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Posted on Jun 02 2011 by Greg
Baby boomers will get the reference in the title -- couldn't resist it. Ah, if only I Am Number One were even close to the original series, The Prisoner. Alas, it's not to be, but that's not to say that this film is a total loss if you're looking for a date movie or a Saturday afternoon popcorn-cruncher.

In a blend of the displaced but hunky alien of Starman with the telekinetic oomph of the Witch Mountain movies on steroids and the prerequisite serious teenage heaviness of Twilight and certain Life with Archie comics, I Am Number Four strives to launch a series by setting up a teen magazine contender as a haunted yet stalwart hero searching for truth, justice and a lovely young lady. Sound derivative? If you saw Disturbia and Rear Window, the similarity cannot be denied, though Shia LeBeouf's performance often transcends the material in the earlier film helmed by the same director, D.J. Caruso.

Alex Pettyfer will no doubt flutter many a teeny bopper's heart but he tends to speak in a brooding monotone without much facial expression. Understated would be a kind way to describe his performance. He was being directed, so we can't be sure if these were all his choices, since he seems so have more personality in the bloopers.

Teresa Palmer plays the Lara Croft-type super catsuit lady -- a modern-day movie and TV action icon, by the way, that was really created in 1962 by Honor Blackman on TV's The Avengers and perfected by Diana Rigg, who replaced her on the same series in 1965. Dianna Agron is earnest as the object of Pettyfer's affection, but resembles Palmer to the point where you're not sure who's doing what until you sort out the characters (and hear Palmer's Aussie accent).

Best aspects: Timothy Olyphant's standout performance, bringing depth to his character, excellent special effects and some really creepy, easy-to-loathe villains (whose sadistic cruelty makes this a little too strong for younger viewers).

No commentary on the bonus features, but there is a set of bloopers and a short feature focusing on the lovely Ms. Palmer.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jun 01 2011 by Greg
It's certainly a novel concept, despite the fact that Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has been retold in almost every form, from West Side Story to The Flintstones. In the case of Gnomeo and Juliet, the story becomes one of lawn gnomes, the "red" and "blue" groups who live next door to each other in a British suburb.

Lawn gnomes and gardening are popular in the U.S. to be sure, but their is a significant passion and pride in gardens that is decidedly English. That doesn't mean Americans won't "get it;" and as a matter of fact, the film was a surprise box office hit domestically. Just pointing out that the tone, comedy and the cast is predominately English, which suits Anglophiles like me just fine.

It's a very funny film, not so much an animated film in the Disney Cinderella sense than in the Disney Jungle Book sense -- a collection of funny set pieces arranged around a simple storyline with some tender moments here and there. The film was released under the Touchstone banner rather than Disney, perhaps because it doesn't follow the Disney mold in general and contains a few naughty bits, like the one gnome who runs around in a Borat-like swimsuit.

Overall, it's a charming, witty romp, beautifully designed and executed (though I kind of liked the second alternate ending better than the one that was used).

The voice cast is excellent, but the stars are really the Elton John/Bernie Taupin hits that complement the story, including two superb new songs (John himself appears in a bonus feature). The songs don't seem clumsily shoehorned into the story as an excuse to use them; they fit remarkably well.

Sir Elton was reportedly miffed that the film was not given what he perceived as sufficient support, yet it did quite well anyway. I can't help wondering how much more of a sensation it would have been had it been released shortly after The Lion King, which would have capitalized on the new renown for Elton John and when his music catalog was at the perfect age for nostalgia and the fascination each generation has with whatever was popular two decades before it).

Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 14 2011 by Greg
So says John Lasseter in one of the many bonus features on the Tron and Tron:Legacy five-disc combo set, containing a Blu-ray and DVD each of 1982's Tron and the recent Tron: Legacy, plus a digital download disc of the latter. (You can also get each film separately, but why unless you have the earlier DVD and don't want Blu-ray?)

Lasseter's quote comes from what are billed as the "original DVD features" that were included in the much-sought-after first DVD release of the original Tron, which Disney did not reissue until now. Turning away what might have been a great amount of profit, the studio withheld the original film from reissue when the new film premiered, reportedly to avoid what might have been assumed as technical comparisons from the 1982 movie to the shiny new 2010 one.

