12/11/2011

Blu-ray Review: West Side Story (1961) -- 50th Anniversary Edition




Now Available to Own
      


Photo Slideshow   






It wasn’t until the theatrical release of The Sound of Music that West Side Story filmmaker (and Citizen Kane editor) Robert Wise asked audiences how to “solve a problem like Maria.”

Yet roughly twenty years earlier, Wise’s West Side co-director Jerome Robbins was asked to solve the problem of the man who would become the lover of the Story’s heroine – also named Maria – when a frustrated friend knocked on the legendary choreographer’s door, struggling with an acting class assignment of how to bring Romeo Montague to life.

And while it’s never been proven that the “friend” in question was none other than Montgomery Clift*, given the way that West Side Story seems to transcend the musical genre, it’s not surprising to discover that the person who lit the creative match for a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s "star-cross’d" tragedy wasn’t even a song and dance man himself. 

Of course, rhythm and movement was Robbins’ stock in trade so he turned to other avant-garde artists in the field – eager to push the boundaries of what the American stage musical was in the middle of the twentieth century to make something unlike anything that had been executed before.


To carry it out, Robbins made a wise decision to enlist the help of playwright Arthur Laurents, whose interest in social consciousness and the human struggles of everyday life naturally lent itself to the contemporary handling of the material.

In doing so, Laurents traded in the Bard’s poison of deadly potions to vengeful prejudice sweeping the streets of New York City instead of Fair Verona where he laid the scene of two street gangs (the white “Jets” verses the Puerto Rican “Sharks”) both alike in desperation when an interracial romance between Shark sister Maria (Natalie Wood) and inactive Jet (Richard Beymer) gets in the way of territorial war.


While it’s hard to imagine West Side Story with any one element from music to lyrics to dance to drama removed, it’s amazing to mentally break down the work involved and admire just how ambitious Robbins’ and company were to choreograph steps to that score with just the right lyrics to move the dramatic plot forward.

A triumphant collaboration that began with a core team of four including Robbins, Laurents, master maestro Leonard Bernstein and wit plus grit poetic lyricist Stephen Sondheim, when West Side Story moved from stage to screen, editor turned director Robert Wise and award-winning scripter Ernest Lehman were added to the mix.


Anchored by composer Leonard Bernstein’s daring score which married the sound of smoke filled jazz clubs with the sweet sounding perfection of symphony hall -- the staggering soundtrack jumps octaves and time-signatures every few measures.

And similar to the way that the poetic language of Romeo stays with us the most, in a musical fusion blend of sight and sound, Story adapts and transforms the poetic language of the Bard’s iambic pentameter to do the same by giving off the impression of spontaneous improvisation in all areas including song, dance and free-flowing camera movement.


Given that the sound level of the music was always a point of contention for Bernstein – considering his famous dislike of the triple sized orchestra used to record the score to rather unsubtle effect – it’s safe to say that he may not have been overjoyed by the overwhelming and at times downright ostentatious 7.1 high definition audio track on the film’s 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray debut.

Drowning out everything from some of the individual singers to the overall dialogue, even though the theater-level soundtrack tends to blast you out of your chair more often than you’d like in countless efforts to scramble for the volume control, the sheer majesty of this Criterion quality, scratch and flaw free pristine 1080 pixel image resolution will leave you speechless.


Giving other MGM/Fox Blu-ray transfers a run for their money, from Story era classics like Sound of Music to Fiddler on the Roof to contemporary classics like Moulin Rouge!, this three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is a must-own musical collection, complete with a fascinating Memories documentary (roughly ten years old) that includes vintage footage and rare clips and recordings including pretty if underwhelming performances of beloved tunes by Natalie Wood herself.

While the topic of prejudice will never stop being vital to us, 1961’s ten-time Oscar winner West Side Story is a vibrant reminder of just how important it is to teach the next generation lessons of acceptance and diversity before they learn them on the street whether it’s on the Broadway stage, on the page with the Bard or with a Blu-ray player hooked up to a HD screen.


