Wednesday, October 21, 2015

BLU-RAY REVIEW: Tomorrowland

Seeing Tomorrowland for the second time is infinitely more satisfying than seeing it for the first. It's a movie that, even with such spectacular visuals, is largely an intimate, earthbound story about several relationships and the potential of humankind.

The trailers and preview clips could not help raise expectations for a movie that didn't exist. Either that, or the movie we saw was not the movie edited as intended. Maybe something was missing that had been there before, in addition to the deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray.

Like the World's Fair and the Disney Parks versions of Tomorrowland, the first thing one might expect of this film would be a live-action Jetsons with pithier undertones. George Clooney chooses most of his first because of meaning as well as story. The overall message is very powerful and inspiring (without giving anything away), but the movie itself is largely a simple and small drama with action set pieces.

Seeing it again, knowing what it will not deliver helps the viewer appreciate the uniformly fine performances of the young players. A second view also eliminates the (sorry) letdown when the film's dogged pursuit of a fantasmagorical new world where we spend lots of time and get to know what life is like there and Rosie the Robot and all...well, once Hugh Laurie and George Clooney face off after Laurie hits him with the standard sci-fi "those puny humans are such useless fools" it brings back memories of such confrontations at the end of each Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman episode.

That said, props to Brad Bird and his team for risking an original story in a film marketplace dependent on sure things like sequels and movies with stars who do the same things in each of their movies. Hopefully Bird's not out of the original live action movie business quite yet.

The Blu-ray looks magnificent -- this movie is worth marveling at if only for the loving, meticulous recreation of the 1964 New York World's Fair, something that we can never visit in real life -- and that's really what movies can do for us, isn't it? The Emerald City-like moments of flight are wonderful, too, and remind one of such a sequence in Disney's underrated Meet the Robinsons, another film that was undefinable and turned out to be a superb experience if approached with no previews or sneak peeks.

Alas, there is no audio commentary for Bird to further explain his vision, which, despite whatever strengths and weaknesses are -- is earnest, sincere and fascinating. We spend some time with him and the cast and crew at Kennedy Space Center and the awe with which they see the structures and gadgets is very real indeed.

My favorite bonus feature is something we rarely experience on bonus features, some time with the composer. It was charming and informative, as Michael Giacchino's brother narrated and took video of a day in his life (what's the deal with the peppers?) and truly marvelous when Richard Sherman visited the music studio to hear the orchestra perform "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." What a great big, beautiful moment it was. Giacchino's awe was akin to that his colleagues at the Space Center.

Fun fact:  In the shop scene, the disc is placed on the album cover of a 1979 Disneyland Storyteller Record of The Black Hole. Ironically, that film is also better on the second viewing because it does not pay off the anticipation of what the black hole is like. Seeing it again, it's a fine space opera romp for a Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Blu-ray REVIEW: Disney's Cinderella (2015)

The ongoing motto of the spectacular, shiny new Cinderella -- a reimagining of the 1950 Disney animated classic. It's a richly detailed extravaganza that incorporates into its script elements of the earlier film, but adds more spunk to Cinderella -- the ending scene with her Stepmother and Stepsisters was much needed in the original. But it also actually tones down some of the most dramatic and intense moments in the 1950 film.

Most notably, the Disney-created "mother's new dress" sequence is downright horrifying as depicted by Walt and his artists. The abject cruelty is so deeply felt, the evil is more demonic that many of the other Disney villains, like Maleficent or the Evil Queen. It's physical and psychological abuse. In the new film, the actions are less pronounced and a little less dark, but it does produce the same emotional effect nonetheless. Maybe it was too intense to be done with live actors.

Speaking of the actors, they are hand picked for perfect roles. It's clearly Cate Blanchett's movie to dominate, and she is a slam dunk, adding a twisted, bitter reason for her evil -- a counterpoint to Cinderella's way of handling adversity. The stepsisters are still comical, and the mice are there, too.

I would have loved it if we could have heard Helena Bonham Carter sing "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" and Lily James sing "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" on the soundtrack. But the background music by Patrick Doyle is sweeping, elegant and just as magnificent as the scenery.

The castle is the visual centerpiece. Interestingly, the digital graphics are so convincing that one wonders just how elaborate the set had to be. Never mind -- they filled Pinewood's James Bond stage with grandeur.

