12/31/2013

Movie Review: Freedom Force (2013)



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You could call the English-language dub and subsequent U.S. release of filmmaker Eduardo Schuldt’s Freedom Force an amusingly animated case of cinematic history repeating itself in the form of CG science fiction homage.

The American voice cast finds Christopher Lloyd paying tribute to his iconic time-traveling, Jules Verne reading scientific inventor Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future by giving vocal life to a similarly gifted professor who sends a team of Sci-Fi nerds back in fictional time to salvage the stories of Jules Verne in this inventive family film.

A cross between Robert Zemeckis’s smash ‘80s film series with a literary twist reminiscent of author Jasper Fforde’s brainy Thursday Next mysteries of altered literary greats, Freedom Force centers on an audacious plot to ruin the reputation of Jules Verne just in time for France’s Literacy Day event by deleting the main characters from his classic works.

Putting a hit out on his most famous heroes with the intent to shatter Verne’s most ingenious plot-lines, while leaving nonsensical novels filled with gaping holes and crazy cliffhangers in their wake, Lloyd’s professor is tasked with putting a stop to the villain’s narrative madness.

 

Determined to set the type right, an elite force of gifted kids – all with wildly different skill sets and each with one character trait in common with the great Jules Verne – are assembled under the guidance of Lloyd to sneak into each novel Tron style and locate a secretly hidden “reset” button to align the stories once again.

Ensuring that young girls are represented as well, Force calls on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s famous small screen butt-kicker Sarah Michelle Gellar to follow in Lloyd’s footsteps and play a new family-friendly twenty-first century animation version of her most famous role as the group’s brave fighter.


While the use of juvenile scatological humor in the form of a team member’s penchant for combative flatulence slightly weakens the overall high quality of the film, ultimately the pro-literature plotline and bold, colorfully constructed CG animation keep the attentions of the target audience engaged while impressing parents at the same time.

This being said, in order for its pro-literacy roots not to get lost in the shuffle amid all of the adventure, Freedom may have been a bit more successful in focusing only on one or at most two of Jules Verne’s classic works to help encourage young readers even more.

And although Freedom Force loses focus in its second half by trying to be too many things to too many people, overall it’s a much better direct-to-disc offering than we normally see from titles without big studio backing.

Moreover, it’s sure to keep your children entertained especially during long holiday season travel with its New Year’s Eve timed-release on DVD and demand. Thus, despite a few flaws, this Dove Foundation approved family feature remains a solid work of animated science fiction history repeating itself that’s aimed to appeal to those too young to go Back to the Future just yet.

      

Text ©2013, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttp://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 may have 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 Lone Ranger (2013)




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The Lone Ranger is a movie of many contradictions. On the one hand it’s so confusing and episodic that if we aren’t careful we’ll get completely lost in the sun-drenched sands of the western desert. Yet at the same time it’s so contrived in its storytelling structure that it’s bookended by a cheesy extended flashback narrative device featuring an older version of Johnny Depp’s Tonto spinning the exact same yarn that’s being unspooled by each sequential flicker of celluloid to a young boy who serves as a stand-in for the audience.

And as annoying as the gimmick is in spoon-feeding the saga to viewers through an on-screen surrogate, because the film was written multiple times by multiple people, there are times when we do find ourselves thankful for the cinematic hand-holding since what we’re ultimately presented with is a meandering, muddled mess of a picture desperately in search of an overall plot – if not a point.

 

Pulling us in multiple directions, The Lone Ranger is bogged down by endless possibilities – often trying and failing to chronicle the conflicts and subplots of more than a dozen of characters at once, all with different genre feels and tones until it becomes ever so obvious that a young boy is the last possible person that should be hearing the tale.

Featuring a colorful cast of characters who seem like they’ve wandered in from entirely different films Purple Rose of Cairo style and entered The Lone Ranger, we’re stunned by the choices made by the writers when faced with some of the decidedly un-Disneyfied players that populate the picture and detract from the original plot.

For within the same hour and in a purported “family film” no less, we encounter a cannibalistic killer who cuts the hearts out of his victims to satisfy his disgusting taste buds, a transvestite villain with a fetish for looking ultra-feminine and a one-legged prostitute who conceals a shotgun in her wooden leg.


Just who exactly the film is “really” supposed to play for in actuality as opposed to on the posters is anyone’s guess as is just what on Earth the film we’re presented has in common with the beloved hero of television and film past from which it’s supposed to have been adapted.

