Toy Story Trilogy

Director: John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich

1995, 1999, 2010

“A Hollywood film franchise that heralded a new era in animation, the Toy Story trilogy irrevocably changed the cinematic landscape when the series’ first instalment arrived in the mid-1990s.” (844, Jo Taylor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) I do remember Toy Story coming out and being immediately taken with the idea that my toys had an entire life of their own when I wasn’t playing with them – it was magical in a way that only Disney Pixar could be. And I did indeed grow up with the trilogy – I’m not entirely sure how I feel about there being a fourth instalment imminent, as I really felt that the whole story arc was finished perfectly in Toy Story 3. 

Toy StoryWoody and Buzz are brilliant characters, well they all are really – I love Rex being a complete scaredy cat and that Mr Potato Head would not be out-of-place in the Bronx. Buzz is wonderfully naive in the first film, entirely convinced that he really is a space ranger which is counterbalanced by the cynicism of Woody. Tom Hanks is awesome as the self-confessed hero of the trilogy. Supposedly he provided so much improvised material during the recording of the first film that the animators are still using that material in the upcoming fourth instalment.

“And if the first two films detailed the wondrous adventures and occasional travails of infancy and youth, the third instalment tackled the bittersweet reality of growing up.” (844) Toy Story deftly set up the franchise and introduced the core group of characters and while I would have been happy to continue watching their adventures the addition of new characters in Toy Story 2 only added to the fun of watching these films. Joan Cusack as the rowdy cowgirl Jessie was a brilliant addition to the little family that Pixar had created. And Bullseye, a horse who acts like a loyal dog, is adorable. And then we get to Toy Story 3, with even more new characters, although unlike before these adorable cuddly additions are not always as good as they first appear. Mr Pricklepants is brilliant with his delusions of grandeur, ably voiced by Timothy Dalton.Toy Story 3

I think part of the joy of watching Toy Story is that there are toys in the films, even if only in the background action, that I remember playing with during my childhood, especially the chatty phone and the etch-a-sketch. The humor of Toy Story is very much two-fold which allows the franchise to grow and expand beyond being simply a children’s film. On the one hand there is the obvious humor that appeals to children and then there is the more subtle humor that will ensure the adults are equally as interested. It’s this second level of humor that allows me to continue returning to the films as I grow up and still find something new or funny each time. There are also numerous pop-culture references littering the trilogy with the most obvious one being the relationship between Buzz and Zod that echoes the iconic relationship of Luke and Darth Vader in Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)

“Two scenes heighten Toy Story 3‘s gravitas and emotional heft: the near-oblivion encounter faced by the toys when they are almost pulled into a furnace, and Andy’s realisation that he must let go of his youth and pass on his toys to a more appreciative and understanding child. It is these moments, interspersed among the usual banter and knockabout scenes, which saw the film resonate strongly among an adult audience.” (844) I remember the hype surrounding the release of the third instalment of the wonderful Toy Story series and how I thought that the reactions couldn’t possibly be as strong as they were suggesting – grown men crying in the cinema over the fate of some fictional animated toys, surely not? And then I watched it and I was beyond choked up at the two scenes mentioned by Jo Taylor above. There was a very palpable sense of peril for the toys that we had come to know and love over the length of this series that really did cause some real emotion.

“The Toy Story series realized the emotional depth that could be invested in animation, recalling earlier Disney successes, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942), and highlighted how much had been lost among the less adventurous traditional animated features of recent decades.” (844) I’m not sure I totally agree with this as the Disney films of the early 90s, Beauty and the Beast (1991, Gary Trousdale), Aladdin (1992, Ron Clements), and The Lion King (1994, Roger Allers) were very much the films of my childhood and I will always count them as my favourite Disney films, although I can recognise just how much Toy Story shaped the studio as well as the face of animated films to come. If there are any people out there who have yet to see any of the Toy Story films (and if there are then what have they been doing with themselves?!) I cannot recommend this trilogy strongly enough – you’ll laugh, and you’ll cry and you will feel incredibly attached to some wonderful toys and you’ll feel happier for it. Toy Story reinvigorated Disney and launched its sister company, Pixar resulting in some brilliant films.

And see how easily Tom Hanks can still slip into the persona of Woody in the clip below. 

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District 9

Director: Neill Blomkamp

2009

District 9District 9 is a smart political allegory that puts emotion, humour, and incredible visuals to fluid and accomplished use.” (913, Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You DieDistrict 9 was an interesting movie for me to watch, not just because the visual effects are really quite brilliant, but because it was a film that made me somewhat ashamed to be part of the human race. And now since finding out that “[t]his acclaimed science-fiction invasion thriller was inspired by events that took place in District Six, Cape Town, during apartheid.” (913) I feel even more disgusted with what people are capable of. It’s kind of a palpable feeling for me when I watched District 9 – humans do not come out well in this film. I have way more empathy for the ‘Prawns’, as the aliens are known.

