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"WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, HORSEY?"
Blog, Movies
Posted on Apr 13 2012 by Greg
War Horse started as a children's novel in 1982 that more recently became an acclaimed stage show, a BBC radio drama and of course, it gets the full Steven Spielberg treatment in this Best Picture Oscar nominated epic. It's a DreamWorks film, and all of the studio's live action films are released by Walt Disney Pictures.

The film combines elements of the book and the stage production, but unlike the other versions, it is not told completely from the viewpoint of Joey, the horse, whose literal narration would not work as well in a film -- but the skill of the trainer, horse and director bring out remarkable "acting" in the lead equestrian

War Horse the movie is perhaps the most Disneyesque motion picture to come from director Spielberg. Especially in its opening segment, taking place in the rugged, breathtaking landscape of Devon, suggests the Disney sagas of yore such as The Three Lives of Thomasina, Darby O' Gill and especially the films Walt Disney produced entirely in the U.K.

It's very intense at times, since it is a war film, but the war scenes are heavy on spectacle and light on gore. The most difficult scene to watch, at least in our house, was the fate of the two very young German soldiers, which takes place on camera (and shot in a very evocative way at sunrise in the face of a windmill).

Every shot of War Horse is an experience in expert composition, art direction, authenticity and often understated acting. Spielberg, as seen in the very generous bonus materials, is an extremely collaborative filmmaker and knows how to best utilize the best talent in front and behind the lens, from the superb cast to the stirring music of longtime collaborator John Williams.



Rather than have an audio commentary or a simultaneous online compliment to the film itself, the second disc in this four-disc combo is loaded with background material, including a feature length documentary about the making of the film and several shorter items about specific collaborators. Spielberg himself hosts a short round table on camera with members of the cast and crew.

Storywise, War Horse suggests an earlier British children's classic, Black Beauty, in that is chronicles the various owners, friends and foes of one particular horse, with a grand coincidence to tie it together. I have to say -- without a trace of irony or sarcasm -- that it also reminds me, in part, of the song "Snoopy's Christmas," in which the WWI Flying Ace and the Red Baron suspend their deadly battle for a brief time because of a shared affinity (you'll know which scene I'm referring to if you saw the film already).

Since Spielberg and his creative team has meticulously crafted such a sweeping, magnificent film, it follow that it's particularly nice to see it on Blu-ray, which brings out every crag in the rugged countryside and the sheer size of the battle scenes, as well as some very lovely moments at a French country home.

This is the kind of movie that folks say isn't made anymore and can be a rich experience to share with family and friends.







ONE OF 2011'S BEST & BIGGEST BIG-SCREEN TRIBUTES
Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 25 2012 by Greg
Last year, three major films paid tribute to beloved genres, all largely delighting their proponents and enlisting new audiences as to why they were great in the first place. One is the Oscar-winning Best Picture, The Artist, capturing Hollywood's golden age with no cynicism or irony, as seen through the eyes of young French filmmakers discovering the joys of classic moviedom; another is Hugo, an impassioned gateway to a master of celluloid magic, this time drawing the uninitiated into not-to-be-forgotten wonders through his discovery by young people.

The third is The Muppets, the first Muppet project to fire on nearly every cylinder and recapturing the shameless lunacy of Jim Henson's iconic variety show-- once the most popular TV show in the world. Other attempts to bring back their spark have had their moments and should not be dismissed (believe it or not, one project that best captured it in recent years was Elmo's Christmas Countdown with Ben Stiller, which was as much in the spirit of The Muppet Show as Sesame Street.)

It took superfan Jason Segel's A-list clout to get the movie greenlit and Flight of the Conchords director James Bobin's encyclopediac passion for The Muppet Show to make it work. And in the tradition of the self-reflexive, we-know-we're-in-a-movie tradition of the Muppets, the plot is a surprisingly direct address at whether anybody still cares about Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang.

Even Disney, who owns the franchise and released the movie, isn't spared if you know the history: the villain's claim that he owns the names of our friends and they have no rights to them anymore is reminiscent of the attitude attributed to a Disney regime of the past. (But of course, in the words of Basil Fawlty, "We're all friends now!")

Bobin was an inspired selection as director. Though Flight of the Conchords may not seem, at first, to be a cousin in comedy to The Muppet Show (and it's certainly not for children), but the wide-eyed naivete, the shameless absurdity and the earnestness of its main characters is very much in the same vein. Conchords star Bret McKenzie's Muppet songs are very much like sanitized versions of his comic tunes for the Conchords BBC Radio series and HBO TV show.