*Source: Music on Film: West Side Story by Barry Monush


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

12/04/2011

DVD Review: Shanghai Mystery (2006) aka Shanghai Red

Now Available to Own   






Original 2006 Theatrical Title: Shanghai Red

As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” and this becomes a main theme that serves writer/director Oscar Luis Costo well in his intriguing albeit sluggish Shanghai-set mood piece Shanghai Mystery, where the adage is utilized again and again.

Unfortunately by settling for a storyline that’s only faintly mysterious rather than a full-out Shanghai Mystery, from a viewer perspective, this clichéd piece of wisdom comes back to haunt us with the realization that even though we’re set up with a titular mystery, the genre-promise established by the opening credits disappears long before we reach the conclusion.

While we’re led to believe that if we remain patient we’ll eventually unmask the villain responsible for the murder of her husband, that’s quickly put on the back burner in favor of an emotional/psychological look at Vivian Wu’s conflicted character, who spends a majority of the film narrating the chronologically challenged tale to the audience through a jailhouse interview device.

Despite its shortcomings, it’s a sophisticated star vehicle for Costo’s wife Vivian Wu, who also serves as a producer of the largely subtitled film, co-starring Desperate Housewives ensemble actor Richard Burgi.

Is our gun-toting lady in red a heroine pushed too far in her role as a single mother or in her double life as a part-time vengeance seeking antiheroic assassin aiming to gun down the man who made her a widow?

Best described as an unlikely Film Noir inspired cross between Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Zhang Yimou’s 1990 neorealist period, though it’s quite stylishly made from a technical standpoint, Shanghai Mystery is tonally uneven, frustratingly paced and oddly structured.

Anticlimactic if fascinating on the most basic level, Costo’s Shanghai Mystery begins with more promise than a great title alone due to its terrific starting point that could’ve been used as a building block to one solid gender-reversal Neo-Noir thriller that refreshingly places a woman in a role traditionally reserved for a man.

An unusual Mystery that's missing a mystery beyond one inviting us to question where the mystery went and if it got lost in translation in a film, though Shanghai spirals out of control by trying to be too many genres for too many people, its biggest misstep relates to character rather than plot.

Wooden stock characters may abound as is the case in Noir flavored film but Shanghai shanghais us completely by drastically changing Wu’s characterization via an upsetting revelation that occurs late in the game, which not only makes it hard to sympathize with her but seemingly comes out of nowhere.

Richly atmospheric and undeniably ambitious, though it misses the mark as a traditional or existential mystery by not knowing the potential of the plot until the mystery was gone, Costo’s otherwise bold effort remains impressive on a filmmaking level, boasting crisp cinematography and lush production values executed by those working behind the scenes.


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

12/01/2011

TV on DVD Review: Luther -- Series 2 (2011) aka Luther 2



Now Available to Own   



 

Those who’ve had many small screen encounters with police procedurals of the British kind might be quick to assume that Luther series creator Neil Cross drew inspiration from similar sociological and psychologically fixated programs such as Murphy’s Law, Blue Murder, Prime Suspect and Cracker.

Yet the roots for the eponymous brilliant but obsessive Detective Chief Inspector embodied by actor Idris Elba (HBO’s The Wire) are far more diverse than you’d suspect as Cross’s inspiration was half-literary and half-Yankee.


Initially impressed by the “elementary” yet elegant logically based deductive reasoning techniques by Sherlock Holmes, Cross derived pop-culture wisdom to balance out the scales of Holmesian good for Elba’s albeit somewhat antiheroic character with the “inverted detective format” evidenced on the iconic USA smash series Columbo by openly revealing the evil perpetrator but not the means with which he’ll be caught.

Therefore, rather than spend an inordinate amount of time on Poirot-style drawing-room explanatory speeches that link the crook to the crime for the case’s final solution, we become part of the mystery itself as a vicarious member of Luther’s cast-of-characters.


By switching our point-of-view from one side to the other a la Hitchcock’s Psycho or Rope, we’re forced to see the events through the eyes of the murderous perpetrator, wanting to shout clues to Luther from our family room, hoping there’s enough evidence to keep the criminal in custody more than a mere matter of hours.

Thus, we’re put on edge and pushed to participate in case building as opposed to case solving – engaging parts of our brain we seldom use as TV viewers while trying to figure out (right along with Luther) how to piece together the clues to construct a solid case rather than a circumstantial or coincidental house of cards.


