And finally Buddy, or Syndrome.  Every good superhero story needs a supervillain.  And most good supervillains need a reason to hate the hero... and oftentimes they are the hero's polar opposite.  Buddy worshiped Mr. Incredible during his hero days, he desperately wanted to be a "hero."  But after interfering in Mr. Incredible's business one time too many, and actually costing him a chance to get the bad guy (the hilariously named "Bomb Voyage"), Buddy is sternly warned to never come near him again.  Buddy, who possesses no special abilities, grows up with a vendetta and equips himself with gadgets to make himself special.  He succeeds in trapping Incredible, and unleashes a deadly robot on the public just so he can "defeat" it.  This proves to be Buddy's biggest character flaw:  wanting the glory and attention of being a hero. In the end, this proves to actually be a fatal mistake.

Aside from the story, the film just LOOKS gorgeous.  Like all Pixar films (yes, even Cars), the animation is absolutely top notch.  The character and set designs are also a lot of fun, it really looks like a comic book came to life and exploded on the screen.

The Incredibles is a great superhero movie.  It's clear that the creators of this film really love the medium of comic books.  I mean, let's face it, The Incredibles family are essentially the Fantastic Four.  Only they out-Fantastic Four the Fantastic Four.  Bird and company they didn't take the easy way out. This is Disney, which is going to market the film to children and families, so they could have easily given us a bland story with one-dimensional characters filled with lots of slapstick comedy, explosions and toilet humor.  They didn't do that.  Instead they created a smart, funny, well-paced, character-driven superhero story that also looked great and had some fun action sequences.  The Incredibles is an Essential Film.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

25 Greatest Summer Blockbusters

We are in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, and we've already seen some major releases thus far such as Thor, Super 8 and X-Men: First Class.  We here at The Essential Films LOVE summer blockbusters, and we are going to countdown the Top 25 Greatest Summer Blockbusters.

Criteria:  The film must have been released between the dates of May 1 and August 31 and have grossed at least $100 million in worldwide box office receipts as well.

#25 - Independence Day

Director:  Roland Emmerich
Stars:  Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum
Release Date: July 3, 1996
Worldwide Box Office:  $817,400,891

#24 - Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Director: Gore Verbinski
Stars:  Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom
Release Date: July 9, 2003
Worldwide Box Office:  $652,100,000

#23 - Gladiator

Director: Ridley Scott
Stars:  Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen
Release Date:  May 5, 2000
Worldwide Box Office:  $456,200,000

#22 - Men In Black

Director:  Barry Sonnenfield
Stars:  Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones
Release Date:  July 2, 1997
Worldwide Box Office: $587,200,000

#21 - Spider-Man

Director:  Sam Raimi
Stars:  Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe
Release Date: May 3, 2002
Worldwide Box Office: $821,708,551

#20 - X2: X-Men United

Director: Bryan Singer
Stars:  Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry
Release Date:  May 2, 2003
Worldwide Box Office:  $406, 400,000

#19 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Director:  Alfonso Cuarón
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Release Date:  June 4, 2004
Worldwide Box Office:  $761,300,818

#18 - Batman Returns

Director: Tim Burton
Stars:  Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer
Release Date:  June 19, 1992
Worldwide Box Office:  $282,800,000

#17 - The Fugitive

Director: Andrew Davis
Stars:  Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Sela Ward
Release Date:  August 6, 1993
Worldwide Box Office:  $368,700,000

#16 - Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars:  Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Alison Doody
Release Date: May 24, 1989
Worldwide Box Office:  $494,800,000

#15 - Iron Man

Director: Jon Favreau
Stars:  Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges
Release Date:  May 2, 2008
Worldwide Box Office:  $571,827,600

#14 - The Lion King

Directors: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Stars:  Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones
Release Date:  June 24, 1994
Worldwide Box Office:  $783,400,000

#13 - Star Trek

Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg
Release Date:  May 8, 2009
Worldwide Box Office:  $382,704,099

#12 - Inception

Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page
Release Date:  July 16, 2010
Worldwide Box Office:  $817,068,851

#11 - Spider-Man 2

Director: Sam Raimi
Stars:  Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina
Release Date: June 30, 2004
Worldwide Box Office: $783,766,341

#10 - Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Director:  James Cameron
Stars:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
Release Date:  July 3, 1991
Worldwide Box Office:  $516,800,000

