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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.








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).








BLU-RAY REVIEW: Three Studio Ghibli Blu-ray Premieres
Blog, Reviews, Movies
Posted on Feb 03 2015 by Greg
Ghibli Blu-rays are always an event, especially because if we haven't seen the films on the big screen, it's the best way to enjoy the majestic artistry.



Two of the titles have been especially long-awaited. Porco Rosso is a spectacular adventure with humor and a touch of fantasy. Porco is a dashing fighter pilot who has been cursed and is now a pig, but still very human is every other way. Unabashedly Bogart-like, he is voiced by Oscar nominee Michael Keaton. My favorite English language performance, though, belongs to Susan Egan, who was also heard in Spirited Away. She gets to sing in French, and plays the classic tragic beauty, desperate to give her heart away but trapped by circumstance and the dysfunction of her lover.

This is an adult story, but not in the sense of material inappropriate for children. There are, actually, many kids in the story, one of whom forms the backbone of the story. The film has never sounded better in home video.



Pom Poko is the most quirky of the trio -- a fantasy steeped in reality with lots of ironic humor. The English narration by Maurice LaMarche (Pinky and the Brain) is crisp and brilliant in its seamless waver from serious to coy. The entire cast is superb. This is not a movie-star-based cast like other Ghibli films from Disney, this is a cast of great Hollywood voice actors, all of which prove that, while there's nothing wrong with well-cast stars in voice roles and they provide a marketing angle, the voice actors earn their place as seasoned pros in the art form.

One note to parents: The "sack" of these creatures is not actually a sack, but another part of the male anatomy, though it should not as obvious to youngsters because of the English script's obtuse treatment of it, which is to make it seem like a kangaroo's pouch.



The most eye-filling Ghibli film on Blu-ray is clearly Tales from Earthsea, a sword-and-sorcery epic based on the Ursula LeGuin books. One could watch the film purely to focus on the artwork and become completely lost in its richness.

The story is a challenge, probably because of difficulties in adaptation from books of this nature into a nearly two-hour film. It starts off with lots of action and plot, presented with such rapidity that it might require running the disc back to keep track. Then the film becomes largely a mood piece in which characters pensively reflect. At the climax, the pace picks up and the loose ends tie together, though it is one of those "Iron Man 3" battle sequences that tend to inspire the "let's just vanquish the villain and get on with it" feeling.

As villains go, though, this one is especially vile and creepy, voiced perfectly on the English soundtrack by Willem DaFoe. An androgynous warlock obsessed with his power and longevity, he is far from a one-note baddie.

This is one Blu-ray for which the word "watch" means literally to "look and enjoy what you see."







BLU-RAY REVIEW: Million Dollar Arm with Jon Hamm
Blog, Movies, TV, People
Posted on Oct 24 2014 by Greg


"Million Dollar Arm," aka "The Jon Hamm Movie" is the "Mad Men" star's debut as a big-screen lead, so the whys and wherefores of the film are as interesting to ponder as the movie itself.

Of course, this being a Disney sports film, the ending is as clear as Cinderella's glass slipper. The attraction is journey to the goal. In this case, Hamm plays a narcissistic, deal-driven but down on his luck sports promoter who gets the idea that Cricket players from India might have the potential to be star baseball players.

This raises a lot of issues, some covered in the film and some not. There is a stark contrast between the jaded, wealthy American star players who are just as manipulative as Hamm's character, and the naive, trusting Indian newbies who are overawed by elevators and such.

But isn't Hamm (sorry, but it IS a vehicle for him) also exploiting this difference? Yes, and the film points that out, as well as his dismissive attitude towards the young men he has relocated and then left on their own. They see him as a father figure, he sees them as commodities. But what is not really addressed is that he is also outsourcing; he still yearns for the American star player but the Indians will do until his dream player comes along.



SPOILER • SPOILER • SPOILER • SPOILER • SPOILER

Of course, Hamm learns a lesson because this is a Disney movie. The pure, genuine warmth and integrity of these young men change him. Had this been a Judd Apatow movie, it would have been the other way around. Good gravy Marie -- they actually think he should marry his attractive neighbor! Don't they know this is America and we're free to be you and us? Sakes alive!