It’s an enviable and intelligent feat all around, making the second series of the acclaimed and award-nominated show an addictive addition to your sleuths-of-the-small-screen collection.


And as such, by clocking in at just four hours and dividing the season’s two masterful two-hour mysteries into four episodes transferred to two BBC DVDs – Luther justifies my sole piece of criticism that it’s much too good to be much too short.

Unlike Prime Suspect which at times could drag out each individual case far too long as Helen Mirren doggedly chased every single red-herring, because there are so many subplots including those unrelated to a given case, at times Luther’s running-time runs out before we catch up with all of the drama going on off-the-beat.


Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen the first series and was therefore unable to piece together some of the back-stories, the emotions are so strong and the mysteries so engrossing that I didn’t need to view in numerical order to find myself wanting to knock it out in a marathon day of viewing.

Intense and supremely well-acted by its ensemble cast – led by Elba’s multiple award-nominated powerhouse performance – not only will Sherlock and Columbo enthusiasts enjoy Luther, I dare say that in an alternate universe of fictional characters, the sleuths themselves would’ve found the coppers’ complicated, code-filled, identity-skewed Serious and Serial Crimes thrilling to comprehend as well.

Related and/or Referenced Titles


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

11/07/2011

Blu-ray Review: Winnie the Pooh (2011)



Now Available to Own   





Photo Slideshow 
 




As our new Pooh series narrator John Cleese informs us, Christopher Robin not only possesses a very active imagination but he also has an uncanny ability to collect things, including the charming and eccentric cast of stuffed animal characters that audiences treasure right along with Christopher Robin as well.


But when pieces of his favorite collection go missing, Christopher and Pooh know that there’s no better person to turn to than their friend Owl given his talent for telling the rest of Hundred Acre Wood’s lovable residents what to do.


Offering a pot of delicious honey as a reward to the individual that’s first to succeed in locating Eeyrore’s missing tail or finding a promising replacement, Owl inspires the group to begin dividing into search parties with the ultimate goal of tracking down an appendage worthy of being used to pin the tail on the donkey.


And when the first adventure spirals off into a second one, imaginations go into overdrive after Christopher Robin’s hastily written note sends Rabbit into a paranoid frenzy, enlisting others – on the strength of what may be a simple spelling error and misunderstanding -- to set a trap to catch a mysterious creature suspected of kidnapping their poor human pal.


A refreshingly wholesome – not to mention thoroughly un-cynical animated work free of trendy pop culture references and enough sneaked-in double entendres to keep the parents awake – Winnie the Pooh serves as a high-quality, palette cleansing antidote to 3D overload children’s fare.


Yes, some of the new character voices may take some getting used to, particularly in the case of Tigger, who is not only saddled with a different rhythm but an uncharacteristic lack of charm as well, coming across as a hyper child with a millisecond-long attention span instead of the jumping, laughing Tigger we all remember.


Nonetheless, the new Disney film remains impressive and fortunately, it’s fairly easy to overlook a few out-of-place annoyances due to the swift pace and emphasis on ensemble storytelling.


And although Zooey Deschanel’s soothing Judy Garland-esque sunny vocals shine sublimely well in the high definition Blu-ray’s 5.1 surround sound audio field, overall the traditional artistic framing of scenes with hand drawn sketches make the DVD version roughly on par with the HD disc available in the money saving combo pack.


But while it’s hard to justify the extra expense for the Blu-ray format only with the realization that Pooh clocks in with an extremely succinct running time of just 62 minutes, the thoroughly enjoyable picture is ideally suited for the small screen, offering enthusiastic parents and caregivers a terrific opportunity to introduce the silly and sensitive bear to young audience members of a new generation.


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

11/03/2011

DVD Review: Faces in the Crowd (2011)




Now Available to Own   



Photo Slideshow 



 

Oscar nominated French filmmaker Julien Magnat (student short: The All-New Adventures of Chastity Blade) makes his ambitious if ultimately awkward English language feature debut with this clunky thriller that destroys the promise of its clever premise with logic that’s so laughable that it leaves holes big enough to drive the strained script through.

