Music Documentary DVD Review: 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (2005)

Note: Originally Published in Jen's P.O.V. which hosts all Music DVD, CD, and Misc. Reviews.

The Search Arrives on DVD


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Jackie Paris

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Long before the advent of Google searches, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube-- when someone wanted to learn more about a subject, they had to venture to enormous buildings like libraries and stores which housed big, heavy, dust collecting, paper filled items called books.

And, of course, the mother of all texts--reliability-wise-- was a reference book or an encyclopedia as surely, the authors would have to fact check and one would assume that unlike Wikipedia (which can be updated by anyone), everything would need to be verified... or so you would think.

In 1991 Oscar nominated and Sundance award-winning filmmaker and jazz musician Raymond De Felitta found himself in awe of an unfamiliar voice crooning on a local radio station playing Charles Mingus' Paris in Blue. Simply put, De Felitta was hooked.

Mesmerized by what he’d heard, De Felitta set about tracking down every recording he could of the jazz singer Jackie Paris that resulted in obscure discoveries such as Japanese imports of classic albums including one misfiled under the name of Oscar Peterson. In addition to the the musical side, he also yearned to uncover more about the musician with pitch-perfect phrasing.

The biographical trail of Jackie Paris moved from hot to cool in the 1960s as the British Invasion made jazz a figurative musical dinosaur. And following that all information regarding Paris's life journeyed from cool to frozen in the 1970s when decades later, De Felitta read in a well-respected jazz-centric biographical encyclopedia that stated that Jackie Paris had died in 1977, while only in his early 50s.

Upon this newly acquired information, the filmmaker was content with what De Felitta referred to as his collection of “the handful of CDs and vinyl that comprised the meager but glorious output of Paris's career,” which included his signature rendition of “Skylark”-- his most famous and swoony work. And moreover, essentially to De Felitta the story of Jackie Paris seemed to end there in the all-too familiar jazz ending of death with more of the man's soul being captured on vinyl than in the history books.

However, his fascination with the Italian-American, New Jersey native who grew up entertaining, tap dancing and singing with a veritable who’s who of jazz legends (including Charlie Parker with whom sadly he never recorded any material despite a six month tour) never waned. Likewise, De Felitta became the latest in a long line of fans.

And even later he ascertained that Paris’s allegiance of admirers also had included the loftiest of greats from the era: Peggy Lee, who had arranged an elaborate audition for Jackie Paris with a major label; Lenny Bruce who helped him perfect his stage presence and humor as his opening act in one of the documentary’s most fascinating discoveries as a letter penned by Bruce is read aloud; musician Billy Vera who dubbed Paris “Chet Baker times ten”; later referred to as “the kissy singer” by Sarah Vaughan; as well as being called the personal favorite singer of Ms. Ella Fitzgerald.

Yet while his envious musical resume and near jazz-version of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon which linked him in roughly three degrees or less with every major recording artist in his jazz heyday was epic, De Felitta received the greatest shock when thirteen years following the first time he’d heard Paris’s voice over the speakers of his car, he learned that the “dead” singer was anything but.

When De Felitta happened upon a brief New Yorker magazine notice featuring club dates for the local Jazz Standard in 2004 with the name of Jackie Paris as the main attraction, he was stunned. “Jackie Paris? The one who died in 1977? How is he singing? Via a Ouija board?” De Felitta wondered but taking the chance, he decided to go.

Once he landed inside The Standard, he realized that “Paris was alive -- not exactly well, but still handsome and charismatic. And he was in fine form, singing a set that included three of my favorites...”although, while Jackie Paris politely but crisply dismissed him --which led De Felitta to the realization that "not all was peaceful in Parisland,” when he ventured back again the following evening, Paris started to warm up. Much to his amazement, Jackie Paris spoke to him in earnest between sets wherein he confessed that “he was terminally ill” and that therefore, this was probably his final gig.