#9 - E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Director:  Steven Spielberg
Stars:  Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote
Release Date:  June 11, 1982
Worldwide Box Office:  $756,700,000

#8 - Back to the Future

Director:  Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Release Date:  July 3, 1985
Worldwide Box Office:  $350,600,000

#7 - The Empire Strikes Back

Director:  Irvin Kershner
Stars: Mark Hammill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Release Date:  May 21, 1980
Worldwide Box Office:  $533,800,000

#6 - The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Chrisian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart
Release Date:  July 18, 2008
Worldwide Box Office:  $1,001,921,825

#5 - Jurassic Park

Director:  Steven Spielberg
Stars:  Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
Release Date:  June 11, 1993
Worldwide Box Office:  $919,700,000

#4 - Raiders of the Lost Ark

Director:  Steven Spielberg
Stars:  Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman
Release Date:  June 12, 1981
Worldwide Box Office:  $383,900,000

#3 - Batman

Director: Tim Burton
Stars:  Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
Release Date: June 23, 1989
Worldwide Box Office:  $413,200,000

#2 - Star Wars

Director:  George Lucas
Stars:  Mark Hammill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Release Date:  May 25, 1977
Worldwide Box Office:  $797,900,000

#1 - Jaws

Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars:  Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Release Date:  June 20, 1975
Worldwide Box Office:  $470,280,829

How could #1 NOT be Jaws?  It was after all the movie that created the blockbuster.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude
Paramount, 1971

Principal Cast:  Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles
Director:  Hal Ashby
Producers:  Colin Higgins, Mildred Lewis, Charles Mulvehill
Screenwriter:  Colin Higgins
Cinematography:  John Alonzo

Harold is a wealthy, death-obsessed teenager who finds it hard to connect with anyone, especially his overbearing mother.  He spends his free time visiting junkyards, simulating suicides and attending funerals for strangers.  It's at one of these funerals that he meets Maude, an 80-year old woman who is full of life and eccentricity.  Harold and Maude get into a series of quirky adventures which leads this unusual friendship to develop into an unconventional romance.

Awards and Nominations
American Film Institute
  • #45 of the 100 Greatest Comedies
  • #69 of the 100 Greatest Romances
  • #89 of the 100 Most Inspiring Films
  • #9 of the Top 10 Romantic Comedies
National Film Preservation Board
Selected in 1997 as a culturally significant film to the National Film Registry.

"A lot of people enjoy being dead.  But they are not dead, really. They're just backing away from life.  Reach out.  Take a chance.  Get hurt even.  But play as well as you can.  Go team, go!  Give me an L.  Give me an I.  Give me a V.  Give me an E. L-I-V-E. LIVE!  Otherwise, you got nothing to talk about in the locker room."

I can't believe it has taken me this long to finally see this film.  To see that I loved this film would be somewhat of an understatement.  Everything from the direction, screenwriting, acting, music... this movie works on every single level.

It's hard to pick something to start with, but I guess we'll start at the surface.  The performances by the main players in this film are wonderful.  Bud Cort is convincing as the socially awkward (incompetent?) Harold.  Cort never hams up his performance, but this is easily one of the better comedic performances I've ever seen.  But Harold in and of himself is not a comedic character, he's disturbed and lonely.  But in this there is, surprisingly, comedy.  The only other film I had seen Ruth Gordon before this was the excellent horror film Rosemary's Baby, where she played the villain.  Her character couldn't be any more different in this film, and it ranks as one of my favorite characters ever.  Gordon plays this eccentric old lady with such charm, that you can almost see why Harold falls in love with her.

Digging a little deeper, you have to appreciate that a film dealing with death and suicide and mortality... is actually a romantic comedy.  In 2010 this would be considered "edgy," so I really wish I could have been around in 1971 to see how this film was received by audiences.  Hell, most films with "May/December" romances usually deal with a mature older man and an inexperienced younger woman.  This film flips that convention, and the results are a lot more interesting than the conventional formula.

Harold, to put it mildly, simply doesn't fit in.  He stages fake suicides to get some sort of loving attention from his socialite mother.  He is completely obsessed with death and he can't connect with anyone, especially all the women with which his mother sets him up on blind dates.  His mother is forcing marriage on him, his uncle is pushing the military on him... Harold never has a moment to live the life he wants to lead and retracts into himself and rejects everything.  In fact, the only way he can connect with anyone is when he goes to funerals, where he hides among everyone's grief.