“Documentary-style filmmaking gives the movie an air of authenticity that helps the audience connect on a human level with the plight of the alien population. As our hero Wikus is infected with a disease and slowly starts to turn alien himself, our empathy grows.” (913) I hope that Wikus, and his plight, resonates with some viewers. Wikus starts out as an officious government official in a relatively low level job who is given the unpleasant task of relocating, forcibly, the population of Prawns residing in District 9, and rather than see the inherent issues with this he is proud of his role and the responsibility that has been afforded him. And then it all goes wrong and Wikus begins to understand, first hand, how his close-mindedness has a direct impact on an entire race of sentient beings.

District 9 is a wonderfully subtle commentary of the fallible nature of us as humans and the seemingly ingrained distrust of anyone or thing that looks different to us. I definitely came away from watching District 9 with a renewed sense of how important it is to look past any surface differences and try and see things from every side before coming to any sort of conclusion. The only criticism I have of District 9 is that it is much too long for the story it is telling. However I would definitely suggest watching it.

Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle

2014

“The pouring sweat, dripping blood, and relentless emotional battering of Whiplash’s gladiatorial combat takes place in an esteemed New York music academy.” (941, Leigh Singer, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) There was such hype surrounding Whiplash that I eagerly went out and watched the film … and was actually pretty disappointed. There is no denying that the drumming is intense and at times pretty insane but other than that not much really actually happens. It turns out that I like a narrative that actually progresses and has something to say. This doesn’t do that and feels much more like a character study rather than a narrative. The film is wonderfully lit in warm colours which are actually at odds with J. K. Simmons’ performance as Fletcher – he is anything but a warm or nurturing character.

tn_gnp_et_1011_whiplash“Though Fletcher convinces Andrew of his warped Darwinism, Chapelle isn’t so easily swayed, laying bare both men’s macho arrogance and power games. He’s rewarded with two standout performances. Simmons’ sadistic Fletcher is a career peak for this consistently fine character actor. He’s matched beat for beat by Teller, regularly performing his own drumming.” (941) J. K. Simmons is one of those actors that you know you’ve seen in loads of films but can’t always place him when asked what he’s been in. There’s not really anything liable about him in this film. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to say that at times his approach towards his students could amount to abuse – a thread picked up in the narrative (such that it is) of the film. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant person and in my opinion the worst sort of teacher there is, but that doesn’t stop his performance from being magnetic.

Miles Teller is quickly rising in my estimation of him. From playing the rather vile Peter in the Divergent series to Mr Fantastic himself, Reed Richards, in the unneeded reboot of the Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015) Teller is fast becoming one of those actors that will capture and hold my attention in anything he is in. There is a scene in this which must have taken some guts to film having read about how he got the noticeable scars on his face so kudos to him for giving it his all. And the fact that he did the vast majority of the drumming himself just makes his performance all the more visceral to watch.

“With a cinematic crescendo, Whiplash exploits jazz drumming the way Raging Bull (1980) did boxing: as an arena to viscerally explore and explode male vanity, insecurity, and obsession.” (941) It may be because I’m a girl, though as a girl I’m loathe to say that, but I just didn’t get this film. Yeah the drumming is incredible but really why go through all that pain, both physical and emotional, for someone who doesn’t respect you. In the end, for me, it just didn’t live up to the hype, sadly.

Roman Holiday

Director: William Wyler

1953

As I may have mentioned before I tend to have something against things that are considered classics. It doesn’t matter what medium it is, books (Jane Austen – turgid romance), music (The Beatles and Elvis – both vastly overrated), film (Citizen Kane – don’t even get me started on this rant, it’s in the book so it is on the cards), or even iconic people (John Lennon – nobody can be that pure and good its just nauseating), you can pretty much guarantee that I will either take an extreme dislike to it or out and out despise it. This seems to be the case with Audrey Hepburn I’m afraid. I’m not disputing that she was a beautiful woman because she really was stunning (throughout her life, not just her time in front of the camera as Hollywood royalty) but for me she just doesn’t really inspire me in the same way that she seems to for others when it comes to her films. Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) was a perfectly pleasant film but was not life changing like so many people imply it has been for them. The same can be said for Roman Holiday.