McKenzie's "Man or Muppet" has made history as the first Oscar winner for the Muppets. Not "Rainbow Connection" nor "The First Time it Happens" won their statuettes -- there hasn't even been a special Oscar for Jim Henson. The song is funny and memorable but I really like "Life's a Happy Song" and Amy Adams' "Party of One."

Speaking of the radiant Ms. Adams, she has little to do in the film (as is the tradition in Muppet productions, after all) but she makes every moment shine. I can't help draw a parallel, this time to another loving tribute film in which she starred -- Enchanted -- which has a lot of similarities in tone and sincerity to The Muppets.



The DVD/Blu-ray/movie & music download package, aka the Wocka Wocka edition, certainly offers a lot for the money. Once again, DVD owners will not get every feature as Blu-ray owners, which still seems not nice.

One thing DVD owners do not get, besides a nicer-looking picture,
is the entertaining audio commentary (thank you!) with Segel, Bobin and co-writer Nick Stoller. Segel constantly ribs the Disney folks in the studio with them by relentlessly cross-promoting in classic Disney synergy fashion, as well as remind us of almost every film in Adams' resume.

One interesting Blu-ray feature is also quite curious: whenever the disc is paused, an "intermission" sequence pops on. Each time, it rests on a different point in a series of connecting gags. It's a nice idea-- but it also prevents the viewer from freezing a frame to catch a quick Muppety gag in the background (a funny sign, inside joke, etc.) So ironically, the DVD owner can freeze frames while the Blu-ray watcher cannot. Wocka wocka, indeed!







THIS FEEL GOOD COMEDY OF THE SUMMER..."DARK SHADOWS?"
Blog, Movies
Posted on Mar 16 2012 by Greg
Maybe I missed something, but it seems to me that they've carefully kept secret that the new Johnny Depp/Tim Burton remake of the TV gothic serial Dark Shadows is actually a wacky, campy, bawdy comedy romp.

Take a look at the trailer.

While watching this, at first I thought it was a mere remake of the 1970 feature, House of Dark Shadows. Then when I saw such moments as Barnabas flabbergasted by the television set (remininiscent of Queen Victoria's reaction on a Bewitched episode), it dawned on me that this was going to be a sly send-up.

Of course, the editors of the trailer may have been made to deliberately emphasize the comic scenes, and the movie may really turn out to be more like Sweeney Todd. Seems unlikely, though, because the original series was wildly camp too. The actors have played it completely seriously back then, but with the limited budget, precarious props and legendary bloopers, it was sometimes one of the most hysterically funny shows on television (or at least funnier than some intentionally funny programs).

Will this approach work? I can't wait to see it and find out. But like the first Brady Bunch movie, which deftly balanced fandom with satire, this might be the kind of inspired escapist stuff that we've needed in depressed times.



Is Barnabas Collins the Shirley Temple of today? Time will tell.







HOLLYWOOD'S TOP ROMANTIC COMEDY
Blog, Movies
Posted on Feb 16 2012 by Greg
If it weren't an animated feature, and was a contemporary live action romantic comedy/drama, Lady and the Tramp could very well star, for instance, Jake Gyllenhaal or Ryan Reynolds with Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Aniston.

"She's a well-bred, meticulous looker but a little naive and a bit of a control freak! He's a sloppy, jaunty hunk who lives on a lots of friends' couches and has trouble committing to one person! Over the course of the movie, she learns to lighten up and he learns the value of a responsible relationship! A popular song plays as they head back to the city from Central Park or hop on the cable car with the Golden Gate bridge in the distance! Or any number of variations on the same story!"

Even though it was released over 50 years ago and occasionally betrays its era (the baby bottles in the window, stereotyped incidental characters that were "safer" in their day than now), Lady and the Tramp is, in many ways, more sophisticated, witty and -- dare I say -- sexier than some of today's wafer-thin incarnations.

Come on, that spaghetti scene. It predates the eating scene in Tom Jones by several years. Lady and Tramp awake in the morning after a night out, followed by a scene in which her neighbor dogs Jock and Trusty propose marriage to her. Sure, it's so she has a roof over her head (the annoying Aunt Sarah has put her outside) but it suggests they're trying to make her an honest woman.

I thought I was really stretching things by suggesting that last assumption, so you can imagine my surprise when several Disney artists and historians say just about the same thing on one of the bonus features! Movies were changing in 1955, and Walt might not have made Lady and the Tramp in quite the same way had the war not prevented it from going into production a decade or so sooner.