As it turns out, very little indeed as instead of the Jimmy Stewart type of heroic ranger intended by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, we’re given an awkward, not very bright, reluctant and at times cowardly hero who has to be goaded into action.

Given that Armie Hammer isn’t exactly a recognizable name cast-choice, the fact that he plays second fiddle to Johnny Depp isn’t all that surprising but what is surprising is Depp’s bizarre take on Tonto as a Native American with a screw loose and a tragic back-story to boot that has filled him with such guilt that it’s a wonder he can function at all.


An odd portrayal at best from his stilted “Ha, white man,” clichéd style line delivery and fanciful whims that never quite gel with the Buster Keaton persona and sense of ‘20s silent movie pratfall physicality he puts forth in some of the film’s more successful scenes.

An overall ugly film that is definitely unsuitable for casual family viewing, The Lone Ranger’s only saving grace comes in the form of its second – far more successful – bookend device featuring complex action sequences executed by horse and train.

 

While the first one is impressive if a bit short, ultimately it’s just a preview of the brilliance to come in the second and final action sequence of the film – a twenty-minute, all-out, adrenaline pumping blend of bravura action and screwball silent comedy synced to the Lone Ranger theme we know so well.

The expertly choreographed feat is a feast for the ears and eyes, not to mention far more dazzling than anything else not only in Ranger or in other vastly superior action movies during the course of 2013.

It's so good that it makes you mad by how much the rest of the bloated 140 minute movie missed the mark by not matching the remaining 120 minutes to the same pace, tone, spirit, style and humor on display in that sequence.

And against all odds and reason, the formerly must-miss movie becomes a must-see just for that segment alone. An infusion of the goofy fun of 1998’s Zorro remake with the artistry of Buster Keaton’s The General, which most certainly served as a chief inspiration – an argument can be made that that sequence should’ve been trimmed from the picture and released as an Oscar worthy live action short in its own right.


Unfortunately however you can’t just review the film for one part but have to take it as the overall sum of those parts and ultimately Disney’s Lone Ranger is a disaster of epic proportions, especially once you factor in the obscene amount of money gambled on the budget that it justifiably lost at the box office.

Nonetheless, those who have taken a chance on the film in its flawless Blu-ray transfer can take advantage of the handy scene-selection feature to skip the mess and move right to the mini-movie that enthusiasts of the original Ranger were waiting for all along. Hi ho, Silver, and away to the end indeed.     

Text ©2013, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttp://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 may have 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.

12/30/2013

Blu-ray Review: Jayne Mansfield's Car (2012)



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When the grown children of the British man their mother left their American father for come face-to-face with the now-adult children she left behind for the purpose of returning her body for burial in her Alabama home, there’s a culture clash of epic proportions as sparks fly between the two families.

Very aware that despite meeting one another in the event of a death that nothing is black and white, screenwriter/director/star Billy Bob Thornton and his longtime co-writer Tom Epperson soak up the several shades of fascination that initially color the first encounter of such a large group of characters.


Moving from the green envy shown by two patriarchs that never wanted to look one another in the eye to the surprisingly humorous red-hot lust that crops up between unrelated foreign counterparts as bored adults find themselves intrigued by something altogether new, as a writer as well as a director Thornton paints a vibrant portrait of the madness that ensues.

From backhanded compliments to awkward jokes, stereotypical references and generalizations galore about the way each live their life on opposite sides of the pond, their detailed script captures all the complexities of an extended group of people all trying to come to terms with what this newfound sense of family means to them.

In doing so, he revisits some of the same themes, character traits and narrative obsessions he’s visited earlier in his career in this complex – if overly ambitious – awkwardly told tale of two families who never imagined they’d cross paths that are brought together by a character the audience never even gets a chance to meet.

 

And in his return to the director’s chair for this very southern saga, Billy Bob Thornton makes the most of not just its place but also its time period of 1969.

For even though it’s the deceased shared matriarch that serves as the link between all of the characters onscreen, the film is far more concerned with the links the individuals share as fathers and sons, as Jayne at times feels as though it were a Tennessee Williams meets Faulkner masculine-centric sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s mama’s boy saga, Sons and Lovers.


It’s just a shame that he didn’t ditch all the extraneous stuff and drive the tale of fathers and sons he was clearly more interested in exploring into a completely different project altogether.

Filled with a wandering sensibility, Jayne Mansfield’s Car has a preoccupation with movement – never staying on one character or idea too long – making the film play more like a collection of scenes rather than a work with a clear narrative through-line as if this Car had no idea where it wanted to go.