As Joshua Klein says, “Roman Holiday itself actually presents the flip side to the Cinderella fable.” (282, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Hepburn’s Princess Ann escapes her ever constant minders and goes off to explore the city where she meets and, consequently, falls in love with Gregory Peck’s American journalist – all to no avail due to their relative positions in life making the relationship completely untenable. It’s a simple little movie with some glorious scenery thanks to Wyler shooting on location in Rome and it was a great way to spend a miserable winter’s afternoon but it’s not an essential part of my movie collection by any means.Roman_Holiday_1

“Peck and Hepburn are excellent as the two mismatched lovers, and Eddie Albert is perfect as Peck’s eager tagalong cameraman.” (282) I’m not sure I would necessarily agree with Klein’s opinion here, although Eddie Albert is memorable as the cameraman and provided a number of laughs. I just think rather a lot of credence has been given to both Peck and Hepburn as the film becomes older. There’s almost a sense of rose-tinted glasses when it comes to Audrey Hepburn, especially. By all means however watch Roman Holiday – it was a lovely film and the footage of Rome is fantastic and certainly made me want to visit. I can’t say that I’m any more enamoured of Hepburn than I was before and my favourite of her roles will continue to be as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964)

“She’d be cast as the ingenue many more times over in her career, but it was this film that officially and auspiciously marked her arrival.” (282)

Psycho

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

1960

“One of the most famous movies of all time, and quite possibly the most influential horror film in history, Psycho traded the supernatural beings of the genre’s past – vampires, werewolves, zombies, and the like – for an all-too-human monster. The film made “Norman Bates” a household name and guaranteed its director’s status as the master of suspense.” (374, Steven Jay Schneider, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Psycho was one of those films that I grew up knowing about – I mean how could you not know about the now infamous shower scene? And there’s definitely been a time or two when we’ve all nervously throw the shower curtain back to check it’s clear thanks to this film and the many inspired by it. But it was one that until recently I had not ever watched all the way through. The biggest surprise for me was that the iconic scene takes place really rather early on in the film – I was kind of like right well what happens now then? 03-psycho-screen“Never before had the central character of a commercial movie been killed off so brutally less than halfway through the film.” (374) As it turns out – a lot more unfortunate victims of the deranged Norman Bates – although for me none of them really stood out quite as much as Bates.

And speaking of Norman Bates what makes him so wonderfully scary is the fact that he is by every outward appearance a rather handsome and charming young man. tumblr_inline_n6booaMFG71rufn0nThe same cannot be said for his inner personality. Anthony Perkins is exquisite as the seemingly normal but really very disturbed leading man – which I would argue he certainly begins the film as, even if he doesn’t end up in that role as the film culminates. I found Janet Leigh to be slightly forgettable really with the exception of that scene – we all know which one I’m talking about right?! But then really she isn’t actually in the film for that long thanks to Hitchcock’s decision to time the murder when he did.

It was kind of strange watching the film as a whole because I had previously seen a number of clips of it, either in various programmes extolling the genius of Alfred Hitchcock (something I have to confess I am still sitting on the fence about I’m afraid to say!) or as part of my degree. You can of course see innumerable echoes of films that have followed Psycho in almost every single aspect from the soundtrack to the lighting, even to the creepy characters. While monster movies are great – don’t get me wrong I love a good vampire movie (and I do mean good – none of this sparkly Twilight crap!!) I have always found horror films where the ‘monster’ is a regular joe and could be the person standing next to you or living in your house to be far more terrifying. And the slew of excellent movies that scare the living daylights out of me thanks to their normal guy killer all stem from this film.

Not only did Hitchcock establish so many of the visual cues of the horror genre but he also capitalised on the power the soundtrack can have to the genre with that shrieking musical cue for the shower scene. Horror films are infinitely more terrifying when you have the soundtrack and in some ways the music added in post-production can make or break a scary movie. All the films that really left a mark on me after watching them have had some  very tense musical scores. The legacy of Hitchcock’s visual cues should not be sniffed at either as I have recently be watching Pretty Little Liars and they basically recreated one of the final scenes of Norman Bates in the police cell. It’s a simple thing and a very subtle nod towards the godfather of suspense that I’m not sure many people would actually catch. anthony-perkins-as-norman-bates-in-psycho

“Clearly this British-born filmmaker had found a way of tapping directly into America’s collective psyche: by making his monster so very normal, and by uniting sex, madness, and murder in one spooky and sordid tale, he effectively predicted the headlines of many of the coming decade’s top news stories.” (374)

There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

2007

While IMDB classes There Will Be Blood as a drama it very much had the feel of a Western to me and as you all know that spells disaster for me. Add to that Daniel Day-Lewis as the protagonist and the film basically became a write off in my opinion. I’m by no stretch of the imagination a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s often lauded as one of the great actors of Hollywood, largely due to his ability to completely lose himself in any character he deigns to portray, but I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Indeed I saw a lot of echoes (or should I say foreshadowings as this film predates his latest Oscar-winning performance in Lincoln, 2012, Steven Spielberg) of Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln in the character of Plainview. And I wasn’t overly enamoured of either performance. “The notoriously selective and methodical Daniel Day-Lewis gives an indelible performance as antihero Daniel Plainview – who turns nature’s resources into his own bounty, regardless of the cost to him and the world.” (909, Jonathan Penner, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

