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In a world we pass through every day yet seldom notice...
Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 23 2013 by Greg
"Life depends on little things we take for granted." This opening title sets the stage for another of those jewels of natural filmmaking in the Disneynature series -- a series that deserves all the attention of tentpole blockbusters but are released quietly on Blu-ray/DVD and perhaps in a few theaters.

The latest is called Wings of Life, a title that barely encompasses the depth of what you experience in this brilliant film, shot in razor-sharp clarity, even when capturing microscopic miracles.

The title implies birds, but the story is about insects and flowers. Narrator Meryl Streep's words are those of the plants, trees and flowers, explaining in first person how they all interact with each other.

"One might imagine that the most important life forms are large or flashy or smart," narrates Streep, "But it is love among the little things that runs the vast machinery of life." How true this is. (read my review of Lincoln for this same concept on a human level, as applied to the muckety-mucks and the folks in the trenches).

From bees to bats, hummingbirds to beetles (Paul is the cute one), the creatures are part of a spectacular spectrum of survival, balance and innate skill.

To me, the stars of the film are butterflies. There is one sequence in which what appears to be milliions of butterflies burst from trees and settle in the grasses. It must be seen to be believed.

None of this is done with CG or special effects, yet it is every bit as astonishing as a megablockbuster movie -- albeit with a soothing, ethereal tone, due in no small part to Streep, whose superb narration comes as no surprise to those of us who love her recording of The Velveteen Rabbit with pianist/composer George Winston.

No extras to speak of, unfortunately, since seeing how this was filmed would be fascinating. No matter, the color and majesty makes Wings of Life like a naturalistic Fantasia.

One of The Most Unique Animated Features of Recent Years
Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 16 2013 by Greg

I have to admit that I didn't know what to expect from A Monster in Paris, a French production that combines story elements from The Phantom of the Opera, Hugo, Frankenstein, King Kong, Moulin Rouge and La Vie En Rose. If that sounds like a mixed bag, it is, but somehow director Bergeron and screenwriter Stéphane Kazandjian make it work.

Even though the film recalls to mind some other works, it is one of the most unique animated features of recent years because it doesn't conform to the most common formulas, except perhaps after the leading lady (voiced by Johnny Depp's ex-partner, Vanessa Paradis) discovers the true nature of the monster -- and at one point, she says almost exactly the same thing Belle did to Gaston about who the real monster was.

What sets it apart is the delightfully odd character design, ranging from broad caricature to an almost Rankin/Bass look. More than that, this is not your garden variety musical film. There are very few songs, in fact, and most originate on a stage setting. But Sean Lennon, who voices the creature, sings some very unconventional songs (as does Ms. Paradis) that are hard to describe unless you hear them -- Danny Elfman but not as dark, The Beatles but softer, Edith Piaf without suicidal tendencies. The most conventional pop song comes at the end, perhaps the one designed for airplay as so many such songs are.

The music, like the dialogue, doesn't always stay true to the early 20th century French style so meticulously rendered in the visuals. Perhaps that was intentional too, as the story transcends its time and could have happened today as well as yesterday.

Before I get to the other characters, I have to mention Catherine, who is a rickety delivery truck so dilapidated it can't decide which way to fall. Catherine isn't anthropomorphic, yet she steals the scenes in which she rattles along. She is driven by insufferably narcissistic Raoul (actor/musician Adam Goldberg), with his shy assistant, the film-loving Emile (Jay Harrington of Hot in Cleveland).

The film does not rely on star voices. The most recognizable names in the cast are solid featured actors like Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban and John Huston's son Danny.

The Blu-ray looks marvelous, capturing both the color and the grime of urban Paris, and though released in 3-D it holds up well without it, as there aren't a lot of scenes dependent on it.

Sure would have been nice to have lots of bonus features, even if they had subtitles, as the Ghibli discs have. It is an artistically rich film and seeing a gallery might have been nice. There doesn't even seem to be a French language option. But budgets are an issue today, and it's nice to have the film anyway.

Buona notte, mi cara, mi amore...our Annette
Blog, Movies, TV, People, Records
Posted on Apr 08 2013 by Greg
My dad died at age 70 after decades of slowly debilitating illness. Today, so did Annette. She was an icon, seemed like a member of the family -- and yes, she was an extraordinarily talented woman with an appeal that was as undefinable as that of every legend.

Her impact on American culture -- and Disney heritage -- should not be underestimated. The world is a better place for her charming, unassuming presence.