While capable of some sudden bursts of brilliance in the form of mesmerizing monologues delivered by its amazing male cast members, these moments are far too fleeting when compared to the overall running time of the 122 minute movie.

Likewise, the superlative near-soliloquies Thornton and Epperson have written feel more like tourist destinations along the way of a much larger journey the film is taking, with each one inviting our awe yet never quite managing to move easily back into a far too distracted screenplay. And given the high quality of the speeches, it isn’t overly long into Jayne that you realized how much better the script would’ve been reconfigured for the stage after all.

 

Playing yet another variation of a mentally challenged, somewhat broken man who – despite having been a war hero – speaks uninhibitedly with a childlike sense of understanding and penchant for non sequiturs, Thornton is told by the bewildered, beautiful Brit embodied by Frances O’Connor that his “thoughts are so random.”

Attracted to her accent, which in itself echoes Sling Blade’s famous “I like the way you talk” bonding moment, Thornton agrees, proudly telling her, “yeah, I’m a thinker,” before moving on to numerous other topics he initiates and abandons one after the other. And that in a nutshell is Mansfield’s greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength.

Simply put, it has way too many ideas and it wants to tell you all of them and while as observed in the aforementioned speeches, it’s a pleasure to listen then, unfortunately, that only makes up a fraction of an altogether haphazard film.

 

Although he fills the screen with an Altman worthy cast of characters, quite tragically the men shine and the women are essentially turned into audience surrogates – turning up here or there so that the men have someone to talk to (or more specifically at) while encouraging them to share.

While O’Connor steals one of her biggest scenes away from Thornton in a nice play on the male gaze – giving in to his wish to recite something naked for his pleasure and taking far more joy in it than one would expect, unfortunately, the stellar actresses have little to do than lend a sympathetic ear.

Switching gears from his Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner meets A Family Thing paradigm by focusing not on the matriarch and her families but rather on the relationships the two patriarchs have with their sons, Jayne becomes a tale of history repeating itself.

 

Cleverly using a period film to address the endless cycle of war by way of World War I vet patriarchs, their World War II vet sons as well as the threat of the draft effecting the grandsons, Thornton focuses on the way that war (and its after effects) not only linger but are passed down through the generations like blood type and eye color.

Admirably resisting the urge to make it 100% pro or anti-war, Thornton lets each veteran tell their own tale, reflecting not only on their experience but their reasons for fighting along with regrets and triumphs, while comparing their scars both internal and external.

 

In fact, Jayne Mansfield’s Car is so war-focused that at times it felt like all of the other sequences may have been plugged in later from other drafts of other screenplays Thornton and Epperson had laying around.

And honestly, even though it opens one way, Mansfield is at its most compelling when dealing with this subject and at its least when trying to weave in the threads of all the other subplots and topics it introduces into the work including the too-on-the-nose symbolism-heavy one that generated the film’s title.


Likewise by wrapping all of these plots up in a strange accidental LSD trip that not only rings false but also somehow turns Southern patriarch Robert Duvall into a superior father, it becomes painfully obvious how much better the film would’ve been if a handful of characters would’ve been axed along with several subplots in order to make the rest of it more authentic and appealing.

 

Although Jayne is augmented by the power of its cast whose fiery performances manage to fuel our interest regardless of the film’s at times overwhelmingly disappointing flaws, against all odds Thornton’s modern day theater company and approach keeps us watching despite the number of times it loses direction along the way.

When it stays true to its course of mapping out the way that war – much like the basic familial relationships of parent and child – transcends culture, countries, times and languages, Jayne Mansfield’s Car proves that the destination will never be as important as the trip itself.

 

Given a beautiful transfer to 1080 pixel blu-ray high definition complete with Dolby True HD sound and subtitles for the hearing impaired and viewers who simply want to soak up the scripters’ rich ear for language, Jayne Mansfield’s Car makes its way to disc with a behind-the-scenes featurette in its home entertainment debut.

Though Thornton ultimately navigates similar terrain he’s traveled down in films of the past – even after you’ve forgotten the name of the film, you’re certain to recall some of this picture’s most memorable scenes which will stay with you long after it ends.     

Text ©2013, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttp://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 may have 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.