In response, De Felitta went into overdrive blending together both the roles of fan and filmmaker and wanting to record it as a legacy “to bring the world's attention [to] the singer whose work I'd found so compellingly beautiful.” To this end, “working with borrowed video equipment,” he spent seven weeks with Paris before the man passed away on June 14 of the same year.

However, what started as a “tribute film,” filled with reminisces, interviews, and other accounts from both Paris himself along with others with whom he’s played, lived and loved whose phone numbers and addresses the musician graciously offered the filmmaker soon became a bit more of a mystery as De Felitta changed the approach from an introduction to one that took a more analytical stance.

Dedicating more energy to his new thesis of why Jackie Paris had become as the film's tag-line described “the greatest singer you've never heard,” De Felitta went to unprecedented lengths to address just why the man was always on the brink of stardom but repeatedly fell into obscurity.

Although he never really arrives at a set conclusion, several possible reasons are given in this fascinating piece of musical documentary portraiture which serves up the usual suspects as well as a decidedly different side to the man we’re consistently faced with throughout. Admirably he takes Jackie at his word and never probed him directly even though he had evidence to the contrary about some issues with which the man was less than forthcoming.

Yet, meanwhile De Felitta introduces us to two very different women who were both at one point Mrs. Jackie Paris, along with relatives, a denied son, etc. as we’re faced with tales of ego, temper, deep-rooted family dysfunction (in the form of a devastating account of his brother and abusive father), along with questions of whether refusing mafia support of his career or slugging the wrong club owner who was most likely "connected" always kept him from the top.

Overall, this routinely makes for a mesmerizing film that evolves much like an improvised jazz riff throughout its changes in tempo where some are successful with only a few rough patches in editing as we remain a bit foggy about some of the facts like we’d had a sax blaring too close to our eardrum for a bit.

However, the one issue that remains a subtext that's only vaguely questioned by De Felitta in his voice over narration at the end when quoting Orson Welles is just how much we need to know about artists to dig their work. And, likewise, whether or not the “search” for Jackie Paris was really a mystery in the end if he was happily living under the radar, definitely bitter about wasted potential, missed opportunities, and lack of money but essentially okay in his New York life.

This is especially the case since—while I’m incredibly grateful for De Felitta’s passion, compassion, and integrity in introducing a wonderful overlooked talent to a new generation—ultimately, I feel nearly as confused as I was near the beginning and still have just as many questions about Paris as I had from the middle of the picture to when the final credits began to roll.

This being said, the intent and style shown by De Felitta is warm and inviting. And it's what carries us through the work, despite the mysterious head-scratching footage we’re sometimes shown with contradictory interviews and a few loose ends that seem like they were left abandoned on the floor of the cutting room such as the discussion of a “wife?” who died of cancer and then talk of a divorce enters in the same sentence and a few interviewees aren’t identified at all. Yet this is all easy to overlook as soon as Jackie Paris’s astounding voice fills the soundtrack and when you couple this with the exquisite care he took towards his subject, De Felitta’s ‘Tis Autumn is a great find for jazz fans and documentary lovers alike.

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, De Felitta’s Search marks his strongest work since I first discovered his overlooked, Sundance Audience Award winning sleeper Two Family House which is not only a personal indie favorite—but much like this film—a highly personal work for the director and one in which his passion is so infectious that I selected it without hesitation for inclusion in a local film series I ran in our community.

And similarly--just like House had people nodding along to the music in their seats—‘Tis Autumn will definitely make you want to rush out and track down the music you can find by the musician… if, that is, there’s still any left in print here in the United States. So in other words, our “musical” Search for Jackie Paris continues.

