Finding Nemo

Nemo swims toward a boat with a determined look on his face in Finding Nemo

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim!”

Most animated feature films are adventures of some sort. We have toys trying to get back to their owner, a lion fleeing his country and then returning to save it, an ogre trying to save the homes of fairytale characters, and even embodiments of emotions trying to get through a brain to set things right emotionally. The adventure formula of having a character or group of characters set out on a quest to accomplish something is well-known and well-loved. In my opinion, though, there’s no better animated adventure than Finding Nemo. Directed by Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, A Bug’s Life) and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, Coco), this is a bit unique for an animated feature not only because it’s about fish, but also because there’s not really a villain. Most Disney and Pixar films will be a man-versus-man plot, with a principal character trying to accomplish something and an antagonist trying to stop them. This film sets the principal characters against nature and fate, which prove to be just as cruel and powerful a foe as any villain ever was. I think this helps the adventure formula, which I’ll get into below. But audiences agreed: this film surpassed The Lion King to become the highest grossing animated film of its time. It’s a great adventure film, and truly one that just about anyone in the family can enjoy.

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In the Movies, Nice Girls Finish Last

I just watched Ready Player One for the first time. Here’s a (very) loose synopsis of the plot. A young male player named Parzival competes in games for a fantastic prize. He meets Art3mis, a young female player known for being one of the best in the game, who plays for a more noble cause than Parzival. Art3mis teaches Parzival to play for a higher purpose and helps him succeed. In the end, Parzival is declared the winner and he chooses Art3mis to stand by his side.

This is an odd comparison, but the story reminded me of Harry Potter. Harry knows nothing of the wizarding world when he goes off to Hogwarts, and he meets Hermione, who is probably the smartest girl in school and is pretty much better than Harry at everything. She educates him about magic and the wizarding world and even sets him straight a few times when he begins to stray morally. In the end, Harry wins the battle against the villain Voldemort with Hermione and his friend Ron at his side.

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The Wizard of Oz

The four principle characters stand in awe of the great and powerful Oz in The Wizard of Oz

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow!”

There are a ton of kids movies out there, but there’s just something magical about The Wizard of Oz that’s endured for 80 years—and will for many more. Directed mostly by Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind) and starring Judy Garland, this film has sold so many copies and had so many television screenings that it very well might be the most watched film of all time—the Library of Congress seems to think so. I’d seen this film at least ten times, but recently had the chance to watch it with my four-year-old nephew. That’s really how this film should be viewed: as a child, or with a child. The visuals, the plot elements, and the characters all set the imagination into motion, and it’s because every part of this film was meticulously planned and executed. Though the film may be a bit campy for adults, it’s an undeniably classic film that’s not only the best of its time—it may be the best of the medium.

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The Outlaw Josey Wales

Josey Wales looks stoic with two pistols in The Outlaw Josey Wales

“Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

The Western is a genre as old as film, and for a long time it remained the same, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys who fought for good and evil. The 60s brought about a revolution in Westerns by introducing antiheroes and sympathetic villains, as in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns. By the 70s, the classic Western was mostly dead and the genre was ready to look at some new interesting characters. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, and Sondra Locke, The Outlaw Josey Wales gives us one such interesting character: an outlaw who hates a corrupt government and fights on the wrong side of history. He’s still a very sympathetic and admirable character, but had this plot been used 20 years prior, he would have been the villain. The film also featured sympathetic and respectful portrayals of Native Americans—something very rare for Westerns of the time (and something I very much appreciated, since I’m a Native American). This is far from the classic Westerns, but it’s definitely one of the best Westerns that I’ve seen.

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The Shawshank Redemption

Red and Andy in prison uniforms in The Shawshank Redemption

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy living or get busy dying.”

Redemption is a word, much like many others, that carries multiple meanings. The most common definition is an act of paying for a fault or mistake; the second most common definition is a rescue or deliverance. The Shawshank Redemption focuses on both. Written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Majestic) and starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, this aptly-named film focuses on the redemption of both of its lead characters, and there’s an amazing emotional payoff in watching this film start to finish. It doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of prison and what it does to people, and as such it can be heavy and even heartbreaking at times, but this is a powerful story that should be watched by everyone.

