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Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 27 2012 by Greg
It is arguable that Dead Poet's Society can be called Robin Williams' best film, or his best performance, but doing so only diminishes much of his other impressive work on film and television (and for those lucky enough to have seen him, on stage). I would go as far as to say that Dead Poet's Society is probably the best dramatic film from the heydey of Disney's then-emerging Touchstone division.

The film's audio commentary (thank you!) is chock full of interesting facts. Screenwriter Tom Schulman talks about how several studio executives held a meeting in which they were going to go over pages of "notes" with endless comments and changes -- then Jeffrey Katzenberg glanced through the pages and told Schulman to go ahead and make the film as written.

The finished film is the subject of some discourse, because what we saw in the theaters back in 1989 is shorter than what appeared on the "director's cut" on laserdisc. Several of the edited scenes (perhaps not all, I'm not sure) are available on the special features section of the Blu-ray. You can make your own decision about whether these scenes should have stayed, but to me, the movie that I saw and never forgot in 1989 is the film as presented here.

Except that when I saw it, the film did not look or sound like it does on this Blu-ray. Director Peter Weir is a very contemplative filmmaker, prone to capturing scenery and moments that establish various moods. Many of these extraordinarily beautiful scenes of Delaware in the fall and winter are downright dazzling on Blu-ray.

Back to the movie itself, though -- it has not lost any of its impact in the ensuing years. Williams' character of Prof. Keating is not the hellbent-for-conflict hummingbird he played in Good Morning Vietnam (though in Dead Poet's Society, he gets just a few minutes to do some of his iconic shtick). There is amazing depth in his silence as well as his inspiring speech, almost an internal battle between what life can be and what life has dealt him (even though we get little hint of that in the narrative).

Every member of the cast rises to the occasion, particularly one of the best actors now on television, Robert Sean Leonard, who artfully plays the best (only?) friend of Hugh Laurie in the long-running series, House.

One of the most thankless performances in the movie is that of Kurtwood Smith, also handled masterfully: as Leonard's immovable father, brings dimension to a very unlikable role. Again, that draws attention to how different an edited film can be from a director's cut -- there is one deleted scene between Smith and Williams from the last act that, had it remained, would have made a huge difference in the perception of both characters. It's helpful that we get a featurette on the bonus materials (clearly from an earlier DVD) in which the creative people discuss how they approached the challenges.

Weir explains that he deliberately avoided clear-cut answers in the film. Keating tells young, impressionable teens to reach beyond their grasp, as did the legendary people he quotes. He doesn't warn them that those visionaries paid their prices in one way or another. When some of these teens take chances, only some succeed, just as in real life. Is it worth it? What a great discussion this opens for parents and their kids.

In its context of late-1950's McCarthyism, perched at the edge of cultural revolution in the '60s, Keating is an outspoken voice before it was cool. In today's world of extremes from one spectrum of propriety to another, as well as political correctness, one might wonder how he would fare.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 26 2012 by Greg
It has been some time since I watched 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, so while a lot of it was so memorable I recognized it immediately, some things were a bit of a revelation, especially as a metaphor for today's American military presence in the Middle East.

Sure, you can make the obvious case for this to be a Hollywood anti-war movie, pure and simple, and it is at first glance. Surely making its points with individuals rather than troops is a powerful way to illustrate the effect of war on people rather than faceless masses. But Good Morning Vietnam is also a story about a relentless clash between front line creative powderkegs and front office administrators. It's also about how creative work reaches out to a lot of people that you may never meet, but to whom your work makes a difference, however big or small.

More than anything, the movie is a perfect vehicle for Robin Williams, whose now-iconic stream-of-consciousness comedy is given full throttle as he goes on the air in a highly fictionalized portrayal of radio personality Adrian Cronauer. Taken out of the context of the late 20th century, when Williams was still breaking into movies and out of his "Mork" image, this performance takes on a greater depth than ever. He may appear to basically be playing himself, or at least his persona, but there's a whole lot more to it than just riffing when the cameras roll. As a matter of fact, if you watch the "monologues" presented in the bonus features (which are the same on this new Blu-ray as they were on the 2006 DVD edition, alas, with no commentary), you can see that he honed those routines over and over until they were as perfect as possible.