Enter: Maude.

The juxtaposition of these two characters is key.  Let's examine.  Harold is a young man, in his physical prime, but obsessed with death.  He is constantly being told what to do and how to live, to the point that he refuses to do either.  Maude is at the end of her life.  She even comments that when one turns 80, their life is over.  Yet, at her age, she shows more spirit and "life" than her junior counterpart.  Maude's optimism and outlook on life is the balance to Harold's bleak outlook on life.  (This is made more poignant when the film subtly suggests that Maude is a Holocaust survivor.)  This is what she contributes to Harold's life:  life itself.  Or rather, this 80 year old woman teaches this man (boy, really... the film never overtly tells us his age) how to live.  They are exactly what the other person needs in their life, which makes their strange relationship perfect.

If you're a fan of quirky indy flicks or the work of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox), do yourself a favor watch, rent or buy this film immediately.  Now quit reading this, buy a banjo and play some Cat Stevens.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

MGM, 1939

Principal Cast:  Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Terry Kilburn, John Mills, Paul Henreid
Director:  Sam Wood
Producer:  Victor Saville
Screenwriters:  R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, Eric Maschwitz
Cinematography:  F.A. Young

Awards & Nominations:
Academy Awards
Best Actor in a Leading Role - Robert Donat

Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture
Best Actress in a Leading Role - Greer Garson
Best Director - Sam Wood
Best Writing, Screenplay - R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, Eric Maschwitz
Best Editing 
Best Sound Recording

American Film Institute
#41 on the 100 Years... 100 Heroes & Villains (Arthur Chipping in the "Heroes" category)

Cannes Film Festival
Golden Palm Nominee

Arthur Chipping, or "Mr. Chips," a classics teacher, remembers his long teaching career at the Brookfield Boarding School for boys.  It starts with him as a young man in late 19th Century England and follows his career throughout his entire life.  At first, Chips is stuffy, old-fashioned and uptight, which does not gain him respect nor admiration from his rowdy students.  When he meets Katherine, his first and only love, he gradually he begins to change as he has a positive impact on his outlook on life.  As the years go on, Chips slowly becomes the best, most respected and loved teacher in the school, all while encountering tragedy and adversity along the way.


I thought I heard you saying it was a pity... pity I never had any children. But you're wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them... and all boys.

Make no mistake about it:  Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a very pleasant film.  It's not controversial in any way. It wasn't ahead of its time.  And it wasn't revolutionary... neither in story nor visuals.  And you know what?  There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as it is done well.  Sometimes, all one wants to do is sit back and enjoy a good story.  This film does that.  It has a bit of everything:  drama, some comedy, character development, tragedy and, so things don't get boring, a little adversity.  Sometimes, that is all you need.

This is the definition of a "feel good" film.  It's hard to walk away from this film without smiling.  As mentioned earlier, there is a major tragedy that hits Mr. Chips towards the middle of the film.  If I have a criticism of this film, it would be that this particular incident is handled somewhat awkwardly.  It still is quite touching to see how Chips is affected by this, however.  On top of dealing with this tragedy, the Chips character is developed as an exceptional leader by keeping the boys distracted while their country is torn by the war, almost literally right outside their doors.  When one looks at this film through the context of history, Great Britain was less than a year away from the German bombings of World War II at the times of this film's release, which makes these scenes all the more poignant.

Of course, you can't speak of this film without mentioning Robert Donat's Oscar-winning performance.  He starts the film as a young, fresh-faced teacher and ends the film as a crotchety old man.  The transformation of the character over the years is a lot of fun to watch, especially in his older years.  IMDB doesn't have any information on the make-up artist for this film, but the make-up is amazing.  Combined with Donat's superb acting you truly believe that this (at the time) 35 year old man is in his 80s.  
Overall, is Goodbye, Mr. Chips a little outdated and oftentimes corny?  Yes, by today's standards it would be (especially that final shot.)  But it doesn't matter, it's a fun, well-told inspirational story with excellent acting.  Goodbye, Mr. Chips is one of the best "inspiring teacher" films ever produced.