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THEY GET BY WITH "THE HELP" OF THEIR FRIENDS
Blog, Movies
Posted on Dec 16 2011 by Greg
I'm sure I cannot add more to what has already been said in praise of the book and the movie versions of Kathryn Stockett's The Help, except perhaps to note that once I met a group of people in a restaurant and the film came up. They brought up Minnie's "terrible awful" incident and I asked, "Haven't you wished that just once you could do that to someone, sometime?" The reaction was unanimous amid riotous laughter.



The Help takes place in 1963 -- the same as season two of Mad Men -- but this is set in the deep south, as the civil rights movement was gaining national notice, violence was on the rise> And while some thought the injustices would never end, others were either unaware of them or looked the other way.

Emma Stone, as Skeeter, discovers far more than she really thought about. It simply wasn't discussed. When she embarks what seems to be a simple story idea, it grows to a living, breathing work that attacks the social and political abyss to a more personal, more identifiable level. Not only are the two ladies who are her narrativer touchstones (played to Oscar perfection by Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis) real "iron chefs" in courage, endurance and moral integrity, they're people with faults, wounds and talent. And a sense of humor -- perhaps the best survival tool of all.

While the institutionalization of bigotry depicted in The Help is a experience too heinous to be understood fully except by those who suffered through it, most of us at some time has been wronged by a boss, a co-worker, teacher, parent or any person who held sway over our fate (or made us feel that they held sway). You can't help root for Abileen and Minnie, as well as cheer when the most loathsome character (played to the glorious hilt by Bryce Dallas Howard) is taken down more than a few notches.

To me, The Help is also a story about the power of the written word. Yes, it's a movie, and the visuals are superb, but Skeeter's book is the catalyst that finally sets so much in motion. While we now live in an age of high tech and endless visuals, words can still change history, especially when those words bring issues to the personal attention of those who might be otherwise unaware of them.

There is no audio commentary on the discs, which is unfortunate, but the behind the scenes featurette is among the best of its kind.   The Help is the work of mutual friends who somehow were allowed to create this great work together despite the obstacles of the publishing and film businesses. I have never heard of a similar story quite like it.

The Help -- and the story behind The Help -- are never to be forgotten.







"CARS 2" NOT A LANDMARK, BUT NOT A RETREAD, EITHER
Blog, Movies
Posted on Nov 11 2011 by Greg
Walt Disney's childhood idyll of a farm family life is the stuff of legend and has influenced many a Disney film and theme park. I can also be said that John Lasseter's childhood of road trips in the southwest, small towns that no longer exist due to superhighways and a love of automobiles is directly attached to what is now two Cars movies.



Most critics have been less than kind regarding Disney•Pixar's Cars 2, but the public is clearly honing in on Lasseter's wavelength and responding with enthusiasm (and strong summer box office and huge DVD sales) for the sequel especially for Mater, who takes center stage in this family-friendly spy thriller.

In the -- THANK YOU!! -- audio commentary, Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis offer lots of cool factoids as well as their reasoning behind the creative decisions.

Lasseter says, "When we do a sequel, it's not just to retread the same emotional story that the original is. We want to find something new and something different." Little of the movie takes place in Radiator Springs, but rather in colorful, exciting international locales that offer the Pixar artists a chance to dazzle with truly breathtaking aerial views and meticulous details, which I find most enjoyable in high-def Blu-ray (3-D is nice, but you lose some clarlty and I'd rather revel in the details).

Lasseter also mentions that the story for Cars 2 sprang from a scene in the first film in which Lightning and Sally (who is not given enough to do in the sequel) see a spy thriller at a drive-in. He loved spy movies as a kid, particularly likes the Bourne series and
bourne movies and believes that Cars 2 isn't a spy movie spoof so much as a solid story that can stand on its own.

I personally found Cars 2 to be a throwback to the spy shows and films that I grew up with, like The Avengers, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Secret Agent and even Get Smart. These were all somewhat comedic as well as thrilling (especially Smart of course) -- but of all the spy genre films, Cars 2 reminded me most of one of my favorites theatrical features, Hanna-Barbera's The Man Called Flintstone.



My I favor you with a parody of the unforgettable theme to this epic adventure, with special Cars 2 lyrics?