12/26/2013

Blu-ray Review: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)


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Related Review:
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
   


Graduating from the bland screenplay penned by the man behind the modern big-screen versions of Scooby-Doo and Cheaper By the Dozen in Percy’s first outing to a solid fast-paced, suspense-packed script from veteran superhero adapter and Arrow co-creator Marc Guggenheim in the second film was a step in the right direction for this superior sequel to Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

Ratcheting up the action as well as the power of its plotline for our young demigod’s return ensures that viewers won’t be quite as tempted to nod off as they were during Harry Potter 1 and 2 director Chris Columbus' dazzling-to-look-at but unfortunately underwhelming yawn of a hero’s journey series starter.


Yet instead of returning to the director’s chair when the time came for production to begin on the sequel, Columbus took a backseat to the action, settling in as executive producer rather than filmmaker and leaving a slot open for someone new to take over at the helm.

Whether Columbus was not fond of repeating himself – given that he’d already delivered on another magic oriented world of YA friendly special effects that had likewise began as a successful series of books – or was simply uninspired with the material is anyone’s guess.

And when you consider the numerous criticisms that Columbus faced, which – somewhat correctly – labeled Percy Jackson (which was adapted from the YA series by Rick Riordan) a retread of Harry Potter, his reluctance to oversee the shoot is easily understandable.

 

Whatever the case may have been, luckily, his absence became an advantage. As it turns out, a fresh perspective is exactly what the series needed and that’s exactly what it receives this time around under the guidance of Stuart Little filmmaker Thor Freudenthal.

And indeed it's Freudenthal's obvious enthusiasm for his subject matter which elevates Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters even during scenes that bear a strong resemblance to Potter  – from a cab that takes the main characters to their destination in a way that’s hard not to recall the flying vehicle in Columbus’ second Potter feature.

Joining forces with the Potter vet Columbus is Twilight: Breaking Dawn producer Karen Rosenfelt whose work on that tween smash ensures that those behind the scenes – including Diary of a Wimpy Kid helmer Freudenthal – know a thing or two about how to successfully adapt popular young adult novels to film. And their work pays off much better in this second Jackson vehicle as they use not only what they’ve gleaned on their own works but also learned from the mistakes made in the first film as well.

 

No stranger to CGI given his background on Disney’s The Haunted Mansion as well as Stuart Little, Freudenthal uses the creative construction of Guggenheim’s script brilliantly.

Tonally finding a winsome junior Whedonesque approach that ensures there’s always a tongue-in-cheek level of humor infused throughout, Freudenthal (via Guggenheim) successfully combines wit with drama to the extent that Whedon veterans Anthony Head and Nathan Fillion turn up in small but memorable roles, taking over for Pierce Brosnan and Dylan Neal respectively.


Likewise by paying tribute to everything from Clash of the Titans to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Monsters offers a nice wink to the audience, this time around in on the realization that things needn’t be taken so deathly serious since quest films and tales of mythic hero’s journeys have been around forever. So rather than try and reinvent the wheel, Freudenthal just grabs hold of it and takes us on a terrifically entertaining ride, pointing out landmarks in the form of homage along the way.

Quickening the pace considerably, we're treated to impressive action sequences from a contemporary equivalent of a Chariot of Damnation by way of the aforementioned chaotic cab ride along with a scene of wave surfing that offers Logan Lerman’s Percy the chance to prove he’s more than just a one-quest wonder, as he fears when the film opens.


Venturing to the titular Sea of Monsters (aka the Bermuda Triangle) along with fellow demigod friends Annabeth and Grover in addition to a few vital new characters, our young heroes set out to find The Golden Fleece. Although I reacquainted myself with the original film prior to viewing the sequel, I realized shortly into Monsters that unlike many other YA series, preparation was far from necessary.

Thankfully, the filmmakers remedy any gaps in understanding fairly quickly. Additionally, they also set up an intriguing new myth involving the daughter of Zeus that – with its inclusion of an alarming prophecy – is sure to effectively play out over the course of this film and the 2015 third Jackson release, dubbed The Titan’s Curse.

Admittedly, when you contrast Jackson not only to Potter but other contemporary young adult fare including The Hunger Games the new X-Men: First Class reboot features, it does suffer by comparison given some of its generic plotting problems that aren't nearly original enough as the sky's the limit creativity of the world of X-Men.

 

However, it’s so well crafted that – thanks to its snappy pace, outstanding visual effects, impressive talent roster – Percy, much like I Am Number Four, Abduction or City of Ember, keeps you watching. And unlike those three, Percy has had the benefit of a previous installment to bounce back from – only getting better in the process.

A diverting piece of entertainment that will certainly appeal to its target demographic, while Monsters was needlessly converted to 3D in post-production to try and attract format enthusiasts to come seek it out on the big screen, given how jaw-droppingly clear the effects of Fox’s flawless Blu-ray transfer are in 2D, I can’t imagine someone needing the extra “pop” in picture quality.