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A Star is Born (2018)

Ally sings as Jackson plays guitar in A Star is Born

“I think you might be a songwriter. And don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody. But I’m not very good at keeping secrets.”

Some plots are so great that they endure through generations. A Star is Born is one of those. Originally made in 1937, then remade in 1954, then remade again in 1976, then actually remade in India as Aashiqui 2 in 2013, it’s just been remade again in 2018, and it is every bit as amazing as you would expect a movie that was remade four times to be. In his directorial debut, Bradley Cooper directs and stars (and co-wrote the script), and musician Lady Gaga co-stars (not her acting debut—she’s done some television shows before). So when this film was announced, audiences had two questions: Can Lady Gaga act? Can Bradley Cooper direct? It’s hard to say after one film because a big part of the answer to both of those questions is range, but I will say that both did an amazing job with this film. The film feels raw and real, and both Cooper and Gaga put on amazing performances. Also, as a musician myself, I was quite pleased with the musical performances in this film. This is a top-notch film that will go down as one of the best remakes in history, and it’s a powerful story that’s totally deserving of all the hype it’s getting right now.

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Forbidden Planet

Commander Adams, Altaira, and Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet

“Welcome to Altair IV, gentlemen. I am to transport you to the residence. If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.”

Old, classic sci-fi films bring some very specific images to mind, and Forbidden Planet has all of them in spades. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox (I Passed for White, Three Daring Daughters) and starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen (back before he was a comedic actor!), this film has flying saucers, clunky robots, strange monsters, alien worlds, and advanced technology—everything you’d expect from a classic sci-fi. I initially sat down to watch this for a bit of classic, campy fun, but the point it eventually makes is deep and thought-provoking, and I think even more relevant today than when it was released in 1956. The old sci-fi mechanisms and tropes may seem a bit goofy to today’s audiences, but the message and entertainment factor still have a lot to offer.

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The Green Mile

Paul Edgecomb and John Coffey look at something offscreen in The Green Mile

“I just can’t see God putting a gift like that in the hands of a man who would kill a child.”

When someone mentions a movie with miracles, that usually brings to mind some very specific images: a struggling family, an overly sentimental problem, and a religious leader, for instance. The Green Mile gives us a story showing that miracles can occur anywhere—even in a prison block reserved for inmates on death row, even in the midst of senseless brutality, even among people who can’t bring themselves to believe in a god at all. This film is adapted from a Stephen King novel and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Majestic), and it stars Tom Hanks, David Morse, and Michael Clarke Duncan. This is an outstanding drama that will stick with you long after the credits roll, but be prepared: it’s quite sad at times and downright disturbing in a few spots. In the end, though, it’s totally worth it.

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Once Upon a Time in the West

Three hired guns face off against a mysterious stranger in Once Upon a Time in the West

“You don’t understand, Jill. People like that have something inside… something to do with death.”

Even after the “spaghetti” Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly established Italian director Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More) as a master of the genre, he still had a lot to offer. Once Upon a Time in the West, starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Claudia Cardinale, is another great epic Western on the same level as Leone’s previous masterpiece, and that’s no small feat. Unlike Leone’s original Dollars trilogy, which were mostly about the adventures of wandering gunslingers, this one is a revenge tale that focuses on more stable parts of civilization like a young wife and a railroad tycoon. But even with a home to go back to, there’s plenty of turmoil for the characters here. And Leone is still a master at crafting suspense and general moodiness, so this is a very entertaining Western as well.

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Let’s Talk About Mental Illness in the Movies

Screenshots from Me, Myself, and Irene; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; A Beautiful Mind; and Silver Linings Playbook

Mental illness in the movies is about as mixed a bag as you can get. Portrayals range from surprisingly accurate, as in Silver Linings Playbook, to horribly offensive, as in Me, Myself & Irene. But does it matter? Well, when you consider that an academic study showed that 90% of community college students surveyed learned about mental illness primarily through movies, yes, it makes a huge difference.

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