New on DVD & Blu-ray for the Week of 3/29/09

Jen's Pick of the Week:

Tell No One

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American in Paris (Blu-ray)


Blu-ray Combo: Chronicles of Riddick & Pitch Black

The Broken

The Butterfly Effect: Revelations

Come Hell or High Water

Crows Zero

Danton (Criterion Collection)

Dennis Miller: The HBO Specials


Dying Breed

From Within

Gigi (Blu-ray)

Ghosts of Mars (Blu-ray)

Go Diego Go! Rainforest Fiesta

The Great Depression

Hannah Montana: Keeping It Real

Ichi the Killer (Blu-ray)

In Plain Sight: Season 1

Jet Li: The One (Blu-ray)

Marley & Me

The Matrix: 10th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray)


The Other End of the Line

Perkins' 14

Pokemon: Giratina & The Sky Warrior

Ricky Gervais: Out of England - The Stand-Up Special

Schoolhouse Rock: Earth

Seven Pounds

Shakespeare's An Age of Kings

Shigurui: Death Frenzy


Slumdog Millionaire

South Pacific (Blu-ray)



Stomp! Shout! Scream

Tell No One


'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris


Way of War (Blu-ray)


DVD Review: Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything (2007)

Now Available on DVD
From Acorn Media

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A.K.A. Master of the Universe

Fittingly, as a writer “math” has always been my least favorite four letter word.

And, during my undergraduate study when I designed an entire course around my love of astronomy, physics, and cosmology in lieu of a straight mathematics course, I was delighted to discover that even a genius like Stephen Hawking had also struggled with mathematics during his undergraduate study.

Admittedly while I can’t even calculate tax without a mini-calculator or figure out a tip without a pocket card (and moreover feel it’s best to stay within my limitations)—obviously, Hawking’s situation was entirely different than my own. This is especially the case since unlike yours truly who even has an irrational aversion to Sesame Street’s The Count-- Stephen Hawking had always loved mathematics.

Yet while he admits that his father would have preferred him to pursue a degree in medicine, it was Hawking’s dream to explore the field of mathematics when he attended the University College at Oxford. Amazingly, mathematics was not available at the time at Oxford University College so he made the switch to physics which turned out to be the ideal subject for the man who has become an undisputed rock star in the field of physics.

It was a “happy accident” in his life that turned out to be one of several which began curiously when his mother—as referenced in the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time-- shared that she made the prophetic decision to purchase an astronomical atlas for her newborn son who amazingly was born on the precise date that marked the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo.

Stars—one could say-- were in Hawking’s destiny which would find him holding the same prestigious Lucasian Professor Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University that was once held by Sir Isaac Netwon in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics which has been his second “home” since 1979 (up through his announced intention to retire in 2009).

However, in the ‘60s and shortly after his recipient of a first class honors degree in the field of natural science, Hawking ventured to Cambridge to further his research in cosmology which was a budding area of study at the time. Since cosmology would enable him to pursue the same questions of why we are here and how the universe came to be, it seemed like an ideal fit.

But unfortunately it's one of life's cruelest jests for tragedies to strike a person in their youth as the next “accident” to strike the bright young mind was not a happy one but an unhappy one indeed as the self-described clumsy young man took two major spills and—alarming his father and after weeks of intense medical testing, he was eventually diagnosed with ALS or motor neuron disease shortly after his 21st birthday.

While now he admits that prior to the diagnosis he'd been getting bored with his academic pursuits, and being told that he may only have a few years left to live initially devastated him but Hawking was-- as this Acorn DVD describes-- “catapulted… out of depression,” by the groundbreaking work of Roger Penrose who gave Stephen Hawking a sense about the way that physics could be used to answer life's most basic philosophical questions of who we are, why we are here, and just how we arrived on this planet.

In his autobiography and statement regarding his disability available on the official Stephen Hawking website, he also credits his engagement to Jane Wilde for giving him “something to live for,” and although he notes that he was “at a loose end” as doctors told him to return to Cambridge to continue with his research in the fields of cosmology and general relativity, Hawking argued that he “was not making much progress, because… [he] didn’t have much mathematical background.”

However, following two horrifying and recurring dreams wherein he fluctuated between the idea that he was going to be executed and tried to bargain good deeds to earn a reprieve along with the other that found Hawking dreaming that “if I were going to die anyway,” he “might as well do some good” and moreover “sacrifice my life to save others," he decided to do something proactive.

