Monday, January 18, 2010

Dozen for the Decade

I like lists.  Anyone can make a list and they can be debated endlessly.  Just in writing the list below I've changed and re-arranged things multiple times.  But without further delay, here, for your consumption, are my twelve favorite movies of the decade that has just ended.
12) Almost Famous (2000)

"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool."

A nearly note-perfect story of one kid's coming of age.  It's funny, bittersweet, and real.

11) The Bourne Identity (2002)

"Look at this. Look at what they make you give."

The two Bourne sequels, both directed by Paul Greengrass, received the lion's share of critical acclaim, but it was the original Bourne movie, directed by Doug Liman, that established the aesthetic and tone of the series.  It also influenced every other spy movie for the rest of the decade, including the excellent James Bond re-boot Casino Royale.

10) Moulin Rouge! (2001)

"My gift is my song. And this one's for you."

A hyper-kinetic, candy-colored, and unabashedly sentimental fever dream, it's hard to fully describe this modern musical romance because there is really no other film like it.  You probably either love it or it gives you a migraine.  I fall into the former camp.

9) Gangs of New York (2002)

"You know how I stayed alive this long?  All these years?  Fear.  The spectacle of fearsome acts."

The 00s were the decade where Martin Scorsese went all-out to get the critical and popular recognition that had eluded him throughout his career.  Although The Departed finally won him the Oscar, the film that resonated with me is this one.  This ambitious historical epic is mesmerizing, primarily due to its fully realized sense of place and the mind-blowing performance of Daniel Day Lewis as the terrifying and charismatic Bill the Butcher.

8) Up (2009)

"Thanks for the adventure, now go have a new one."

I already covered my love for this film here.  But the more I think about it, the more it pulls on my heart strings and challenges me to treasure both the everyday adventure that is my life, and the person that I get to share it with.

7) Anchorman:  The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

"They've done studies, you know. Sixty percent of the time, it works -- every time."

According to my wife, I've never laughed so hard at a movie in my life.  When you add to that the endless quotability of this film, it's a true highlight of the decade for me.

6) The Incredibles (2004)

"Mom and Dad's lives could be in danger. Or worse...their marriage."

Perhaps more than any other genre, the 00s were the decade of the comic book movie.  And while there were a handful of fantastic comic book films (Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, Iron Man), one of the very best wasn't based on a comic book at all.  The Incredibles deftly weaves superhero-meets-Bond adventure with an affirmation of familial and marital bonds and a subtle but unmistakable critique of political correctness.

5) The Dark Knight (2008)

"You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

As the other great comic book movie on the list, The Dark Knight builds on the promise of the very excellent Batman Begins in ways that comic geeks only dared to dream.  And underneath its comic book veneer, it delivers a gripping meditation on line between order and anarchy and the costs of keeping society safe from evil.  While Heath Ledger is deservedly praised for his Joker, Aaron Eckhart is equally amazing as district attorney Harvey Dent.

4) Wall-E (2008)

"I don't want to survive, I want to live!"

It is the sweetest of love stories set in the bleakest of settings.  A lonely and lovesick little robot manages to shake mankind out of its technology-induced lethargy and reminds us that relationships -- genuine and meaningful connections -- are what make life worth living.

3) The Passion of the Christ (2004)

"He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed."

I have seen this film exactly one time. I have not wanted or needed to see it again. But I cannot ignore the profound impact it made on me. Mel Gibson's brutal, devastating, exhausting depiction of the death (and briefly, the resurrection) of Jesus Christ is remarkably faithful to the accounts given in the four Gospels. Although it has been harshly criticized for its unrelenting violence and gore, I've come to appreciate that in order to truly convey the suffering of Christ to a modern audience -- an audience rendered numb by a media landscape saturated in violence and accustomed to a sanitized, Easter pageant version of the crucifixion -- the film had to push the envelope to get people's attention. The Passion is a difficult movie to sit through, but never have I felt more humbled by the sacrifice made for me by my Savior.

2) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an epic achievement, blah-blah-blah, everyone knows this.  I'm singling out the first film because I think it stands head and shoulders above the two subsequent chapters.  The Fellowship of the Ring has a narrative clarity that gets just a little bit muddled and lost in the other films.  For all of its visual splendor, the best scene of the film is a very quiet conversation between Gandalf and Frodo regarding the nature of Providence. 