I can only speak from my heart. Annette will still be with us through her films and music, and the memories of where we were when we enjoyed them. I am grateful for being able to have lived during the period in which she flourished, and have felt sorrow at her illness. Now she is free and i know where she is now. If I'm good, maybe I can say hello to her there someday.

"Lincoln" isn't really about Lincoln
Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 05 2013 by Greg

Steven Spielberg's superspectacular Lincoln looks great on Blu-ray, and actually works well within the intimacy of the home screen. With all its battle scenes and meticulous costuming and art direction, ultimately it's a people story brimming with characters and human conflicts. The trademark Spielberg back-lighting and other touches are very much in evidence, but the director does not take center stage and allows his cast to shine.

And shine they do. I can't add anything to the praise earned by Daniel Day-Lewis, who redefined Lincoln to millions who either remember early depictions by Henry Fonda or Raymond Massey, TV miniseries with actors like Hal Holbrook (who appears in this film as well) and perhaps most significantly, Royal Dano's voice and the Audio-Animatronics version at Disney Parks on both coasts -- a characterization that has been in the mass mindset since the 1964 New York World's Fair.

Lots has been said about Lincoln's voice, but I had no problem with that. He also comes off as a little bit of an eccentric, whose numerous stories and long jokes cause sighs and eye rolls among his staff and associates. In Literature 101 terms, he would be called the "Christ-like figure," speaking in parables to make his points and even dying at the end (hope that's not a spoiler!)

Sally Field, because she simply cannot be unlikable, brings that quality to Mary Todd Lincoln. She's never a villain or a harpy. She doesn't quite disappear into her role as Day-Lewis does -- for Pete's sake, it's Sally Field, whom we've loved for over four decades! Perhaps for that reason, and some powerful acting, few could create the Mary that she does. The argument scene between husband and wife is electrifying.

Why did I say this movie isn't about Lincoln? Because I believe it's more about the people few of us know about. From the African-American soldiers to those three frazzled men who risk wrath and even shooting to get support for the Amendment. Tommy Lee Jones' character isn't legendary, yet he spent his life trying to abolish slavery. And the remarkable David Strathairn -- perhaps Hollywood's most underrated actor -- is a standout as Secretary of State Seward. Everyone, regardless of their walk of life, can share the accomplishment. Lincoln of course, is the ultimate in leadership, but it's nice to see the little guys and ladies get their spotlight, too.

There is no commentary. Like War Horse, Spielberg offers his comments in bonus documentaries. Unlike the War Horse home release, the docs are shorter, but certainly fascinating and worth watching. The DVD only contains one short bonus feature; the two-disc Blu-ray contains more material.

And here's to you, Jackie Robinson
Blog, Movies, People
Posted on Apr 03 2013 by Greg
Before you go see the upcoming big screen "42," starring Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, you may want to see this award-winning documentary about the real Robinson. "Jackie Robinson: My Story" tells his life story ithrough rare footage and photographs from real life.

And it gives you an intense performance of Stephen Hill (Dead Man Down). "My Story" is just that. In a locker room setting, Hill as Robinson materializes to discuss his life and times directly to the camera -- to you, to young people.

This is a remarkable story about a towering American icon, not only of baseball, but of political activism, civil rights, the media and the changing times. The account is direct and honest, not only about Robinson's struggle to equality that seemed impossible at the time, but also of his issues with his people, his family and his son.

Hill's performance is understated, straightforward and matter-of-fact, which makes the moment he reflects on the loss of his son all the more effective. It should be noted that some language, particular racial slurs, are heard in this film, vicious things that were said in a less enlightened time.

As a production of limited budget but a lot of heart, "My Story" makes fine use of its source material. Even the music seems to fit the sequences.

The bonus feature, "Jackie Robinson: An American Hero" is a shorter version of the feature, using much of the same sources and a condensed edition of the same script. Perhaps this was created for groups and schools. It contains none of the offensive phrases heard in the other film.

Warren Schaeffer, who was also Director of Photography of "My Story," narrates offscreen. This distances the viewer from the impact of the dramatic story when compared to Hill speaking right to us in "My Story." Schaeffer does an earnest job, but it cannot compare to the effect carried off in the longer film. One wonders why they simply didn't edit "My Story" down, but perhaps the short film was made first.

It's worth mentioning the there was also a 1950 movie called The Jackie Robinson Story with the real Robinson playing himself. Considering his influence on history, it's about time a new movie is being released to theaters. This video makes a nice companion. Either way, this is a story worth telling and remembering.

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