Of course and thankfully, Hawking did not die but he has done a world of good in fighting to unify theories of the very large and very small or to put it more scientifically, to somehow use cosmology in the scientific holy grail pursuit for “the theory of everything” which would blend together Albert Einstein's theory of relativity with that of quantum mechanics.

It's a seemingly impossible task and one that has eluded cosmologists, physicists, and scientific intellectuals around the globe—in fact Einstein himself was actively pursuing the unified theory near the end of his life and when he passed on, the equations with which he had been working were discovered on his blackboard.

Yet, Hawking’s work in search of the theory of everything gained unprecedented momentum when he and Penrose along with several other colleagues began to think outside the box and previous limitations. This was exemplified in Hawking’s monumentally significant paper that discussed “a singularity of infinite gravity” which in other words notes that the creation of the universe was an extraordinarily tiny point.

Likewise, he also followed through on what he describes as a “Eureka Moment” in the 1970s upon questioning what would happen if he included quantum mechanics in his analysis of black holes. In the necessary attempt to “unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory,” Hawking made the discovery “that black holes should not be completely black, but rather should emit radiation and eventually evaporate and disappear,” along with his brilliant papers and theorems surrounding the fact that “the universe has no edge or boundary in imaginary time,” which implies “that the way the universe began was completely determined by the laws of science.” In doing so, he helped inspire new ways of thinking which broke down barriers in the scientific community, suddenly making it accessible with the astronomical success of the publication of A Brief History of Time.

The work has sold more than 10 million copies since its original publication in 1988 and with its translation into countless languages along with Hawking’s own newer takes on the work to make it far easier to understand to those with all scientific and mathematical skill levels with Universe in a Nutshell, A Briefer History of Time, and collaborating with his daughter Lucy on a children’s book about science which discusses the Hawking radiation discovery in a work entitled George’s Secret Key to the Universe. It's these combined efforts that have suddenly inspired everyone to begin asking the deeper questions about existence in a way that’s truly brought science to the masses.

And in tandem, Hawking has become a beloved figure for countless decades-- not above appearing in The Simpsons or taking part in several pop culture phenomena in Hawking's ongoing quest to warn about the dangers of being irresponsible to our planet (The 11th Hour) along with exploring the extremely exciting territory of string theory.

The theory which-- despite its roots over the past few decades that resulted in several variations-- eventually culminated in the M theory or super string theory that we know today, with the breakthrough for this occurring right down the hall from Hawking at Cambridge from the efforts of his colleague Michael Green.

In this fascinating two part episode DVD-- originally titled Master of the Universe which was produced for UK's Channel 4 and similarly aired on America's Discovery Science Channel in 2008, it's since been renamed Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything (perhaps despite the realization that Hawking had “denounced the unathorised publication” of the book by the same name, informing readers that he was “not involved in its creation). And in the episodes we get an overview of Hawking's life and work.

Although those with more than a cursory knowledge of the topics discussed in addition to having read the works firsthand by Stephen Hawking may be a bit underwhelmed--it’s invaluable as a primer to those who are unfamiliar with the fascinating and maddeningly elusive “theory of everything.”

Likewise, including a candid overview of Hawking’s life and struggle with ALS—the DVD earns points by fixating less on the disease and more on the scientific achievements of the man (as opposed to some biographical specials that devote a condescending “oh, but look what he can do,” style of narration) to a man who’s extraordinary as an individual and not one “in spite of” a disability, thus making him an even greater role model for the disabled.

The high quality DVD tries its hardest not to lose you in complex scientific evaluation by instead breaking down the important subtopics including string theory, black holes, super symmetry, multiple dimensions, quantum mechanics, relativity, gravity, and membranes both via Hawking and other noteworthy academics and scientists including Michio Kaku (City University of New York), Lisa Randall (Harvard University), John Schwarz (California Institute of Technology), and others with the aid of easy graphics and examples to help add visual sugar to the hard-to-digest tech speak.