It's no secret that this film does not tell the true story of Cronauer beyond his position of disc jockey in Vietnam and part time English teacher. What's also clear, especially watching it today, is that it also presents a view of 1965 through the prism of 1987 tastes and sensabilities.

When William's character and an audience of Vitemanese viilagers sits in a dumpy, fan-cooled movie theater to watch Beach Blanket Bingo, the complete irony is crystal clear as Frankie and Annette cavort in what is perhaps the penultimate beach movie. The movie seems out of place in that theater, but also in the pop culture context of 1987 and today. Actually, Beach Blanket Bingo was a new movie in 1965 and such goofy but popular films were huge hits, not the anamoly that it seems as presented in this context.

Musically, it's the same way. The Beatles were a sensation, but they had only just become such over one year. Mainstream popular radio was playing Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as well as The Supremes and the Beach Boys. In the accompanying documentary featurette, it is pointed out the Louis Armstrong's classic, "Wonderful World" (which became even more of a legendary song since the film's debut) was released after Good Morning Vietnam took place, but of course it served the story so well, it doesn't matter.

And I'm not nit-picking for anachronisms. My point is that, in 1987 as in today, some are not aware that AM radio was so diverse. The film is peppered with putdowns of Percy Faith and Mantovani, but I'll bet the real Cronauer played Faith's "Theme from A Summer Place." The sensabilities and realities of what made popular music of the mid-sixties was filtered through what became "classic rock" programming by the late eighties -- and what would sell on a soundtrack album.

Robin Williams is superb and is given fantastic support by a truly great team of actors, particularly Forrest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby and Robert Wuhl. Even the small roles are memorable -- and the faces of the local people and the soldiers are especially indelible.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 13 2012 by Greg
There sure has been a lot written about motion capture, or as many actors prefer to call it, "performance capture." Much of the discussion and debate centers around whether it is true animation or not. Clearly animators are key to the process, but the films such as The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and, most recently and most pointedly, The Adventures of Tintin really beg the question, "Why aren't they simply live action films with augmented CG animated effects?"

Some felt The Polar Express was a little creepy, particularly because the eyes didn't seem human. This is a challenge in much CG human animation, but it didn't bother me in Polar Express because the entire movie had a dreamlike, eerie quality that fit the process. With Christmas Carol, however, the actors were obscured by their no-cap faces, almost like excessive latex makeup. I would have preferred to see the excellent actors instead of having them hidden under a second skin.

But having seen The Adventures of Tintin, the mo-cap process has certainly come a great deal farther -- to the point where the viewer can forget it's not live action at all. Which brings me back to the question again -- why isn't it just live action?

Is the ability to stylize a reason? Certainly. Some characters have exaggerated features and physical countenances that would be tricky -- but not impossible -- in live action (as so much was contorted in Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which combined both techniques). But maybe the goal on the horizon is bigger than the realization of a filmmaker's vision -- maybe it's economics, politics and practicality.

Tintin, for all intents and purposes, took the viewer to exotic locations, through spectacular sets, over the ocean and among a cast of thousands. All pretty much by using actors with dots on their faces on green screens and environments created within sophisticated machinery.

Other than the mo-cap facilities, there was no need to rent soundstages, camera equipment, Chapman cranes, helicopters, cars, boats, planes, or anything you see on screen. It also means there was no need for a camera crew, lighting equipment, lighting technicians, craft services, transportation, hotel accommodations, dinners at restaurants, wardrobe people, makeup artists, permits from cities and countries for filming, police and security, stunt people, extras -- and all the insurance, unions and other ancillary issues that are part of making even the simplest Hollywood movie, much less a superspectacular, globetrotting adventure.

Remember when Fred Astaire was electronically added to a vacuum cleaner commercial? Some folks were worried that this could mean the misuse of classic actors in roles they never agreed to. It didn't become as much of a problem as predicted. But what happens if, as so much digital technology does, motion capture becomes easier and cheaper? People can create a lot of animation on their home computers that was unthinkable not long ago.