Bolstered by a solidly constructed foundation and anchored by the commitment and conviction shown by actress Milla Jovovich’s strong performance, writer/director Magnat’s easily predictable yet uneasy serial killer mystery is unfortunately bogged down by a crowd of unlikable characters – most of whom behave in the most mind-bogglingly bizarre ways throughout.


Although she manages to survive her wrong place/wrong time encounter with multiple murderer Tearjerk Jack – becoming the case’s first official living witness who’s seen the blade wielding psychopath – Jovovich’s sweet schoolteacher discovers that instead of mere Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she’s developed Prosopagnosia or Face Blindness, making the faces of friends, lovers and strangers all swirl together in an unrecognizable blur.

Facing an uncertain fate with the realization that the killer could be right in front of her at any given moment with the cool confidence that the heroine wouldn’t know him from Adam (or actually anyone), although Magnat’s movie offers a smart twist on the blind terror subgenre best epitomized by the classic chiller Wait Until Dark, Faces in the Crowd never fully pays off on the plotline he’s attempted to set-up.


From failing to make us believe that the only viable lead to catching a serial killer wouldn’t qualify for police protection because of paperwork to sending our heroine out to meet an estranged lover late at night after she’d been purposely placed in hiding, Magnat distracts us from his ingenious premise with illogical behavior and an alarming lack of common sense.


Moving beyond out-of-character behavior to flat out idiocy, although it’s ripe for rotation on Lifetime as a woman-in-peril thriller, Faces in the Crowd may also have a future as RiffTrax fodder in the future as we endure all types of head-scratching moments from start-to-finish.

While Faces is several steps above a run-of-the-mill made-for-TV mystery, mostly due to a strong emotive turn by Jovovich who keeps getting better with each and every role, sadly when you place Magnat’s picture alongside other English language feature debuts – much like a room of faces in the onscreen crowd – our memory of it will be little more than a blur.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)




Now Available to Own   





The first film of the franchise that I’ve seen since taking in the official first film of the multibillion dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides is another efficiently made supernatural, seafaring swashbuckler.

As opposed to being swept away by a sea of convoluted chaotic subplots, Stranger sets its sails early on in the first act to ensure we don’t get shipwrecked by too many competing storylines.

Inspired by the titular novel by Tides scribe Tim Powers, screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott put the lessons learned by the Caribbean trilogy to good use, boldly dropping old faces to go-fish for new cast-mates that aid in a standalone James Bond like sequel feel which isn’t overly dependent on Pirates pictures of the past.


Yet the supporting cast is called supportive for a reason as – even when it takes the form of two-time Oscar winner Penelope Cruz and Deadwood scene-stealer Ian McShane – there’s no denying that the treasure viewers prize the most is the mischievous wit and rebellion embodied by Johnny Depp’s now-iconic “if Keith Richards had a love child with Jim Morrison” cool rock ‘n roll mojo fueled performance as laidback pirate Jack Sparrow.

After Sparrow finds himself face-to-face, tale-to-tale, and sword-to-sword with an old-flame turned crafty con-woman Angelica (Cruz), he’s enlisted to undertake a dangerous adventure that tests his alliances between love and greed as well as life and death when Angelica and her deceitful Blackbeard father (McShane) force Sparrow to track down Ponce de Leon’s legendary Fountain of Youth.


Venturing to uncover the booty before the expeditions of other countries and old rivals such as Geoffrey Rush’s Barbosa beat the pirate to the punch, Sparrow must survive mermaids of the Jaws rather than Splash variety, Butch Cassidy worthy cliff-terrain, and a few Princess Bride-esque double crosses and shape-shifting twists of plot and character alike in a bloated yet entertainingly busy 136 minute running time.


Although the relative emphasis on less-is-more simplicity is more blessing than curse in stark contrast to other Jerry Bruckheimer everything-and-the-kitchen sink nonsensical hundred million dollar plus CG-heavy live action video games including Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Stranger Tides still feels slightly formulaic for all of the talent involved.