While it’s not nearly as in-depth as some of the other works available including my favorite PBS miniseries on the amazingly compelling study of string theory—Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe— hopefully it will inspire you to seek out additional information on the topics involved and more importantly, encourage you to watch with your own middle to high school age students to help get them more interested in cosmology as well.

TV on DVD: Taggart -- Set 1

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The World's Longest Running Police Drama
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Whenever “there's been a murder,” as the catchphrase to the phenomenally successful Glaswegian detective series promises in each and every episode-- you can bet that Scotland’s finest will solve the case before the closing credits roll.

Glenn Chandler’s Taggart—“the world's longest continually running police drama”-- first hit the airwaves on ITV Network in 1983 featuring the titular character Jim Taggart (portrayed by the late Mark McManus). And throughout its 25 plus year run, Taggart (the series) has changed both in format length and with its revolving door of cast members that are currently headed up by the no-nonsense DCI Matt Burke (Alex Norton), DC Stuart Fraser (Colin McCredie), DI Robbie Ross (John Michie), and DS Jackie Reid (Blythe Duff).

In Acorn Media’s premiere set of the Glasgow hit produced by Scottish television for ITV (where it consistently draws in phenomenal ratings both in the UK and around the globe), we’re presented with the logically titled Set 1. However, the first set to hit DVD isn't one that chronicles the original 1983 premiere season but instead includes 2002’s complete 19th season of the series over the course of the three-disc slim packaged boxed set which contains seven episodes as follows: "Hard Man," "Fade to Black," "Blood Money," "New Life," "Bad Blood," "Halfway House," and "An Eye for an Eye."

Luckily for audiences unfamiliar with the program, you don't need a primer to get right in on the action as Taggart’s primary goal is to deliver a seemingly simplistic murder mystery which typically opens the episode and then proceeds to morph into an increasingly complicated conspiratorial and intricately plotted crime that reveals the secrets of Glasgow’s most sinister criminals.

While the same quartet of detectives populate each show and you can always count on Alex Norton's unintentionally giggle-inducing poker face and angry delivery of his most frequently styled dialogue (examples: “Good God, man! Come off it.”) as the veritable walking warning about the dangers of work-related stress and high blood pressure to try and add a ticked off, self-righteous charge to every scene-- it’s amazing how little we actually learn about the detectives.

Balancing out Burke-- who I kept thinking would probably be the most successful candidate in the history of the old game show Make Me Laugh for his inability to crack as much as a smile in his near-attempt to give himself an aneurysm with every new line of dialogue—we have the young, sensitive, technologically gifted “celibate homosexual” Fraser, the handsome but emotionally immature Ross, and typically cool and grim Reid as the obligatory “female.”

During each case, they employ their most successful modes of investigation to discover how the victim lived which would tell the detectives how and why they died (which Burke calls the first rule of the job) in addition to identifying the two most important keys-- motive and opportunity.

In Acorn Media’s impressively transferred set that thankfully boasts subtitles to aid in understanding their thick Scottish accents, the Glaswegian officers uncover multiple motives and secrets in its terrific opener “Halfway House,” along with a few timely medically and scientifically motivated deaths in “Fade to Black,” “New Life,” and “An Eye for an Eye.”

Although “Hard Man,” “Bad Blood,” and “Blood Money” admirably make the most of techniques and plot lines from film noir and some of the mysteries are quite clever in their succinct fifty minute running time, overall (and similar to the detached yet infinitely superior production value of the long-running standalone village mystery series Midsomer Murders), overall it's hard to feel that invested in Taggart's goings-on.

This is especially true as none of the detectives manage to engage and unfortunately-- in order to keep things interesting-- it’s far too easy to just wait until Burke appears on the screen to crack us up without even trying to see who he chews out next with his cliche riddled speeches. Therefore, in the end it’s Burke who proves that-- instead of the boxed set’s episode “Hard Man”-- he is the series’ “Hard Man” and moreover its unlikely comic relief as well and that one makes us laugh even harder the more he tries to play it oh, so straight.