Similarly, considering how briskly paced the action scenes are with so much CGI coming at you, it’s safe to assume that 3D would’ve actually detracted from the film – generating more of the medium’s side effects of headaches and nausea than usual – since things whiz by so quickly in two dimensions that it may have been more burden than bonus.

 

While it does lose some steam in its third act and it isn’t hard to imagine a full fifteen minutes being chopped from the feature to tighten it up even more from its otherwise predictable adherence to Joseph Campbell’s mythical paradigm, fortunately this sequel is far more memorable than the original offering.

Unlike The Lightning Thief – Sea of Monsters has impressively won you over for the next feature before it’s even begun by book-ending this script with a new character and complication all set to carry over into the third film.

And by building in such a dynamic open-and-close punch, Guggenheim and Freudenthal make you think even more of this film thanks to what we have yet to see than what we just have through the eyes of our young demigods onscreen, in a magical feat of storytelling and movie-making magic from those behind Monsters’ scenes.   


Text ©2013, 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 may have 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.

12/20/2013

Blu-ray Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)


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Although filmmaker David Lowery intended his sophomore feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints to play to audiences like a Bob Dylan inspired folk song, in the end it was The Beach Boys rather than Dylan whose lyrics echoed strongest in my mind.

Yet far from their “Fun, Fun, Fun” era, the tune that resonated most for me was the Pet Sounds epic “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” which, had it been left off that landmark album and penned directly for film would have made the perfect theme song for Bodies’ main character Bob Muldoon, as played by Casey Affleck.

A man out of time, regardless of what time he’s in, Bob Muldoon is one of a long-line of fictional dreamers – the kind descended from Heathcliff or Jay Gatsby whose doomed end you see coming a mile away but whose unflappable belief that he will earn his Happily Ever After remains both his ultimate hubris as well as his ultimate strength.

If he’d had more education or was more literate, Bob Muldoon may have been a writer churning out fiction that would fit somewhere in between Steinbeck and Dickens infused with a bit of the Beat Generation’s “go, go, go” lust for aimless adventure.

Dreaming his life away longing for things he’ll never achieve for more than a mere moment, Bob Muldoon understands he’ll never have the same opportunities that educated men have. As he is in love with ideas of what he should do, the kind of life he should lead and the woman he seems to be more in love with in theory than truly connected with, Bob Muldoon does the most with what he’s given until he gets it in his head that he deserves a bit more.


So he embarks on a Bonnie and Clyde-esque crime-spree with a buddy and his true love that culminates the way everyone (except Bob and those he’s seduced with his stories) know it will. For, that’s what stories do, don’t they? – offer the promise of a future that’s much greater than the one at present.

And unfortunately for Bob, his friend Fred and his girl Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), the story he dreamed up at the start does not have a happy ending – ending instead in a hail of gunfire that leaves his friend dead and a police officer wounded by a bullet fired at the hands of a pregnant Ruth.

But even in the darkest of moments, Bob Muldoon won’t allow himself to drop the thread of the tale he’s written for himself – ensuring the safety of Ruth and his unborn child by confessing to the shot he did not fire so that at least for now he remains in his eyes as well as Ruth’s the hero of the story.

Yet there’s something about Ruth that brings out the hero in everyone as once Bob finds himself behind bars, two more men pick up the torch – from the father (Keith Carradine) of their deceased friend to the police officer (Ben Foster) whose presence at the wrong place at the wrong time caused his fate to be forever intertwined with those that Bob left behind.

 

Feeling a kinship to Ruth and her daughter that he can’t deny, Foster’s good-hearted Patrick – much like Bob had done in the past – takes in upon himself to be her protector. Likewise, idealizing Ruth in the same way that Affleck’s convict continues to do in prison – neither man ever looks past their own narratives to understand that perhaps Ruth is the strongest of them all. And in fact, Ruth is quite capable of looking after herself and the child she’d had after Bob’s incarceration that is now a strong-willed variation of her parents at the tender age of four.

Similarly affected by her father’s sense of heroism, Ruth’s daughter Sylvie applies it to her own life, taking in not one but four stray kittens that – much like her – have lost a parent and fighting any boy who speaks ill of her family.

Although every character takes it upon themselves to serve somebody, nobody takes this belief more seriously than Bob, using his time in prison to put his dreams to paper, focusing all of his new stories on a happy reunion with those he loves at home in a series of letters he pens to Ruth.