What if mo-cap is used as a replacement for a live action movie -- say a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel? Johnny Depp can play Jack Sparrow for the rest of is life and never age on screen. That does not seem much of a stretch. But how about a movie that isn't a stylized costume romp -- a comedy like Bridesmaids or a drama like The Descendants? Sure, mo-cap can't substitute for George

I'm not doomsaying here. It's not some Orwellian plot. It's just business. Making movies without locations, sets, costumes -- and actors. After all, once a CG character's performance is saved from one film, it can be used in another. So why not do the same with episodic TV and movies?

Just wondering.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 02 2012 by Greg
We're watching A Christmas Story today -- one of those movies that, like It's a Wonderful Life and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, has been embraced as uberclassics even though they met with lukewarm receptions during their initial release.

Like millions of folks today, we love the movie. But I always get a little distracted by the anachronistic 1980's hairstyle adorning the lovely and talented Melinda Dillon as Raphie's mom.

It's more at home for this '80s icon...

Or this '80s icon from TV's Lou Grant...

Director Bob Clark and his team clearly went out of their way to capture the 1940's American breadbasket world of essayist Jean Shepherd. My dad also loved the movie, since he was only a little older than Ralphie during this era.

But according to Clark DVD commentary (thank you), Ms. Dillon insisted on avoiding the period hairstyle more resembling that of teacher Miss Shields (luminous Canadian actress Tedde Moore, who was the best reason to watch Mistletoe Over Manhattan on the Hallmark Channel).

By the way, Ralphie's daydream about Miss Shield's delirious reception of his essay is one of my favorite Christmas Story sequences, since I sometimes have similar expectations when turning in my writing and also sometimes get the same real-life results.

Melinda Dillon turns in an superb performance, adding a quirky dimension to her very warm and loving performance. Her top billing belies her 1983, star status in such hits as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So Clark didn't insist on the hair-do. And now, A Christmas Story is probably the film Ms. Dillon is most known for, since it is run unceasingly and many have it memorized.

So maybe Ms. Dillon herself wishes in hindsight that she was more sartorially flexible. Maybe she does not. She's probably put in behind her, as I should in the coming year.

But I can't help wondering if fans still recognize her and say, "I loved you in A Christmas Story! But what was the deal with your '80s hair?"

Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 21 2011 by Greg
There hasn't been a whole lot of fanfare, but for fans of Dave Stevens' graphic novels and Joe Johnston's 1991 Disney big-screen spectacular, the appearance of The Rocketeer on Blu-ray is somewhat of an event.

On the package is a sticker proclaiming, "From the director of Captain America." Clearly this release is piggybacking on the successful 2011 film -- and the two films seem, at least to me, inextricably linked by their setting and their director.

But why did The Rocketeer run out of propellant while Captain America blasted the box office? The most obvious reason is that the Marvel character has had more mainstream visibility, though the '60s cartoon and '70s live-action series incarnations of Captain America were not exactly stellar. It's also a tricky matter to set a film in WWII, or during the '40s and make it resound with younger audiences.

Just because The Rocketeer wasn't a smash, it isn't fair to dismiss it as some did back in the '90s. Actually, it's quite a fine film, with a likable cast led by Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly and Alan Arkin, as well as a scene-chewing tour-de-force performance by Timothy Dalton -- clearly having a grand old time playing a thorough rotter.

The Rocketeer has very good effects for its time, superb art direction and photography, and one of the best background scores of the last several decades. I highly recommend the soundtrack album of James Horner's sweeping score. You can also hear this music as the Epcot fountains dance regularly, as well as in countless movie trailers for other releases.

Hopes were just a little too high for The Rocketeer. Disney was looking for a huge franchise, so a well-done, nicely received film wouldn't cut it. Even though Johnston only mentions The Rocketeer once briefly in his Captain America commentary (alas, he did not do one for The Rocketeer Blu-ray -- there are no extras to speak of), clearly the director learned and developed over the years.

Perhaps the main issue between the two films is tone. The Rocketeer is highly stylized and inconsistently campy with a hero who's a little too cocky for his own good, while Captain America is a hybrid between retro, comic book and contemporary action movie style, with a much more sympathetic hero.

But if you haven't seen The Rocketeer in Blu-ray, prepare for a treat. The spot-on animated sequence, the lavish nightclub scene, and even the sarcophagus-like dwelling of the villain are as vivid as can be. You just have to approach The Rocketeer as a jaunty romp and enjoy the ride.

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