THE TRUCK CALLED MATER

Who do they call
When gears are startin’ to fall
When all the oil is spillin’
And synth fuels beginnin’ to brew?
The truck called Mater, that’s who-oo-oo-oo!

Who’s always there,
There to shoot and fly through the air
Who defeats Pacers and Gremlins
And all those cars we disliked too?
The truck called Mater, that’s who-oo-oo-oo!

He screams after eating wasabi
Down to the lobby
To learn the charms
Of the Japanese joh–onnns!

Who is the truck
Who succeeds with mostly dumb luck
While his pal Lightning is winning
Who’s spinning the crooks like fan belts?
The truck called Mater!
Who else, who else, who ELLLLLse!!

One final note on Cars 2 -- I drove a Gremlin in college and was hysterical with laughter that it and the Pacer were held is such comical "esteem" in Cars 2. They earned the distinction, to be sure.







"POOH" IS A HUNNY OF A MOVIE
Blog, Movies
Posted on Nov 03 2011 by Greg
It wasn't loaded with special effects, blaring music, big splashy stars or explosions. Summer 2011's Disney theatrical release, Winnie the Pooh, was exactly the kind of animated film Walt Disney was making in the late '50s/early '60s -- not sweeping epics, nor pop music short packages, but simple, glowing stories packed with rich characterizations (both in writing and animation), superb voice work and hummable tunes.

Some found this film to be too much of a throwback, but how many modern films can truly rekindle the texture and charm of a classic without succumbing to the present day trappings and trends? Like the TV series Seinfeld was in its deceptively self effacing claim to be "about nothing," Pooh's power shines in his basic plotlines, only without the cynicism. A.A. Milne's books had slim storylines, too, and attempts to clutter them have met with mixed results.

First and foremost, Winnie the Pooh is one of the funniest movies of the year. I don't say this with any hint of irony or sarcasm, it's just true. Without messing around with the characters or updating the humor, you find yourself laughing at the clever "who's on first" wordplay. Pooh and pals may be guileless, a bit deluded and sometimes clueless, but they're not stupid or held to ridicule. This is very, very hard humor to pull off successfully.

The most clueless character of all is Owl, a character never fully realized in past Poohs but brought to scene-stealing fervor by the sharp vocal timing of Craig Ferguson, who with narrator John Cleese and Zooey Deschanel, are as far as the voice casting ventured into celebrity (but with respect to suitability, not just fame). Cheers to the creative team for retaining the seemingly endless talents of Jim Cummings as Pooh and Piglet rather than hiring a marquee name and wrecking the character for an easy marketing hook. Tom Kenny also does a wonderfully neurotic Rabbit, and my kids got a kick out of hearing wisps of his Spongebob voice peeking out within the characterization.

The musical score by Robert Rodriguez and Kristen Anderson-Rodriguez (she also voices Kanga) is a tribute to the Sherman Brothers' art of the deceptively simple and infinitely singable song. I can't help but assume that the chorus singing "hunny, hunny..." was a nod to the Wonderful World of Color theme ("color,  color...").



The Blu-ray looks marvelous, but I was a little let down by the lack of extras. No commentary, not much behind the scenes stuff, pretty lacking all around. Most interesting were the deleted scenes. Charming as they were, the scenes were cut because, it seems from the explanation, to keep the story focused and evenhanded. Although Owl is a scene stealer, he's never the complete focus. Each character gets a sufficient time to shine, even "B'loon." The filmmakers even resisted padding the feature to make it longer, instead adding on The Ballad of Nessie (another film that could have been released in the early Disney/Pooh days). Historically, Dumbo was a short feature too, but it's a gem at its ideal running time.

I can only hope they're saving some additional features for a reissue in the future, because this Pooh should not get lost in a sea of direct-to-video movies. Not to slight them all (many were very nice), but it's pretty crowded out there with Pooh videos. Maybe that's why the title is simply "Winnie the Pooh" with no subtitle, in order to set it apart from the pack.







"ON STRANGER TIDES" - THE MUSICAL THAT ISN'T
Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 29 2011 by Greg
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are all lots of fun, kind of creepy and very funny (mostly due to Captain Johnny/Jack Depp/Sparrow), but of late they've become convoluted and serpentine. I watched the second and third films with a kind of glaze, not really following the storylines at all, but just drifting from set piece to set piece, enjoying the ride but not really keeping track of what was going on.

