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Blu-ray/DVD Review: McFarland USA
Blog, Reviews, Movies, Music
Posted on Jun 15 2015 by Greg


Every year or so, there seems to be a new movie about a rag-tag group of unlikely people who are thrown together by circumstances with a mentor who sees potential in them and organizes them into a socko team that beats the smirking, overconfident opponents.

McFarland USA delivers on that cliché, but this time the mentor is a white bread coach who apparently was fired and sent with his family to his last-chance position in a Latino neighborhood. Apparently much of this was fictionalized but the overall spirit of joining into a community of seemingly disparate friends is true. The real life Jim White, who appears in a bonus feature, is very happy with the film (and how many real life people are pleased with how their lives were fictionalized?)

And therein is the reason for this movie's merit. It's about the young runners, but it's also about their families and friends, sharing cultural traditions with nary an ounce of disdain. If this comes across as too much of a Disney fable, and maybe it is, the up side is that there enough positive messages out there for young people to watch.

Kevin Costner is at his minimalist, Gary Cooper best in the role of father to his family and fish-out-of-water leader to young people with whom he seems, at first, to have little in common.



Though there is no audio commentary, which would have added tremendously, there are a few nice little extras, the best being a reunion between the real students, now grown and largely successful.

These small independent Disney films are a stark (forgive the Marvel pun) contrast to the superspectacular tentpole films of today. Though films are fine, too, but there is room for simple stories about ordinary people.



Walt Disney Records has also released a soundtrack CD of Antonio Pinto's unique score for the film.








Blu-ray/DVD Review : Maya the Bee Movie
Blog, Reviews, Movies
Posted on Jun 09 2015 by Greg


Blu-ray Review: MAYA THE BEE

It’s too easy to simply dismiss a feature like this with an offhand, “Well, the kids seemed to like it, but I read a book.” That may be completely true, as Maya the Bee Movie is virtually free of deconstructive humor, ironic asides and sideways glances at the grownups. This is not Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie.

 

It doesn’t try to be. Maya is in the category of the Tinker Bell movies, with a feisty, independent youngster who questions the unquestioned and bucks the system, much to the disgust of the Jafar-like Miss Buzzina—a bigoted bee with her eyes on the queen’s crown. Somehow she sees Maya’s innocent antics and guileless honesty a threat, so she wastes no time banishing the tot from the hive. Maya and her best friend bee, Willie, find adventure in the “Meadowlands”, where dangers threaten.

 

The cheery proceedings stay consistent throughout, with nary a dark spot. When the supposed monster Gorgo is described, the film gets a teeny bit moody for a few seconds. The gags and language of the film stay away from naughty words and poop jokes with only a few exceptions: on bee says “Full of…” and another bee quiets him with a “Shhhh! And a dung beetle provides a chunk of foul smelling frolic.

 

However, the film is by and large a slam dunk for 3 to 5 year olds with their parents and caregivers. Every adventure is more fun than hazardous. Maya rarely lets any creature intimidate her. The setting is all done in primary colors as flowers galore appear in every direction. It’s a pretty movie, and while one might assume it’s just for girls, Maya has several male friends of equal virtue and spunk.

 

The background score is quite pleasant, matching up nicely with the colorful vistas. There are only two songs; one that Flip the Grasshopper sings at the ball, and a pop tune over the credits. That’s odd because this is such a song-type film, but maybe the absence of cute songs is a way of de-cutiefying the proceedings. The British accents also help take out a little adorability and add more gravitas (if that word can even be applied to this film).

 

9-year-old Coco Jack Gilles brings a sincere, non-cloying tone to the voice of Maya. Her character is sort of like “Boo” from Monsters, Inc. if she were a few years older. Best friend Willie resembles UPA’s Gerald McBoing-Boing a bit.


 

The Blu-ray/DVD extras are sparse, mostly repurposed promo spots and interstitials. This is becoming common on home video, likely due to the ever increasing expenses and the ever diminishing returns.

 

If “Maya the Bee” seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the character has been around a very long time – over 100 years, in fact. Lots of adaptations have buzzed around, including an anime version widely seen on Nickelodeon some decades back. This film was based on a series as well. You can’t keep a good bee down.








MAD MEN's Final Episode: The tone arm lifts off the record...
Blog, Reviews, TV, Music
Posted on May 18 2015 by Greg


While I still reacted to the last scene of Don with a "Wha--?" it somehow made sense. Like the entire series -- and like life, like art -- it's ambiguous and open to interpretation. You almost don't want to have a solid answer with Don, just with everyone else.