A spirited old fashioned romp, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is nonetheless sure to earn the “That’s Swashbuckling Entertainment” Errol Flynn seal of approval, which – after the release of former Disney owned Miramax execs Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Scream 4 – easily makes it the most enjoyable fourth installment of 2011.

Appealing to those who particularly partial to the first picture, Stranger Tides additionally benefits from the fiery interplay of Depp and Cruz which is spotlighted nicely by new franchise helmer Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) along with the gorgeously rich imagery of Disney’s superlatively transferred Blu-ray Combo Pack edition.


   
Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Phase 7 (2011)




Now Available to Own   


Photo Slideshow 
 




Intended as a comedic horror allegory of the state of irrational paranoia as well as genuine fear surrounding the Swine Flu epidemic that terrified the globe a few years back – writer/director Nicolas Goldbart’s Argentine import Phase 7 is proof that anything can inspire filmmakers to serve up a new twist on an old genre.

A revisionist western, a dark comedy, an exploitative work of psychological exploration, a gory medical satire or a Sergio Leone meets John Carpenter play on Shaun of the Dead divided by [Rec] times 28 Days Later – whichever way you choose to dissect Goldbart’s motion picture oddity, it’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

Overly ambitious and admittedly flawed, because Phase 7 is fueled by the novelty of its inventive premise that finds its leads involuntarily quarantined in their apartment following a disease outbreak, it starts to run out of gas relatively quickly after we pass the no-return point of the first act.

Unable to compel us for the length of its succinct running time as something other than a thin helping of popcorn entertainment that refreshingly does inspire its audience to think more than average gory action fare. Namely, before Phase 7 settles in fully as a Swine Flu allegory, the word-of-mouth crossover film festival hit from a Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 executive producer also fascinates as a work of political daring.

Given some subtle editing tricks that intercut key news footage at certain times and various supporting players in the UN like apartment building, it’s easy to view 7 as a possible consumerist parable or a Big Brother foreign policy fable in the post Bush I (and Bush II) world, making Goldbart’s film that much more appealing to a non-horror enthusiast market.

Although it never fully pays off on the satirical level it initially foreshadowed as it grows a bit one-dimensional as it continues, overall it’s a very impressive and wholly original entry into the sociologically relevant paranoid horror subgenre that quarantines writer/director Nicolas Goldbart as a talented helmer that we ought to watch even closer in the future for symptoms of filmmaking fever.   

Referenced and/or Related




Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

10/18/2011

Blu-ray Review: Everything Must Go (2011)



Now Available to Own   


Photo Slideshow 



 

Though he describes his dad as “more of a drunk who did interesting things,” as we discover in writer/director Dan Rush’s indie feature Everything Must Go, salesman Nick Halsey (Will Ferrell) might just as well have been talking about himself. Only in Nick’s case, the interesting things have a way of happening to him involuntarily.

And it’s a good thing that he doesn’t live in a place where precipitation is all that common because for Arizona resident Halsey, when it rains, it pours as he gets fired from his Regional Vice President position at a company he’d given sixteen years of his life to and then finds out his wife has not only left him but also changed the locks, leaving everything Nick Halsey owns on the front lawn.

Out of options – not to mention nearly out of stuff – Nick realizes that to formally occupy his own lawn in the eyes of his community, he has to keep up the pretense of a sale for the sake of appearances.

Setting up shop in his yard, he spends a bulk of the film trying to figure out what his next move should be – beyond whether or not to sell a half a bottle of mouthwash to a random yard sale wanderer.

Whereas these decisions are made infinitely easier when he hires a neighbor kid to run his extremely disorganized sale alongside him in exchange for cigarette breaks he doesn’t use and baseball lessons, decisions about life and what’s next in the scheme of things continue to elude Nick.


Continuing to demonstrate his impressive range as a dramatic actor of untapped skill, following a career-changing turn in Marc Forster’s Stranger than Fiction, Will Ferrell sheds all traces of ham-and-cheese, embracing humility and humanity in their place in a fine performance as a lost man for whom answers refuse to come easily in this refreshingly real, slice-of-life adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”

Bold in its simplicity, clarity and authenticity – shortcuts are thankfully nowhere to be found in Dan Rush’s understated work wherein life unfolds without contrivance or cliché.