They needn't have worried much, but it didn't seem to matter in the long run, because today both films are among the best sellers in the DVD market. And even though they don't compare well when judged primarily by special effects standards, they actually both stand together better than expected.

Steven Lisberger's Tron is still one of the most unique films to come from Disney or any other studio, now as well as then. There is simply nothing exactly like it, including Tron: Legacy, which is undeniably a tribute in its basic look, but also resembles a good many current big-screen special effects extravaganzas.

There's no way that modern filmmakers would replicate what is very much a product of its era in scope and resources, and Tron: Legacy is lightyears beyond its predecessor in astonishing visuals. And like the original, the sheer, overwhelming proponderance of eye-filling sights leave little room for characters, though both tried valiantly. Tron: Legacy has the lion's share of labor, having to survive comparisons to its predecessor and reconcile two storylines, all the while relaunching a franchise that has been like shining gold in a locked treasure chest for decades.

On the third point, Tron: Legacy succeeds extremely well. Like Star Trek, which transformed from a canceled network series with high ambitions and vision that transcended its limited sets and effects and built on itself through new incarnations, Tron was a great idea that occurred before the medium could handle it and even Disney didn't know what to really do with it for almost three decades -- though perhaps now has come into its own.

The key was to catapult the franchise, and Tron: Legacy hit the mark. The animated version previewed on the disc is just one piece of the pie; a high-tech dance party called ElecTronica at Disney's California Adventure Park is another; and apparently the merchandise is already doing well

Bruce Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges appear in both films, a plus for fans, though clearly many enthusiasts do miss Cindy Morgan (who appears on the earlier bonus features). Rather than relying on star power to sell the new film (and jeopardize sequels with high contractual demands), Disney wisely gave Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde a high-profile showcase. Wilde -- who has already distinguished herself superbly on TV's House, is especially impressive -- she is a scifi icon in the making, along the lines with Star Trek: The Next Generation's Seven of Nine.

What's especially fascinating about Tron, though, is the road entertainment and effects took between the two films, which can be traced on the bonus features (though the earlier Tron DVD set did have a few more, so keep your old one if you have it). It was an influential film that inspired countless viewers, especially those within the film and video industry.

Both films make good use of the clarity of Blu-ray. The only missing feature is a new commentary track. But we can still hear the comments on the original film by Lisberger himself, who seems to have been welcomed into the new production by the new creative team.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 28 2011 by Greg
Rumors of the end of the Disney Princess movies, to paraphrase Mark Twain, "have been highly exaggerated." Tangled proved it by being a huge theatrical hit. Part fairy tale, part musical, part romantic comedy, somehow it all came together despite a long, difficult history of behind-the-scenes changes and rearranges, including giving the film a "hip" title instead of Rapunzel (or as it was known in an earlier incarnation, Rapunzel Unbraided).

When the Tangled trailers originally aired, I was apprehensive because of the title change and the skewed trailers with their blaring pop music tracks. Would it be a spoofy, Shrek-y send up? Would Rapunzel herself be the tough-talking "today" lady so common in recent animation? Would it end with a boogie dancing '80s top-40 chestnut?

I needn't have been concerned. Tangled turns out to be a Disney fairy tale in the classic sense that straddles the difficult line between "straight" storytelling, screwball comedy, romance and yes, even a little suspense -- because, like Cinderella, we know it's all going to be fine but we want to see how it works out.

And speaking of Cinderella, there has never been a Disney animated film with a more complicated villain than Mother Gothel since the Stepmother in Walt Disney's Cinderella (Cruella and Madame Medusa are close contenders). The evil is all about psychological abuse, the manipulation of a person into submission that is so effective that the victim is compelled to sustain it, even though they yearn for more.

How many of us have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, a situation in which we are led to believe that we're "lucky to be here" or "better off than the alternative" by a person or a group who knows your true worth but conceals it by convincing you you're not capable otherwise? Who hasn't had the boss/parent/partner/friend who criticized you so much you started to believe you really were worthless? I was astounded to see this complex dynamic dealt with in a Disney animated film.

Both Rapunzel and Flynn have self-doubt but they trod on anyway. They didn't start out contemptuously loathing each other the way couples do in way too many films nowadays, either. Their character arcs were the most plausible we'd seen since Beauty and the Beast.