 

Believing it to be his destiny to be with her once again, regardless of how many laws he has to break – Bob promises Ruth that the next letter he writes to her will be placed by him directly into her hands and attempts a sixth prison escape, which turns out to work like a charm.

Like an aftershock of an earthquake, the effects of Bob’s escape are felt by everyone but the man who’s put prison in his rearview, as we’ve been made painfully aware by Lowery just how much things at home have changed, which is in stark contrast to Bob’s belief that he can just show up and pick things up where they’d left off.

Unbeknownst to him, alliances have shifted, feelings have grown far more complex and there’s much at stake externally as well as internally and unfortunately, this is precisely where the film begins to lose its direction.

For what had begun so successfully as a Terrence Malick inspired adaptation of an Emily Bronte or Willa Cather novel channeled with post-Hemingway masculinity in the American west suddenly switches gears after Bob begins to venture home.

Tonally uneven, Bodies becomes an episodic crime saga that replaces romance with Cormac McCarthy-like Noir ideas of revenge that raise far too many unanswered questions when it cuts from Ruth’s storyline to follow Bob’s ever-changing journey of subplots.

 

And this startling change of pace is perhaps most evident in an otherwise powerfully acted scene in which Carradine has a major confrontation with Bob that feels like it’s come from a different movie altogether that’s been accidentally edited into the picture before it tries to bring us back to our regularly scheduled program.

While the introduction of thriller elements and some mysterious characters definitely liven up the admittedly slow-moving film, we aren’t provided with enough information to fully process the events that unfold onscreen.

Initially lost in the shuffle with regard to who some of the new individuals are and just what it is that they want – thanks to not just the ambiguities in the writing but the way the edited film deviates from one subplot to the next – Bodies stumbles a bit in its second half before drawing us back into the romantic spirit of the piece in its final moving act.

 

Augmented by the sheer beauty of the work thanks to the luscious Sundance award-winning cinematography by Bradford Young and the lyrical score by Daniel Hart that easily tugs on viewer heartstrings, Bodies may disappoint us by the fall it takes from the greatness experienced in the film’s opening but it’s spellbinding nonetheless.

Further proof of the brilliance of Ben Foster in taking what could’ve easily turned into a clichéd, one-dimensional role as the polar opposite of Bob and coloring it with such complexity that he nearly steals every scene he’s in from the two dynamic leads, Lowery’s Saints is a must-see for fans of the talented cast.

 

Gorgeously transferred to Blu-ray where it makes its home entertainment debut as a fully loaded disc – while it’s unfortunately missing a digital copy or filmmaker commentary, Bodies serves up some genuine surprises including Lowery’s first film St. Nick as well as a number of behind-the-scenes extras.

Overall an ambitious, if flawed, ode to the transformative power of dreams – and the American dream in particular – Bodies celebrates storytelling as if it were its own version of true love, which in Bob’s case, may very well be true as he blends together daydreamed stories of love and life that somehow envelope his own love and life in the process.

While we are never in doubt that this will end badly for Bob as a man who just wasn’t made for these times (and a character better served in fiction than in real life), the strength of Bodies is that we’re so enchanted by the promises of Bob’s stories that we’re taken in by it all the same.    

Text ©2013, 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 may have 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.

12/19/2013

Blu-ray Review: Mary Poppins (1964) -- 50th Anniversary


Now Available to Own   
It's a Jolly Holiday with Mary on Blu-ray/DVD



Related Links:
DVD Review: Mary Poppins - 45th Anniversary (2-Disc Set)
Mary Poppins - 45th Anniversary (Video Clips)
Mary Poppins - 50th Anniversary (Video Clips)




Original Movie Review:
 (Written 1/30/09 for the 45th Anniversary DVD Release)
Note: Blu-ray Review Below

The thing about film and especially cinema studies is that on the surface, we're led to believe that a film like Mary Poppins which-- much like its lead character and the actress embodying her (Julie Andrews) is "practically perfect in every way"-- just all came together "spit-spot," with a "step in time" to create one of Walt Disney's personal favorite works.

And thanks to that quintessential Disney magic, it's hard to imagine anything less than perfection involved but it's fascinating to dig deeper and realize the tremendous amount of effort that went into creating something truly "supercalifragilisticexpealidocious."

 

Poppins is after all the only film Walt Disney was personally involved in to receive a Best Picture nomination and the first studio release to hit DVD format (not to mention one of the longest "in print" titles on video).