Although admittedly due to its very nature as a vignette and fact that the source material for the film came from the realm of short fiction, some big questions are left unanswered or articulated with much in the way of explanation.

Yet while this may bother some viewers who require more closure or a firmer conclusion that will provide us with a better sense of what might be next for Nick or indeed even a greater understanding of what had occurred earlier for the man as well, ultimately in the case of this work, less is so much more.

By giving us just enough to follow Nick from one point to the next, the film’s structure accurately reflects the plight of its existentially adrift lead as well as that of two other similarly struggling supporting players in the form of a new neighbor played by Rebecca Hall and Nick’s unlikely teen protégé (Christopher Wallace).


Moreover, in doing so in a film that’s unpretentious, devoid of cynicism and generous to its characters – flaws and all -- Rush invites us to deduce the truth about all three individuals the way we would do with our own neighbors, piecing all the interesting things together ourselves.

Knowing that anything goes upon the discovery that everything must go, Will Ferrell reminds us just how interesting playing it straight can be, letting go of his traditional “larger than life” onscreen persona to keep things real in Rush’s impressive debut.


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review: The Lion King (1994) -- Diamond Edition


Now Available to Own   



Simba the lion cub isn’t the only one who “just can’t wait to be king” in Walt Disney animation’s Hamlet inspired epic of lion-sized family dysfunction, tragedy of Greek proportions and biblical complexity (oh my!) as shortly into the film, Simba’s nefarious green-eyed Uncle Scar gives into the green-eyed monster that is jealousy to murderous effect.

Pulling a Cain and Abel in a kiddie movie takes Disney villainy to a whole new level in what is arguably Disney’s darkest turn since Bambi’s mother was assassinated by an unseen human hunter so many decades ago.

Is it any wonder then that Bambi was recently restored to cinematographic splendor for its high definition debut mere months before Lion King shared the same fate as the ultimate anthropomorphic coming-of-age in the wild amidst tragedy double feature?

And in fact, Bambi was a direct source of inspiration on the more than six hundred illustrators, technicians, camera operators and Disney professionals who lent a hand on what would become the highest grossing hand-drawn animated feature of all-time.

Taking a cue from Bambi in using nature as its muse to base its iconic animal characters on the real-life animals found in the wild as opposed to convenient fictionalized versions of lions and tigers found in their imagination, Lion King’s commitment to authenticity is apparent right from the start in the film’s “Circle of Life” prologue sequence, which may very well be one of the studio’s crowning achievements.

A pitch-perfect opener that celebrates life, love, creativity, music, art, education and friendship – all of which together simultaneously represent the studio’s reason for being as well –The Lion King effectively references the “Circle” once again in the closing moments of the film, harking back to Bambi’s cyclical structure while adhering to the circular pattern of nature that doubles as the film’s overall theme.

While it’s doubtful that younger viewers will get the same “reading” of the picture and indeed, Lion King will inevitably play differently to those of various ages – in spite of its rather alarmingly Shakespearean subplot involving murderous greed, envy and malice in the pursuit of power – it’s an ultimately life-affirming odyssey incorporating the usual trials and tribulations of the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey.

Although it’s best known for its sing-along friendly Oscar-winning music from Elton John and Tim Rice, the powerful speaker shaking symphonic score from Hans Zimmer really stands out in this Blu-ray upgrade, balancing out the aforementioned duo’s radio-friendly pop songs and setting the stage for the African adventure.

Multigenerational in its appeal in addition to involving audience members of both genders, The Lion King is as far from Disney’s world of princesses, magic spells, poisoned apples and glass slippers as one could possibly get, even if admittedly it still uses the old studio standby of talking animals, silly sidekicks and royal birthrights being robbed right out from underneath the hero by relatives and/or someone they know.

While the movie’s hyena villains still annoy me on a Jar-Jar Binks in the new Star Wars borderline-racist-depiction level, going a tad overboard in their characterization to the extent that it’s sure to make some viewers uncomfortable, overall it’s easy to overlook as overwhelmed as we are by the power of the contemporary classic.

Though not on par with the masterful Beauty and the Beast, it’s a brilliant achievement of the highest artistic craftsmanship as further proof of the studio’s late ‘80s, early ‘90s renaissance that included such films as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin in addition to Beauty and Lion.