 

If I regress to my college film analysis days (and just I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here) Don's whole existence was advertising, marketing and especially branding. People compare Jon Hamm ("I am Hamm") to Cary Grant, who was a self-created brand of suave sophistication, reborn from a life of squalid poverty as Archie Leach.

 

Many actors, politicians and other famous people are brand. We live in a brand society that advertising taught us. We send it and we receive it.

 

Hillary Clinton is refining her brand. Eventually Miley Cyrus will put her pants back on and be a serious artist who laughs at her past silliness but is proud of it. In twenty years she'll be singing jazz with Tony Bennett on the New Year's TV special. Madonna made marketing and branding an art form and career path.

 

That's Don Draper. "Hey hey we are the Monkees/And we are here to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies."


Whether Don went back and created the commercial, or called Peggy to give the idea to her, all of it is possible. But on a college-class "read stuff into it" "What words can you see in the ice cubes" sense, Don was advertising in human form and he literally faded into a commercial. A very successful one. The only commercial to generate such a big hit song and cultural anthem.

 

Don found peace, he found way for people to need him -- that's what made him ultimately break down -- no one really needed him (just like a bottle of Coke or a Coke commercial, which we want but don't need).

 

Pithy. Lots of pith. But my favorite aspect of the ending was that the last voice you heard was that of Ron Dante of The Archies, one of the most successful jingle singers ever, who fronted a band that did not exist yet had the number one hit of 1969. Am I digging too deep to connect Ron Dante literally to the ending? Maybe. But he's an icon of the '60s and of advertising.

 


And his real name is Carmine Granito.


• Yes, Sally deserved more. Yet she emerged as the solid rock of the family, such as it was. Betty was smoking her life away, dying the way she wanted, and there's Sally doing what needs to be done, canceling her trip, being the adult her parents were not. You're right, no need to worry about Sally or anyone lucky enough to be in her life.

 

• The show ended, but life goes on. The endings (or new beginnings) for each group of characters were not fairy tales in the literal sense, because there would be troubles ahead, along with a fulfillment none of them had before. A satisfying close for a series should offer its viewers some closure.

 

• I felt that Elisabeth Moss's phone scene was thankless and must have been hard to write. They only partially succeeded. When Stan declared himself, it was something he might have done at any point in the show. In Peggy's case, having her transform from angry to Lollipops and Roses was not fair to the actress. I don't think Meryl Streep could have made it any more believable, but she should not have been put in that performance position. It was like Jan getting a date on the phone with the boy she thought didn't know she was alive.

 

• Joan. Yes, she has deserved to run the place since she took over media and made it hum, only to have to train a bozo to do it and go back to her desk. I've been there -- a lot. No question of her success. Like Marlo Thomas or Gloria Steinem and heading right into the decade where she can rock, or at least, start to rock.

 

• Roger and bat-crazy mama – Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in Gigi. A match made in Dewar's. I guessed he was going to die after he played the creepy organ (why was that in the office?), but he's gonna go out, as my dad used to say, "Spoo-ja-dooin'". Don doesn't know who he is, Roger knows himself too well.

 

• Very glad Ken was a catalyst for Joan (and maybe Peggy in the future) after his scene where he was being "spoo-ja-dooed" by Roger and his "friends" after the merger. (I've been there too.) He was forbidden to write books on his own time, mostly because he was so good at it but it wasn't "his place". His talent was slowly marginalized by those who had no real reason to beyond their own insecurity. (Hmmm?) Ken was one of the few who had matured and realized things about life that the others either found out too late or just recently.

 

• Don wanted to be needed by someone and did, in his way, try to help people, over the course of the series. He mentored Peggy, most of all. When he hugged "chair guy", he finally have someone something only he could give, as he was looking at a mirror of himself. Back to college analysis: Matthew Weiner resembles Chair Guy and I have a feeling Weiner was baring his soul completely in that scene. Don, who is Weiner's alter ego (one of them), is everything that, on the surface, Weiner is not, yet the two connected as one and the same.

 

It's not money, it's not fame, not power, success. Those can be nice within perspective (from what I hear). It's really about finding out who you are, how you can gain contentment with what you're doing (or changing it), seeking balance, connecting with others in a deeper way, and things like that there (I'm getting 'way too pretentious now. Sorry.)