1) Finding Nemo (2003)

"I promised him I'd never let anything happen to him."

Yeah, I'm saying it:  the movie with the talking fish is the best movie of the decade.  Fifty years from now, do you think any other film on this list will have endured the way that Finding Nemo will?  The only other possibilities are the other Pixar films and maybe The Lord of the Rings (I say "maybe" because it basically takes about 10 hours to watch the whole thing and who has time for that?).  Generations of families will be watching Finding Nemo for years to come.  This tale of a father searching for his son, and learning how to be a better parent along the way, is at turns hilarious, poignant, epic, thrilling, and beautiful.  There are three scenes that compel me to wipe the eyes every time I watch it (and I've watched it alot) -- the beginning when Marlin loses his wife and family and very tenderly cradles Nemo, still in his egg; the scene when Nigel the pelican recounts for Nemo the tale of Marlin searching the entire ocean to find him, and you see Nemo's eyes brighten with the recognition of his father's love for him; the scene at the end when Marlin thinks he's lost his son all over again, and thinks back to the scene of Nemo in his egg.

A dozen others worth a mention:
United 93; War of the Worlds; Black Hawk Down; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Cinderella Man; Monsters, Inc.; Up in the Air; Unbreakable; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian; Open Range; AI: Artificial Intelligence.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Life After Lost

Yes, it's true.  February 2 marks the beginning of the end as Lost rapidly approaches the premiere of its final season.  One of the inevitable questions is "What happens next?  Is this really the end?"  As executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof pointed out in a recent interviewLost is a franchise that is worth billions to the Walt Disney Company, so you know they're going to do something with it in the future.  Now I don't think that means that fans should start freaking out about some hackneyed Lost: The Next Generation or some lame spinoff like that.  Disney is a company that prides itself in its ability to exploit creative properties across multiple platforms.  In other words, think beyond television. 

For one group of fans, that means "Disneyland."  They are circulating an online petition asking Disney to create a Lost theme park attraction.  It's an idea that actually makes alot of sense.  Lost is a unique fantasy/adventure with a devoted fan base that would love to experience the adventure for themselves.  But I don't think it is the type of franchise that would translate well into a thrill ride or even a traditional "dark ride."  Would a Lost fan be content to sit in a slow-moving car that passively takes you through a diorama of Dharma stations and island locales?  I don't think that would be satisfying.  The television show is full of mysteries that beg for answers, and often create more mysteries.  It's great big puzzle game.  And that's what the Disney's Lost Experience (that's as good a name as any, right?) should be.

The Disney theme parks have already been aggresively looking into ways to make their attractions more interactive.  This has resulted in new rides like Toy Story Mania! and the interactive Kim Possible quest at Epcot.  In December 2008, Disney even experimented with, well, the Muppet Experiment, an online and text message based scavenger hunt that sent participants roaming around Disney's California Adventure park.  The Kim Possible adventure and the Muppet Experiment offer the best model for what could be a truly unique Lost attraction.

Imagine entering into a mainland Dharma station, like the Lamp Post.  Or perhaps a special corporate facility run by Charles Widmore or the Hanso Foundation.  You watch a series of orientation videos explaining that, several years after the crash of Oceanic 815, you are being sent to the Island to explore its unique properties, maybe to locate a specific item that was left behind or to answer some unresolved mystery about the castaways.  You are given a unique handheld device through which Widmore or whomever your benefactor is in the storyline can maintain contact with you and which allows you to send back information (they even take a picture of you as a security measure).  You then enter a submarine, where you are given a few last minute instructions and then fall asleep (really, the sub would just blackout).  And when you exit the submarine a few moments later, you are no longer on the mainland.  You are on the Island -- a fully realized environment based on locations from the show that you can explore and interact with. 

As you follow the clues given to you on your handheld device and input the correct responses, you trigger different responses from the things around you.  Perhaps you locate a hidden Dharma station and unlock it, or maybe you activate a video greeting from Dr. Pierre Chang in the Dharma barracks.  Wandering through the jungle you may hear whispers.  Once you've solved all of the puzzles, you finally find your way to the Temple and have a close encounter with Smokey.  And strangely, as you look into Smokey, you see your own image reflected back at you (it looks alot like that security picture you took at the beginning of your journey).  Best of all, there can be multiple combinations and variations of puzzles for you to solve and things on the island for you to interact with, so it's a different experience each time. 