Remedying this was among the marching orders of new-to-Pirates director Rob Marshall, a virtuoso musical film director in an era in which such craftsmen are few and far between. He's perhaps the only director capable in recent years of making good, solid musicals that even the non-fan can enjoy - among them the acclaimed TV version of Annie and the Oscar winning Chicago.



Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is, in effect, a musical without songs. And it works perfectly (unlike 1972's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which was supposed to be a musical, and 1961's Fanny, which should have been but had its song torn out). Like a classic Hollywood or British musical film, it's lavishly mounted with magnificent sets and grand costumes. Even the dirty, filthy settings are meticulously detailed (and all look amazing in Blu-ray). The characters are larger than life, the action scenes are inventively choreographed and the story stays simple to allow for all the elements to take the forefront.

On Stranger Tides has a refreshingly linear plot -- the search for the Fountain of Youth, and it has a staple element of musicals: the dual couples. Oklahoma! had Laurie, Curly, Ado Annie and Will, The Sound of Music had Maria, the Captain, Liesl and Rolf -- and this film has Jack, Angelica, Philip and Syrena. All the elements fall beautifully into place.

On the Blu-ray audio commentary (thank you, bonus feature people!), director Rob Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca express their (and Johnny Depp's) fondness for movies, expressing their excitement of using the very same beach made famous by Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, the remains of a hotel where Elvis appeared in Blue Hawaii and more. It's nice when the movie makers are fond of the genre and the project to which they are assigned. It shows.

Penelope Cruz makes her Pirates debut with panache, power, beauty and even some warmth (deep, expressive eyes), though I would have liked to see her given more humor. She proved to be capable of sparring with Sparrow -- and gets in quite a few good lines -- but for some reason, there is a tendency for modern films to confuse feminine strength with dourness. Behold the perfect combination Diana Rigg in the 60's series The Avengers and you'll see what I mean.

Love to have the commentary included, but otherwise not a ton of extras, which is a bit of a surprise. Overall though, one of the series' best.







HOW THE LION KING EARNED HIS CROWN
Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 18 2011 by Greg
I know some might not like to hear me admit this, but the character of Simba kind of gets me annoyed in The Lion King. Yes, I know he's young and foolish at the start, but when he brags and taunts Scar, he spurs the villainous lion into his treachery. When he sings "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," he's not realizing what has to happen for him to be king. When Mufasa is killed, only a moron would believe what Scar is able to convince him of. And yes, I know, that's part of the story arc -- that Simba must mature and get a clue before he is worthy of his kingdom.

But the film has never fully convinced me that Simba truly reaches that point. It actually seems that Simba's ascent is more due to the efforts of Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki, Sarabi, Nala and the ghost of Mufasa. Yet he gets to be king anyway. Maybe my perspective is tainted by some real-life business politics, but I've never been able to shake this feeling, at least until The Lion King 1 1/2, when Simba actually acknowledges and thanks Timon and Pumbaa. (The Broadway show also was able to allow Simba's character more introspection that isn't possible in the format of an animated film.)

Don't get me wrong. The Lion King is a masterwork and a landmark Disney animated film, a perfect storm of talent and artistry that continues to command awe from the public, even recently in its 3-D release.



What makes The Lion King even more amazing is how close it came to never happening, or at least faltering along the way. A candid, revelatory bonus feature, which is included on both the Blu-ray and the DVD (unlike the commentary and many other features which are exclusive to the Blu-ray), Producer Don Hahn narrates the story of the film from his perspective. During most of its production, The Lion King was considered "the lesser project" next to Pocahontas, it went through several personnel changes and backstage angst, and the filmmakers were concerned that the public would reject the movie--right up to the first release date.

That's why such bonus material is so valuable and important. This knowledge serves to make me appreciate The Lion King even more, even if Simba gets my goat a little. (Of course, if really he did get my goat, it would little more than a snack, wouldn't it?)

-----------------------------------

Special offer
Now through 1/31/12, Disney Movie Club is offering a limited edition 3-pin set with the purchase of any Diamond Edition of The Lion King.









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