Anyway, Hamm does a fine job but is really not allowed to stretch as an actor -- and as his Saturday Night Live appearances have proven, he has a lot more to give. But this is an ingenious way to reach the big screen because it's a low-budget, low-risk endeavor, unlikely to dent his aspirations in a way that a tentpole movie debut would. It proves that he can carry a movie, but it will be interesting to see if he gets another shot at a big screen role that is more than "Don Draper-light."







DVD Review: Lucille Ball: First Lady of Comedy
Blog, Reviews, Movies, TV, People
Posted on Oct 09 2014 by Greg


Who doesn't love Lucy, or just needs use a laugh? How about just an "I can't believe what I'm watching" reaction as you watch?

The four Lucille Ball feature films in this 2-disc Mill Creek set run the gamut of pretty good, kind of weird, so-bad-it's-delightful and best of the bunch. All four are nicely restored, so if you've been trying to find decent copies of them on various budget DVDs, you'll have them here.

THE MAGIC CARPET (1951)
Co-starring John Agar and Patricia Medina


This infamous so-bad-it's-delightful "sort of color, sort of spectacular" adventure/fantasy/comedy is notable for several reasons. Check out this history from everythinglucy.com:

"Hoping to force Lucille Ball into breaking her contract, Columbia Pictures chieftain Harry Cohn assigned her to the low-budget Arabian Nights escapade The Magic Carpet. Much to Cohn's amazement, the plucky Ball agreed to appear in the film, forcing Columbia to pay her salary until her option ran out. While Lucille Ball is quite attractive in her harem duds, the viewer cannot help but notice that her bare midriff is often obscured by props and furniture; that's because she was pregnant with her daughter Lucie Arnaz during the filming of The Magic Carpet."



The Magic Carpet
also co-stars (and what old movie did NOT co-star?) George Tobias and the comic relief sidekick--and Raymond Burr as the scheming villain. Imagine Abner Kravitz and Perry Mason in the The Arabian Nights and there's even more to chortle about.

HER HUSBAND'S AFFAIRS (1947)
Co-starring Franchot Tone


A lower-echelon Adam's Rib crossed with a kind of weird Son of Flubber, Her Husband's Affairs is not about infidelity, but about a wife who is (GASP!) more talented and savvy than her pompous, egomaniacal husband. Those who cringe at the pre-feminist aspects of films of a long ago mindset might want to skip Franchot Tone's insufferable whining and fuming about how Lucille Ball bails him out time after time. To be positive, it might be interpreted as a statement about how women should have been treated and were not.



Anyway, it goes from a husband-and-wife conflict story to a very odd fantasy sitcom about wacky inventions and their consequences. Ball is fine as ever, but Tone is probably miscast because his overall disaffected, cool style makes his character unlikable, while a more genial actor might have pulled off the role of this dolt at least a little better.

MISS GRANT TAKES RICHMOND (1949)
Co-Starring William Holden


Ball and Holden play masterfully against each other in this pretty good, Damon Runyonesque tale of "a lovable bunch of bookies and their dashing leader who would reform if only the right woman could change him."



Lovers of I Love Lucy can revel in the comparisons between Holden and Ball in this film and Holden and Lucy Ricardo in the famous "nose-lighting" episode of the classic series. What makes this extra special for classic TV fans is the appearance of Gloria Henry--Dennis the Menace's mom--as one of the young postwar newlyweds. She looks a little different, but there is no mistaking that lovely voice.

THE FULLER BRUSH GIRL (1950)
Co-Starring Eddie Albert


Like Miss Grant Takes Richmond, this is one of the most widely played of Ball's film comedies. Of all four in this set, it's the best of the bunch for its snappy pace, beautifully timed slapstick, engaging story and the chemistry between Ball and Arnold, who play the postwar couple this time around.

If you watch this with young people, you might have to start by explaining that Fuller Brush people were like Avon or Mary Kay sales people who went door-to-door with household gadgets or, in this case, beauty products. Ball and Anold's characters are as hapless as can be and you can see each successive catastrophe mounting a mile away, but that's part of the fun and part of the filmmaker's craft.

It was also scripted by Looney Tunes director turned Hollywood movie director Frank Tashlin, so like his Jerry Lewis hits, the action is very cartoony and was very likely storyboarded in the same way as animation.



Only one year away from becoming Lucy Ricardo, The Fuller Brush Girl is a prelude to I Love Lucy for Lucille Ball as well for her fans. You can imagine see how Ethel, Fred and Ricky might have reacted to all the zany hijinks.












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