Yet when you begin researching the title as a film scholar, you gain appreciation on a whole different level when you realize the decades of work involved in making such a spectacular musical and thanks to this unbelievably thorough set, anyone can become a budding Disney historical super-sleuth.


To begin, I must confess that Mary Poppins is a film that's grown on me over the years. As a child-- I remember being mesmerized by certain sequences such as the animated leap Mary and Bert take with the children into the sidewalk drawing of musical adventure but didn't have the patience for the lengthy film.

But upon viewing this gorgeous 2-disc version released to honor the 45th Anniversary of the beloved Disney favorite, I realize it's not only my favorite Julie Andrews film but one of the best musicals following the '40s, '50s and early '60s heyday.

And it's fascinating to realize what time can do for perspective as a former Disney favorite-- Sleeping Beauty-- became a bit less beautiful a few months back when I realized our leading lady said literally less than a few dozen words in the entire movie but this one, my "Sister Suffragettes" to misquote the song, is "well done" for those of us who "love to laugh."

 

A movie that held a special place in Walt's heart from the time his daughter, who had read the books by P.L. Travers suggested the series as possible film material more than two decades earlier but Travers proved to be an incredibly stubborn force of nature-- understandably protective of her work and worried that her character and legacy would be forever altered negatively by its cinematic interpretation.

Finally, Travers gave in twenty years later after a personal visit from Walt Disney, who graciously consented to offer her unprecedented approval on a majority of the film's decisions. However, it was this agreement that nearly made the entire feature unravel as the cast and crew recall in a candid fifty minute making-of-featurette some rather heated debates that the author disliked nearly everything they'd created. Thus, the film almost fell through once more when she waited for the thirtieth and final day to offer her consent to relent and let Walt Disney's production get started.

Its success is owed to his integral involvement and obsession with the work, along with his endless excitement over every single aspect including giving young composers Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman the opportunity of a lifetime to create one of the most instantly recognizable collections of songs in film history.

 

Likewise, Mary is notable for sending Disney's special effects, animation and technical departments into a frenzy with wirework, challenging choreography, and the blending of animation and live action that hearkened back to Gene Kelly in Anchor's Aweigh, the film broke new boundaries in what could and could not be done onscreen.

Most surprising to film fans was Disney's convincing Dick Van Dyke (with zero training in music or dance) that he was a natural to play the frequent scene-stealer Bert, the film has just gotten more and more impressive over the years.

But perhaps the greatest stroke of luck and find in Walt Disney live action history was in casting Julie Andrews in her first onscreen role. Ultimately, this was due to fortuitous timing as Andrews been publicly passed over by Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers) when that studio took the character of Eliza Doolittle she'd originated on Broadway in My Fair Lady to the screen and offered it to Audrey Hepburn instead.

While most actresses would've taken a break, especially considering Andrews had just given birth, she decided the best defense was offense and accepted the role that would change her career and life.

 

Mary garnered Andrews not only a Golden Globe award (in a memorable acceptance speech where she had the gall to thank Jack Warner for not giving her Lady which resulted in her being cast in Poppins) but an Academy Award as well in which  ironically she beat out her good friend Hepburn both times.

And following her enchanting portrayal of the magical nanny, Andrews began a film career that skyrocketed from the start as IMDb reveals that Robert Wise and Ernest Lehman immediately cast the actress for Sound of Music after appearing on-set to view rushes from Poppins.

Landing the role following a memorable performance on The Carol Burnett Show-- it seems hard to imagine to viewers today how film history would've differed had she been cast opposite Rex Harrison in the entertaining but lackluster My Fair Lady or if Disney had made the film a decade sooner when actresses like Bette Davis (!) were being considered for Poppins. 

And while luckily to the average viewer tuning in blissfully unaware it all seems quite natural, film scholars and enthusiasts find their minds working overtime when trying to decipher the possibilities, in the end just thankful that the right group of people finally managed to come together at precisely the right time.

 

This is especially apparent when watching Van Dyke who-- despite being endlessly labeled for his performance as one of the worst impressions of a Cockney accent ever attempted by an American actor-- is irresistibly good as Bert.

The inventive oddball who seems to have a different occupation every time we find him -- Bert's overly flirtatious relationship with Mary upset the author terribly, but the charm and command of Van Dyke's physicality is at his strongest in this film. And he's at the peak of his powers in the film's most remarkable sequence "Step in Time," which seems to go on forever as one of the most awe-inspiringly inventive bits of choreography since Gene Kelly's ballet sequence in An American in Paris.