One major story change was introducing Cinderella to the Prince early. This also happened in The Muppet Special, Hey Cinderella, in which she thought he was the palace gardener. Cinderella also encountered the prince early in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version. It's a fine way to work the prince into the story more than he is in the animated film (princes were notoriously difficult to animate). It also comes as a bit of a relief to the viewer, as the opening sequences are filled with tragedy.

It must be pointed out that there is one other live-action Cinderella that compares favorably with this version, in that it opens up the story, adds political intrigue and actually takes the tale beyond the shoe fitting. This is the Sherman Brothers' exquisite musical, The Slipper and the Rose. Featuring one of their most sophisticated scores, this isn't quite as elaborate as the 2015 version, but it is highly recommended.

Blu-ray is a welcome medium to capture all the filagree, ephalets and taffeta and curliques.. There are also a few generous behind the scenes bonus features but no audio commentary (good grief!)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the '70s

This is a large book, but it's remarkably swift and "digestible" to read. I chose to read about the movies I liked best, but could not resist reading about the ones that were so-so. But author Lee Gambin writes with such enthusiasm and conviction, every chapter is fascinating and entertaining, whether the film is familiar of not. Some of the reviews are combined in a single section and others are given more lengthy examinations.

The obvious '70s films are here, like Grease, Saturday Night Fever, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. What is truly marvelous is that a lot of films that are usually tossed aside or barely acknowledged in most film books are included--like Pufnstuf, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Journey Back to Oz, Raggedy Ann & Andy and Sherman Brothers musicals like Charlotte's Web, The Magic of Lassie, Snoopy Come Home, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn--and are discussed with a respect and sense of importance rarely if ever afforded to them.

Gambin also considers TV specials as valid musicals of the '70s and why not? He reviews several Rankin/Bass classics like Santa Claus is Comin' to Town and The Easter Bunny is Comin' To Town, plus TV versions of Broadway shows like Applause and It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!. You'll even find the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special and Hanna-Barbera's KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park!

Gambin often puts the subtexts and messages of the films under a microscope, much as a college professor would in a film class. It's his book and his valid opinion, but some might be taken aback by some of the things he interprets. The book covers material from A to Z and from G-rated to X-rated, so the reader will be exposed to very mature subject matter and politically incorrect verbiage inherent in films that are of their time.

The book does, however, have misspellings, errors and grammatical issues here and there. The interviews are presented unedited, which means that repetitions and extraneous phrases are intact. That's great from an historic point of view, but it makes the reading somewhat tedious and is not a favor to the interview subjects (from my experience, they don't mind a little gentle editing). It would have also been helpful if the table of contents included the titles of the films covered. However, the interviews are pure gold and the overall book is so thorough on so many points that it is still recommended.

Friday, August 28, 2015

DVD REVIEW: Miles from Tomorrowland

Miles from Tomorrowland (a very clever title, I must say) is a Disney Junior CG animated series about the futuristic Calistos family. A nuclear family with a mom, dad, son and daughter, they bring to mind several recent and classic TV shows. They remind me of The Jetsons, of course, to begin with, using phrases like “blastastic” and “astrolutely”. only they take a more active role in helping in the galaxy.

And as on Star Trek: Voyager, mom is the Captain (just like in my house). Like Thunderbirds, they receive assignments to assist and rescues, using their combined talents. Like Handy Manny, the family helps others and fixes things in their community of space. And like The Donna Reed Show’s Stone clan, they’re attractive, pleasant and free of serious dysfunction.

Olivia Munn voices Mom, Larry (Spongebob) voices Leo, the dad, with Cullen McCarthy as Miles and Fiona Bishop as Loretta, Miles’ sister. Miles rides around on a space ostrich named Merk (the amazing Dee Bradley Baker).

Each episode features two 11-minute stories, in which a mission is set up, or a fun activity, such as surfing in space, is explored. Kids are presented with role models in the form of adventurous, important Miles, and brilliant, problem solving Fiona. It’s a great concept that works well for boys and girls equally. Unlike many other Disney Junior shows, there are no songs, perhaps to skew the show a little older.

The DVD offers episodes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 9 from the first season. There are no bonus features, but the box contains a complimentary “Blastboard Flashlight”. Perhaps the tight budgets of DVDs nowadays means that premiums are more affordable than video extras, or quite simply these prizes have proven to have more appeal to consumers.