All underlying meanings aside, Lady and the Tramp is one of Disney's biggest consistent crowd pleasers, as is evidenced by the fact that this supposedly "old" movie is neck in neck with the latest Twilight movie for the number one sales spot (as if this writing the Blu-ray has edged out its rival). The story is brisk, relatable (the idea of being "replaced" in someone's heart worked so well for Toy Story, too) and it is visually stunning. Everything has a handsome sheen on it, capturing a Main Street, U.S.A. idyll that Walt was simultaneously creating for his Disneyland Park.



On the new diamond edition Blu-ray, this detail and color are nothing short of breathtaking -- even in seemingly simple scenes like one in which Lady walks upstairs and various carpet and wallpaper patterns go off in maddening directions, yet perfectly in perspective. It's the Alice in Wonderland look, but sane.

Perhaps no other Disney animated film features a larger cast of iconic voice talents who had shone in radio and were moving into television, including Grammy winning comedy giant Stan Freberg as the Beaver (Freberg shows us how he does the whistle voice in a bonus feature).

Alan Reed, soon to become immortalized as the original Fred Flintstone, is Boris the Russian wolfhound. Verna Felton, who would grace many a Disney feature, moving effortlessly from villainy to benevolence, would soon be Fred's mother-in-law. Dal McKennon (Gumby, The Archie Show, Epcot's American Adventure) plays several roles, one that sounds much like his Mr. Weatherbee at Riverdale High.

And doing the most voices of all, almost heard in every scene, is the underrated Bill Thompson, whose most famous voice embodied the White Rabbit and Jock for Disney, as well as Droopy for MGM and Touché Turtle for Hanna-Barbera.

This is also the first Disney animated feature with a starring lead. Before Billy Joel, Elton John or Phil Collins became part of Disney projects, pop goddess Peggy Lee was allowed to add a creative imprint unlike anything Walt had ever so graciously welcomed.

Even though Lady and the Tramp isn't a musical in the traditional sense, Lee's presence is felt throughout, either through songs she wrote with Sonny Burke or any of her four voices (the breakout being the torchy Peg, who's a cross between Mae West and Jimmy Cagney.

As per the usual custom, most of the classic DVD features from the 2006 Platinum Edition DVD have been moved to the Blu-ray. The Blu-ray now has an Audio Commentary (thank you!) and the nifty "second screen" feature that allows you to gather further behind the scenes treasures from your laptop while the disc plays on your player. There's also a deleted song that Tramp was going to sing called "Free as the Breeze."

By the way, if you're interested in such wonderful songs that were deleted from Disney classics, you'll want to check out Russell Schroeder's superb, illustrated Disney's Lost Chords, Volume One and Volume Two.








ROCK-EM, SOCK 'EM, REAL STEEL
Blog, Movies
Posted on Feb 02 2012 by Greg
"We all wanted to make the kind of movie that we loved when we were young, the kind of get-out-of-your-seat, cheer-for-the-underdog kind of movie that was going to be visually cool, but would be tonally different than you expect a robot movie to be, a tone more akin to WALL-E or Iron Giant than it is to Transformers or Terminator.

Real Steel director Shawn Levy says this on the audio commentary (THANK YOU!) on both the Blu-ray and DVD of the movie, which had a big opening weekend in theaters and also on home video sales and rentals.



Indeed, Real Steel is very much like Iron Giant in spirit, and also like a very high tech Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. It's also an update of films like The Champ, in which a child helps a former achiever to reach again for the top, as a success and as a person.

As Levy also remarks in the commentary, the choice of likable star Hugh Jackman for a role that is unlikable for a good portion of the film is a major reason for how well it succeeds. Perhaps by design, Jackman never really comes across as a believable jerk, though he is very earnest and real in the role (despite his occasional tangles between his real Australian accent with his character's "street tough" American dialect). He's ably supported by Dakota Goyo as his estranged young son (a performance that could make or break the film, but in this case "makes" it) and Evangeline Lilly, whose relatively small role radiates immense charm and appeal.

The robots and the spectacular effects are stars, of course, in this type of film, but Levy is careful to keep the real and the steel in balance. Visually, the filmmakers achieved what he calls a "retro modern" look in that takes place a few fictitious years from now. In order to make the robots more relatable to the actors, a combination of CG and full-size robots were created.

Levy also makes great use of the Michigan locations -- very stark and Blade Runner-ish without augmentation, thanks to the highly industrial look of gigantic assembly plants and scrapyards. In an early fight sequence, hundreds of extras are seen throughout a sprawling structure that was not a special comp effect, but a real place where large automobile parts where shipped in by train.

Real Steel isn't designed to be confused with The Artist. It's a popcorn cruncher that succeeds on its own terms.









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