While the film's children are adorable and it's a bit heartbreaking to realize that over the years we lost the young boy from the film at a tragically young age-- the cast and crew's observations about the wondrous experience make for wonderful DVD fodder on the packed Disc 2 from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

Rounding out the features that are so plentiful there's too many to list, the disc also includes a Backstage Disney segment on the Mary Poppins Broadway musical (including an MP3 download of that show's version of "Step in Time") along with a great bonus short starring Andrews and including the voice talent of Tracey Ullman called The Cat That Looked at a King which was adapted from P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins Opens the Door. The short feature finds Andrews reprising her role and takes viewers yet another trip down animated memory lane as she steps inside one of those magical sidewalk chalk drawings.


The recipient of five Academy Awards, Poppins is given a gorgeous transfer in this widescreen DVD release that contains not only 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound but the original 2.0 theatrical mix for cinema purists such as yours truly.

And while I can't wait for it to finally arrive on Blu-ray, I'm thrilled to say the quality level (especially on an upconvert Blu-ray player) is mesmerizing and visually even more impressive than this week's other new and excellent modern-made Disney release, The Secret of the Magic Gourd.

 

Blu-ray Edition Review (12/19/13):
   
When I reviewed the film back in 2009, I mentioned that I couldn’t wait for Mary Poppins to make its debut in high definition Disney Blu-ray. And fortunately the studio didn’t keep me – or the film’s legions of fans around the globe – waiting with this gorgeously remastered 1080 pixel transfer that fulfills our Disney dreams “in the most delightful way.”

Ever the masters of marketing, Disney’s December release of the film serves three purposes simultaneously. Not only does Poppins coincide with the holiday gift-giving season but it also debuts on disc to celebrate its 50th Anniversary exactly in time to promote both the box office and award-season buzz of its behind-the-scenes big screen counterpart, Saving Mr. Banks which chronicles the complications in bringing the film to life due to the constant objections of Poppins’ cantankerous creator P.L. Travers.

 

Though it’s relatively light on new bonus feature—because previous versions of the disc spoiled viewers with an embarrassment of riches, it’s hardly a flaw at all as the Blu-ray draws on entertaining extras of discs past to comprise a majority of bonus material. Similarly, while we’re thrilled with some of the Disney Vault repeats, given the high quality, high definition format of the disc itself, the real star is the film itself.

Comparing the same scenes from the 45th Anniversary DVD release to the ones served up in Blu-ray found there to be no contest in terms of quality comparison as the richness of the royally decorated backgrounds and sharpness in outlines in characters onscreen shined through in sumptuous detail in 1080 pixels.

Whereas the darkness found in the bravura “Step in Time” sequence appears a bit soft and blurred on DVD, the Blu-ray execution of the same scene draws the eye in to notice the remarkable depth perception now on display.

And from start to finish, the remastered edition takes the cake – amping up the clarity of Poppins’ crayon box palette of colors throughout the film so that images shimmer on a level that matches the soaring spirit of the Sherman Brothers innovative, infectiously appealing song-filled soundtrack that has never sounded better.

 

Including a new version of karaoke dubbed “Mary-Oke” with lyric-centric animation that I personally found disappointing as I feel most Mary melody enthusiasts would rather sing-along to onscreen subtitles that play during the feature presentation, the Blu-ray combo pack does make up for this musical miscalculation with a pitch-perfect Banks inspired extra.

A side-by-side duet-styled interview between Richard Sherman and actor Jason Schwartzman who brings him to life in Banks, this roughly fifteen minute account of the making-of-the-music and collaborating alongside his brother, Travers and Walt Disney is as emotionally moving as it is informative.

While it’s Schwartzman who wisely likens the wisdom gleaned from Sherman to a Musical Master Class, fortunately it’s one we can all enroll in thanks to Disney’s inclusion of it in this release. Treating us to rare audio masters of the songwriting team’s earlier versions of the film’s famous numbers from a more Russian rendition of “Chim Chim Cheree” to serving up tricks of the trade in their musical approach to adapting Travers’ work, it’s a lesson in music theory that even those who’ve never picked up an instrument or hummed a single note will enjoy.

A must-own masterpiece not only for musical buffs or Disney devotees but lovers of cinema in general, Mary Poppins’ 50th Anniversary Blu-ray Combo Pack also boasts a bonus DVD version and digital copy of the release so you can take the movie with you wherever you go, whether you’re off to feed the birds or go fly a kite.

Previous Editions 

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