The Alan Menken/Glenn Slater songs were not tossed in at random just to fill up an album or make a great theme park number (though they probably would), but because they had a crucial book requirement. They all served the story -- and I've Got a Dream" was the funniest number since "Gaston."

Often when the story was just about to approach a cliché, there was a gag or twist that punctured it. And the horse -- Maximus -- stole every scene.

Animation-wise, there was a hand-drawn quality to the expressions that I don't recall in most CG films, especially in the more human-styled characters. In his commentary on Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich said there had been huge strides in CG humans and clearly both films were able to benefit.

Tangled didn't make me get all misty eyed the way that Toy Story 3 did, but it was, in tone, more of a grand epic romp overall. I liked it much more than I thought I would. My wife and kids loved it, too.

The Tangled Blu-ray is truly dazzling, making full use of meticulous detail, design and color. The DVD does not contain as many bonus features as the Blu-ray, but there aren't all that many overall anyway. One highlight is a segment in which lead voice actors Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi breeze through a lighthearted trivia trek which includes a quick rundown of all 50 Disney animated features (a list that has, historically, changed a little bit over the years). Sure wish there was an audio commentary, though.

There seemed to be no doubt that Mandy Moore was a perfect fit for the singing and acting duties of playing a Disney princess. The surprise is Levi, who has far more range than he often is allowed to display on TV. Clearly he has more stage experience than the unpretentious persona evidenced in various appearances. He even has a decent singing voice.

Like Mickey Mouse, who started it all, the fairy tale is the heart of Disney storytelling. They can and should stretch and go outside the box but they should never totally abandon the core form. Nobody does it better. Makes me feel sad for the rest...(somebody stop me!)

Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 16 2011 by Greg
For those of us who cherish the films of Studio Ghibli and especially the master animator Hayao Miyazaki, it's always something of an event when a new film comes out. Tales from Earthsea is such an event, though it's actually the first film directed by his son, Goro, but according to the brief special feature doc, the Ursula LeGuin fantasy book and short story series was long envisioned by the senior Miyazaki as an animation project -- with Ms. LeGuin very much in favor of the full Ghibli treatment for her creation.

And that it does. Tales from Earthsea is a grand epic fantasy with astonishing design and scope. Though cel animated, CG is also used to enhanced the movement over ground surfaces, for depth and other imagery that would be more cumbersome (if possible) to be done by hand. It must be made clear that the CG serves the 2D animation rather than overwhelm it, much as it did in Beauty and the Beast and The Great Mouse Detective, only on a much bigger scale.

I'm no expert on the Earthsea stories, but from what I can estimate from various synopses, this film takes several characters and situations and crafts its own cohesive storyline, avoiding the intense intermingling of characters and arcs that weave throughout the LeGuin works. Overall, the film stands on its own, though we are left with a few loose ends here and there.

Few movies have the layered intelligence of Tales from Earthsea, with its musings on life, death and human existence within a very engrossing story about a youth who starts out on the run because of a murder he can't explain. He's mentored by an elder wizard and do some farming as well engage in as swashbuckling action...well you have to see it.

Perhaps in part because this Earthsea is Goro's first feature as director, it's been released at the same time as a new Blu-Ray version of Miyazaki's first feature directed for Studio Ghibli, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (I would  assume an Earthsea Blu-ray is forthcoming).

Completely by coincidence, Nausicaa takes on a staggeringly prophetic tone in the shadow of recent natural and man-made disasters in Japan, making it all the more hard-hitting as allegory.

Virtually all of Miyazaki's film convey this theme with varied intensity. In Nausicaa, pollution and industrial waste is the major element as this fantasy world is plagued by a deadly poisoned jungle and the relation between people and animals, in this case bug-like creatures that young Princess Nausicaa understands and champions.

The film is lentgthy for an animated feature, yet does not flag or sag. It's an overall dark story without much humor, but the subject matter holds little room for flippancy. The voice cast, showcased on one of the bonus features, matches that of a major Hollywood live action movie, the case including Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman and Edward James Olmos.

For DVD owners, you will find that a few of the bonus features have been moved to the new disc. But again, Blu-ray especially accentuates that remarkable, meticulous detail of the world of Nausicaa and the imagination of Miyazaki.

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