There Will Be BloodGiven that the oil business is a highly competitive one, especially at the turn of the century during it’s infancy, not a lot really happens in the film. There are of course a couple of fairly awful accidents that serve the double purpose of being visually exciting and moving the story on. The first accident serves to establish Plainview and his character. Let me tell you it’s not a positive introduction in my view. While some may view Plainview’s adoption of the child orphaned as a result of the accident as a noble act, one undertaken out of a sense of guilt at having been the foreman/owner of the mine at the time I see it completely differently. He does not adopt that child out of the goodness of his heart but rather as a calculated move. He doesn’t see this child as the vulnerable thing it is but rather a tool to use to aid his own agenda.

I suppose you could argue that my view is somewhat of a strong one in light of Plainview’s reaction to the second accident and I do believe that by that point he will have formed some attachment to poor HW. However once the extent of the damage to HW becomes obvious he is quickly shipped off. And while it is for his best, as he learns to live with the ramifications of the accident, when he returns Plainview has little time for him.

Like I said not very much happens although I suppose you could argue that the film is less about any narrative but rather the decline of Plainview. And yet he doesn’t seem to be an overly greedy person. He is definitely a master at manipulating people to get them to part with things at a much reduced cost with no promise of any profit but it’s only at the tail end of the film do you see any sort of material wealth that Plainview has amassed over the years.

I’m going to confess that it did take me a while to work out that Paul Dano was playing twins although both performances were, as usual, filled with a quiet power that I’ve come to expect from Dano.

Penner says that “There Will Be Blood, his excoriating study of greed – and the both constructive and destructive powers of competitiveness and ambition – is a stunning achievement by the still-young writer-director.” (909) And yet the only bit of the film that really captured any of my attention was the few scenes involving ASL (American Sign Language) as that particular means of communication absolutely fascinates me. Aside from that I found the film somewhat anticlimactic and overly drawn out – to the point that I don’t think I could actually tell you what happened at the end of the film is you asked me to!

Winchester ’73

Director:Anthony Mann

1950

 To say I’m not a fan of the Western genre is a gross understatement. In fact it is the one genre that I struggle to watch – it always feels like a chore to watch a Western. Even Michael Fassbender could not keep me interested in a Western (Slow West, 2015, John Maclean), which if you knew me and how much I love Fassbender gives you some indication how insufferable I find the genre. As such it’s always with some trepidation that I approach a Western in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (and lord knows there’s a lot of them in there!!) I know, I know, I should go into every film with an open mind and no preconceptions but I just can’t seem to do that with Westerns.

“The Westerns these two men made together are unusually bitter and starkly beautiful, with fascinating overtones of moral uncertainty.” (249, Ethan de Seife, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Despite this rant Winchester ’73 wasn’t quite as insufferable as the other films in this genre I have watched for this blog. For one thing it was relatively short, coming in at just over 90 minutes. But more importantly there was some sense of an actual plot and very little brooding or posturing. And probably my favourite aspect was that while there was a damsel, as expected, she wasn’t so much in distress. In fact she was more than capable of looking after herself which in my opinion is a much better representation of women in that time. After all the Wild West was a tough place and living there couldn’t have been easy – sissy pampered prima donnas wouldn’t have survived in that period – no problem for Shelley Winters’ Lola. “The cast is extremely strong. Shelley Winters is excellent, and the supporting players include such versatile character actors as Millard Mitchell, Stephen McNally, Will Geer, and the incomparable Dan Duryea.” (249)

Winchester '73James Stewart is charismatic as Lin McAdams, who is very clearly the ‘White Hat’ or hero of this piece. He is quietly commanding without becoming dull and brooding like so many other leading men in Westerns. “His character, Lin McAdams, is an unusual hero – somewhat tentative, even if he is the film’s moral center.” (249)

IMDB gives the following synopsis for Winchester ’73 : “The journey of a prized rifle from one ill-fated owner to another parallels a cowboy’s search for a murderous fugitive” and it sums up the narrative kind of perfectly. The much desired rifle, the titular Winchester ’73, is really the driving force for the narrative, going through numerous owners, while Lin’s hunt for a dangerous fugitive (or Black Hat) takes a backseat for the majority of the film before taking the lead during the film’s climax.

There was remarkably little melodrama which made the film so much more enjoyable for me – that and the lack of painfully obvious, and thus frustrating, musical cues of themes. All in all while I can’t say honestly that I will watch Winchester ’73 again it turned out to be the most engaging Western I have watched for this blog. Maybe I’ll even give Slow West another go on the back of this experience.