I don't know about you, but that sounds like a pretty great attraction to me.  It would offer a unique, immersive, interactive, and repeatable experience that would excite fans but also engage regular theme park visitors.  Hopefully, Disney could engage Cuse and Lindelof to participate in planning the attraction so that it would nicely compliment the "official" Lost storyline.  As to where it would go, I thing the most natural fit would be the Disney's Hollywood Studios park at Walt Disney World, where it would fit in thematically and where there is hopefully enough space to build the large indoor/outdoor environment that would be necessary.  "Armchair imagineering," where fans like me daydream about what ride they want to build, is usually a fruitless endeavor.  But the possibilities here are so exciting, and fit in so well with what Walt Disney Parks & Resorts is already trying to do, that it was irresistable to me to put my thoughts down.  My hope, really, is that the Imagineers are planning something even better.  Namaste!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Problem with Princesses

This past weekend, Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" collected $4.6 million at the box office, raising its total to $92.5 million.  As I previously mentioned, the movie is limping its way to the symbolic $100 million mark and is clearly not the hit Disney wanted it to be.  And yet, the movie received generally good or great reviews across the board and, in my opinion, easily earns its place alongside the traditional Disney animated classics.

So what happened?  Maybe the film simply couldn't compete with the pre-established appeal of "Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakuel."  Maybe Disney splintered its own holiday audience by releasing both this film and "Disney's A Christmas Carol."  Maybe the film was too steeped in its Louisiana setting to appeal to a broader audience.  All of these possibilities have some plausibility to them.  But then I stumbled across a theory that suggested the problem may come down to just one word:  Princess.

"Brands are for cattle."  This quote was famously attributed to the late Roy E. Disney during the height of the "SaveDisney" movment that lead to the removal of Michael Eisner as CEO of the company.  It reflected Roy's conviction that the Walt Disney Company had shifted its focus from creating high-quality family entertainment to simply trying to push the Disney brand name in order to sell more product.  If you focus on quality and creativity first, he argued, financial success will follow.  He specifically criticized the Disney Princess franchise for essentially forcing all of Disney's classic heroines into a big pink sorority.

Once upon a time, Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty weren't part of a calculated princess franchise.  They were each a part of their own unique story and film that appealed to everyone of all ages and were each a part of the great Disney family.  But in 2000, somebody got a great idea.  As stated in the company's own words, the consumer products division "brought all of Disney's beloved heroines -- Ariel, Belle, Cinderella, Jasmine, Mulan, Pocahontas, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White -- together in a comprehensive collection of fantasy-based girls' entertainment and products called the Disney Princess brand."  (Did you notice that you don't even have to be a princess to be a Disney Princess?  Just ask Mulan and Pocahontas!) 

Hitting the Target.  On the surface, it's hard to argue with the result:  $4 billion in global sales.  But is there a long term cost to this success?  Because of the aggressive and successful marketing of the Disney Princess brand, these characters -- and the movies they starred in -- are now exclusively seen as the domain of little girls under the age of about 10.  But the movies themselves are so iconic to the traditional image of Disney that now even the Disney brand is often associated with little girls, leading to Disney's perceived boy problem.  "Aladdin" was a blockbuster hit that appealed to boys and girls of all ages and to adults and parents too.  Now, it's primarily marketed as the movie with Jasmine and the magic carpet ride.

Stuck in the Swamp.  "The Princess and the Frog" is the first movie conceived from the beginning as an extension of the Disney Princess brand.  They were so aware of it's potential in this regard that they made sure to put it right in the title (the fairytale is traditionally called "The Frog Prince," after all).  This may have been the fatal flaw.  What little boy wants to go see a princess movie?  What teenager wants to?  When you only sell a princess movie, you will only get a princess audience.  This may be the best explanation for the dissappointing box office numbers.  In the short term, this calculation may pay off.  Toys and other merchandise related to the movie may sell quite well, more than justifying the cost of the movie.  But what about the long term value of "The Princess and the Frog"?  Will it endure to become a genuine Disney classic, and not simply another princess product?  Disney is at its best when it provides quality entertainment for the whole family, not aimed carefully at micro-targeted demographics.  "The Princess and the Frog" certainly qualifies, even if the suits in merchandising and marketing didn't realize it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dancing with a Dinosaur

Last week, Warner Bros. announced a new deal with Netflix under which new releases from the studio will only be available to Netflix subscribers 28 days after they've been released on DVD.  Warner Bros. hopes that by creating this exclusive window more consumers will buy the movie on DVD and Blu-ray and prop up declining home video sales.  By the way, Warner Bros. is not forcing this arrangement on any other distributor, such as Blockbuster, just Netflix. 