TV on DVD: Care Bears -- Cheer, There & Everywhere

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In Lionsgate Home Entertainment's first release of the 1980s smash children's series Care Bears-- which was recently launched as a brand new, fresh, and vibrantly animated television show for CBS-- eight roughly ten minute mini-tales are served up in this fun and accessible kid-friendly DVD.

Similar to the stellar DVD releases served up by DreamWorks with Shrek the Halls and Kung Fu Panda which gave children control of the experience, this disc takes it a step further also utilizing a Walt Disney-esque fast-play option (most recently used to excellent effect in Lilo and Stitch).

Moving right into the presentation of all eight episodes back to back in its eighty-eight minute running time with the Direct Play feature, the DVD also boasts a creative "Belly Badge Matching Game," that invites children to get in on the action and process what they've just seen in the disc's tales that emphasize working together, empathy, compassion, understanding, and friendship all embodied by the characters' memorable belly badges.

Thematically tied in with the Spring season with episodes that center on new flowers in bloom, a talent show, and more in its adorable hot pink colored box protected by an outside cardboard case-- the DVD includes the following titles: "Growing Pains," "King Grumpy," "Cheer, There and Everywhere," "A Case of the Grumpies," "Gobblebugs," "Grizzle-ized," "Two of a Kind," and "Stand Up and Cheer."

With its devotion to promoting the idea of-- as Lionsgate describes it-- "emotional intelligence," the sunny, fast-paced, upbeat, and extremely colorful, lively animation all made far more contemporary with a rockin' theme song and a style that melds the classic Care Bears from the '80s in a way that resonates today.

As the Care Bears must work together to save The Gathering Tree in Care-a-Lot from the threat of Gobblebugs, negotiate mini battles of jealousy when Cheer and Share find themselves competing for attention regarding their beautiful gardens and the always surprisingly charismatic Grumpy stars in three of the most successful tales (from a storytelling standpoint) as he takes advantage of the kindness and guilt of his robotic sidekick Wingnut and works continually on his new inventions, we're always reminded that teamwork is the most important underlying message.

Wholesome and morally inspiring yet thankfully without ever preaching to kids in a way that they could see-through in a moment-- it's the type of preschool and early elementary age DVD that actually engages kids to begin trying their hand at amateur problem-solving as they attempt to mediate the mini-problems faced by the Bears. Additionally, it does so in a way that suits the same highly successful format of Nickelodeon's slightly older-skewed series' SpongeBob SquarePants, The Mighty B!, Wayside School and others by knowing that the best way to entertain is in succinct spurts of plot that never last more than a dozen minutes before moving onto the next situation to help satisfy even the shortest and youngest attention spans.

Highly recommended for young children and filled with bright animation that's definitely in the same league as feature-length work-- while '80s babies may yearn for the same "Care Bear stare" vintage tales from their childhood, soon they'll be converts in no time with this first-rate disc from Lionsgate which also offers a limited edition Spring themed greeting card to tie in with our current season and also the setting of the DVD's episodes.

Movie Review: Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009)

You've heard of TV’s Bridezillas, the multiplex’s Bride Wars, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, along with the horror classic Bride of Frankenstein.

But this week we meet an entirely new bride in DreamWorks Animation’s brand-new 3-D feature length film Monsters Vs. Aliens as the petite Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon plays a Modesto, California girl who unwittingly morphs into the kiddie version of "The Attack Of the Nearly 50-Foot Woman" after getting slimed by meteor residue just before she's set to walk down the aisle.

While initially her beaming glow is mistaken for her wedding day excitement, soon Susan (Witherspoon) quickly grows into the 49 to 11 inch tall “Ginormica” before our military intervenes, a tranquilizer dart hits the target and she's whisked away to a secret governmental holding cell for “monsters” currently supervised 24/7 by Uncle Sam.