 

I still miss Suzanne Pleshette.






BLU-RAY REVIEW: Into the Woods
Blog, Movies, Music
Posted on Apr 21 2015 by Greg


Gene Kelly was once asked why musicals were no longer a staple of modern movies and he said something to the effect that “no one knows how to make them anymore.” (This was a short time after he appeared in Xanadu. Today, only a precious few know how to do it: the producers and director of Into the Woods.

 

This is as close as any contemporary movie has come to making a musical that most audiences can see—the caveat being that Into the Woods is a mature twist on fairy tale characters and not for the purist or the very young. Disney toned down the sequences with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf as well as the Baker’s Wife and Prince Charming to the point that things are very obtuse.

 

That all said, Into the Woods has a lot of comedy, one of Sondheim’s most melodic scores and a brisk pace (kudos to director Rob Marshall for that). And to be fair to the subject matter, one can watch the network series Once Upon a Time and see the evil Queen pulling hearts out of her victims and a naked-under-the-sheets Show White and Prince Charming interrupted in the middle of, as my dad used to call it, “spoo-ja-doo,” only to exuberantly resume after their company leaves.

 

A lot of attention has been awarded to the biggest stars of the film, so let’s focus on others who also deliver remarkable performances—no mean feat in a musical film, especially one with the challenging music and lyric structure of Sondheim.


James Corden is the emotional center of the film and the character with whom the audience most connects; Christine Baranski makes every syllable and gesture count as always as one of the big screen’s best evil Stepmothers and Tracey Ullmann brings superb comic timing to a somewhat thankless role (she and Baranski could have played any number of roles in this musical). As one of the stepsisters, the astonishing Tammy Blanchard makes one forget she also played Karen Carpenter and Judy Garland. Even Hagrid’s girlfriend turns up as the Giant’s Wife.

 

Once again, a modestly-budgeted movie proves that less money and tight time frames (and less indulegence) can result in fine, profitable films. The art direction and costuming has a painterly quality, very much as if it came from an Arthur Rackham book.

 

What Into the Woods is not is cozy and comfy. Yes, there are songs like “No One is Alone” that offer solace and reassurance, it’s almost an anti-fairy tale in the familiar sense (the original fairy tales were quite dark). Many, many messages flow out of the lyrics: “Life can be unpleasant you should know,” “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” and “Nice doesn’t always mean good.”


 

The Blu-ray contains an audio commentary (thank you!) and several interesting behind-the-scenes vignettes, making this a fine package, especially when combined with the deluxe edition of the soundtrack (with all the songs and music).








DVD REVIEW: Paddington Bear Collectors Edition
Blog, Reviews, TV
Posted on Feb 13 2015 by Greg


With the popularity of Paddington in movie theaters, Mill Creek must have struck gold by releasing this DVD set of the little bear's two fine TV series set. The good news is that great value with excellent content.

The complete 1975 stop-motion British animated TV series is presented, along with three specials. It was produced by Filmfair, which also made the clever short cartoon series, "Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings" that you may remember as a Captain Kangaroo cartoon segment or a Saturday Night Live spoof with Mike Myers.


Each of the 56 episodes of this series runs about five minutes and is unique in that Paddington and his immediate props are three-dimensional puppets while the other characters are "replacement animation" cutouts that had been draws in various poses, then cut out, positioned and replaced for each of its movements, which are minimal. The background all have a papery hand-drawn look as well, very much as if the book has come to life.

While these are very low-budget cartoons and the catchy theme music tends to become overused, they're not short on charm. The short length allows for very simple stories that are very faithful to the books but not necessarily word-for-word adaptations. Legendary British actor Michael Hordern (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Slipper and the Rose) is perfection as the narrator.

The three specials are about 20-25 minutes each. The highlight -- and reason alone to check out this set -- is the first special, Paddington Goes to the Movies, in which the little bear duplicates Gene Kelly's dance from "Singin' in the Rain" as the soundtrack plays!



The third disc contains 13 episodes from the 2008 Canadian/ French cel-animated series, previously aired on PBS and various cable channels. This series is more contemporary than the earlier one, with light jazz music that includes a larger variety of themes and several amusing songs. Each half hour show contains two segments that take several of Michael Bond's stories and expand upon them. Perhaps not as traditional at the 1975 series, this version is more akin to what currently runs on TV for young children.



This is a wonderful way to gear up for the day when the recent hit movie hits the store shelves.









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