Netflix took the deal because in exchange for the 28-day window, Netflix gets greater access to Warner Bros.'s library of films for it's streaming service.  In other words, they're taking the long view.  They get more content that they can offer their customers via the distribution channel that's going to matter the most in the future.  They also probably understand that this arrangement will have next to zero impact on DVD sales and will be merely a minor inconvenience for its customers.  If a new Warner Bros. release isn't available, Netflix customers will simply push the new release further down the queue and watch something else instead, possibly a movie from another studio.   

Netflix has been successful because it is both affordable and convenient.  It's exactly the kind of service that can compete with copyright infringement.  Trying to resuscitate DVD sales is a fool's errand.  As Warner Bros. knows well, customers will still rush out to buy big movies that they want for their home libraries.  But rather than stubbornly cling to old business models, the studios need to embrace changing technology and accept shifting consumer demand.  Today's consumers expect movies to be available in any format they want at a reasonable price.  To their credit, the studios (including Warner Bros.) and some high-tech companies are exploring ways to do that.  But limiting the availability of your product on one of the most popular new home video formats (Netflix has over 11 million subscribers) seems like a step backwards.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2009 is Up, Up and Away.

Happy New Year and welcome to 2010.  Before 2009 becomes a distant memory, I wanted to share my thoughts on my favorite movies from the last year before such thoughts lose all relevancy.  I won't do a proper Top 10 list because I don't think I've seen enough of the year's movies (nor did I truly love enough of the movies I did see) to make such a list.

Without question, I can tell you that my two favorite movies of 2009 were "Up" and "Up In the Air."  Beyond the titular similarities, the two films are thematically linked as well, as both are fundamentally concerned with the critical importance of authentic relationships to a life worth living.  Carl Fredricksen, the focus of Pixar's "Up," re-discovers that adventure isn't found in exotic locations or fanciful quests, but in sharing life, even the simplest, most mundane aspects of life, with someone else.  After grieving the loss of his beloved wife Ellie, Carl finds that someone in Russell, a little boy in desperate need of a father figure (he also finds a stray talking dog who wants nothing more than a loving master to take care of him).  As Russell wistfully says about his memories of his absentee dad, "It's the boring stuff I miss the most."  The story is whimsical, the image of a house flying under a bundle of colorful balloons is instantly iconic, but the characters and emotions are true and powerful.  Nothing I've seen this year is as beautiful and heart-breaking as the short, wordless montage at the beginning of the film that perfectly captures Carl and Ellie's life together.

In "Up in the Air," Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney) has built his life around isolation but through a series of circumstances -- a one-night stand that becomes something more, a new coworker, a family wedding, and the lamentations of the people he has to fire for a living -- he gradually, poignantly, comprehends all that he has missed as a result of that isolation.  It is a simple film, but what it reveals about human nature is real and honest.  Relationships give meaning to life's successes and provide comfort during life's sorrows. 

Other movies that I really enjoyed this year:

"The Princess and the Frog" -- I discussed this film a few days ago, but it really is a gem.  It is a sweet, nearly note-perfect return to form for Disney animation.  I really think the animation is among the most beautiful that the studio has ever produced.  Randy Newman's songs wonderfully incorporate the rich heritage of Louisiana music -- jazz, gospel, zydeco, etc.  In fact, I am still slightly in awe of the extreme attention to detail employed to evoke the 1920s New Orleans setting.  I am still hopeful that positive word-of-mouth will sustain the film into a bona fide success.

"Star Trek" -- The more you think about the plot, the less it makes sense, but the movie is so much fun and the characters are re-created so well that it doesn't really matter.  I'm looking forward to more of these.

"The Hangover" -- It had been a few years since a movie made me laugh so hard that tears came to my eyes.  This one did.

I haven't seen "Avatar," which is a blindspot I hope to remedy soon.  And I will be posting my thoughts on my favorite films of the decade in the near future.