Painstakingly transferred to pitch-perfect Blu-ray complete with the option of 3D with a Diamond Edition set made exclusively for those that have the requisite technology set-ups and prefer to relive the recent theatrical experience by screening it in 3D in their living rooms, The Lion King arrives with a bevy of bonus features.

While the 2D version is dazzling enough for this reviewer, there’s a whole lot of studio treasure to explore including Disney’s informative second-screen option enabling you to get a closer look at the film with an additional screen (laptop, cell phone etc.) of behind-the-scenes information that’s fit for The Lion King.

Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

 FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Ben-Hur (1959) -- Fiftieth Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition



Now Available to Own   





Photo Slideshow 


 

Instead of turning water into wine, the 1959 production of Lew Wallace’s 1880 epic Christian novel turned MGM’s impending financial ruin of bankruptcy into box office gold with the most lucrative not to mention award-winning Hollywood endeavor of the year, thereby blessing the studio offscreen with the same level of miraculous wonder that changed the life of Charlton Heston’s eponymous hero onscreen in Ben-Hur.

The first of only three films in history to win a whopping eleven Oscars (with Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King following suit in ’97 and ’03), three times proved to likewise be the charm for the legendary widescreen MGM remake as 1959’s production marked the third film adaptation of Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.


Still one of the grandest old-school hero’s journeys of them all, director William Wyler’s Technicolor odyssey set the bar for Hollywood epics and helped usher in the era of event movies that would eventually follow from Spartacus to Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia.

Admittedly, the meandering structure of Wyler’s production make it hard to deny that Ben-Hur would’ve been helped by a sharper final edit of a good thirty to forty-five minutes as the movie devolves into episodic subplots following the cinematic crowning achievement that is Hur’s legendary chariot race sequence.

However, aside from its clunky pacing problems which ultimately stem from the overall awkward genre transition from adventure film to passion play as Hur strives to be all things to all audiences, it’s nonetheless aged remarkably well and the movie’s influence can still be felt over five decades later in the films of Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott in particular.

In fact, an entire documentary could be made focusing on the impact that Hur has had on contemporary popcorn pictures, beginning with a sharp focus on the decade of the ‘80s testosterone fueled blockbuster of modern hero’s journeys, in addition to Ben-Hur’s obvious influence on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (itself an amalgam of Hur and the Hur inspired Spartacus), of course.

Gorgeously restored to digitally enhanced perfection and packaged as a five-DVD fiftieth anniversary limited edition gift set collection with two keepsake books containing Charlton Heston’s private set diaries and an in-depth production book with original pressbook photos, studio information and more, Warner Brothers’ release of the MGM classic also serves up the 1925 feature for contrast and comparison.


And while it’s a treasure trove for scholars – not to mention Heston enthusiasts – as far as this critic is concerned, the feature presentation itself is the main attraction. The anniversary edition boasts eye-popping clarity, pitch-perfect flesh tones that stand up well next to the sun-drenched landscape and the film’s magnificent use of rich red hues look so impressive in DVD that I couldn’t help but wonder what – if any major – difference the high definition recent Blu-ray release would make.

Miklos Rozsa’s iconic score soars through every speaker of your home theater system both as part of the picture and as the main event given the DVD bonus of watching Wyler’s work with the isolated musical score to soak up the film on an aesthetic level alone.


Yet whichever way you prefer to soak up the well-preserved grandeur of this National Library of Congress certified National Treasure, the one thing that everyone can agree on is even in the cyclical world of film – when just like in the ‘50s, studios are relying on all kinds of gimmicks like extra wide screens and 3D to lure in viewers – there’s still nothing more thrilling than the effort of real human beings working together without state-of-the-art effects.

And nowhere is this feat best evidenced than in action director Andrew Marton’s five-week long chariot race shoot. One of Hollywood’s best adrenaline-fueled adventurous showdowns ever captured on celluloid, the death-defying climax of Ben-Hur is so miraculously awe-inspiring and groundbreaking that it’s the cinematic equivalent of turning water into wine.  


Text ©2011, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.