Befriending other creatures also residing in the prison-like atmosphere (despite a feeble attempt to ease Susan’s nerves with a retro kitty “Hang in There” poster for her cell), soon the young woman becomes acquainted with the rest of the film’s genre fitting group of lovable eccentrics.

Headed up by the Ph.D insect Dr. Cockroach (House’s Hugh Laurie), Arrested Development’s hilarious Will Arnett as a half-fish, half-ape gung-ho monster dubbed The Missing Link, the scene-stealing Seth Rogen (Kung Fu Panda, Pineapple Express) as the adorable but dim-witted blue blob aptly dubbed B.O.B. which DreamWorks notes is “short for benzoate-ostylezene-bicarbonate” and the enormous Insectosaurus—soon the X-Men meets Dirty Dozen gang of unlikely outsider underdogs is called upon when the evil alien mastermind Gallaxhar (The Office’s Rainn Wilson) sends an ominous robot to the planet Earth set on destruction.

In addition to see the filmmakers’ easily identifiable B movie influences from the monster and alien movie heyday of the cold-war era 1950s along with “the style of poster art of the genre,” and “Mad Magazines of the period,” as the DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures press release reveals that savvy Mad Magazine and ‘50s film enthusiasts will “recognize the homage to these sources during the war room playback of archival footage of the pre-capture sprees of Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., The Missing Link, B.O.B. and Insectosaurus,” cinematic referential jokes fill the entire film with shades of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Dr. Strangelove, The Dirty Dozen, The Blob, and countless other movies running throughout.

This is especially the case in the heavily Dr. Strangelove inspired relationship between the animated films president voiced by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and Kiefer Sutherland’s dynamically creative and surprisingly laugh-out-loud funny launch away from 24’s intense and “whispery” heroic Jack Bauer into a “country accent,” as director Rob Letterman muses, “he just started screaming at the top of his lungs… [and] broke out into something brand new and that really nailed the character.”

Similar to the highly successful blending of adult and child friendly humor that's made DreamWorks Animation’s hits such as Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda such a success—it’s the great and lively ensemble that helps add flavor to the film’s story-line that’s ultimately a bit simplistic and straightforward despite the fact that this flaw is hidden extraordinarily well by its stunning 3-D animation and mind boggling action sequences.

Although I think the film may not have been quite as enjoyable without the 3-D which amazes right from the start-- aside from the fact that it has some very positive morals woven throughout as those whose society have named “monsters” end up being the ones to save the day and Susan discovers that her previous ambition to become the picture-perfect and tirelessly supportive wife of her self-involved fiance Derek (Paul Rudd) pales in comparison to her own goals when she begins to believe in herself and what she has to offer as a human being.

The first film served up by the studio in “Tru 3D,” and unlike some of the more gimmicky 3-D films in recent memory, the format perfectly fits this material. This it does in not only reviving that same drive-in B-movie feel for which the filmmakers were aiming but it also brings to mind the idea of once again making filmgoing a true experience.

With increasingly impressive home theater technology including Blu-ray and lifelike video game systems, the box office has taken quite a hit and so it makes perfect sense that just like when television kept viewers in their homes in the 1950s prompting studios to create widescreen, Vistavision, Cinemascope, Cinerama, and 3-D-- once again Hollywood is taking a cue from lessons learned in the past in terms of not just subject matter (as the 50s truly were the era of monsters and aliens) but style as well.

The film will be available in various versions from 2-D to 3-D to 3-D IMAX and it should be interesting as time will tell just how successful the film and indeed this medium is when it reaches viewers at home via DVD and Blu-ray. And admittedly while the level of writing doesn’t match the incredible artistry and craftsmanship of the other departments involved in Monsters that we’ve come to expect from the studio that recently gave us the incredibly witty Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Kung Fu Panda, it’s sure to be one of the first major blockbusters of 2009 and one that definitely needs to be seen on the big screen to be best appreciated.

However, this being said-- as far as "monsters" are concerned, I still hold those wise-cracking and power-absorbing huggable characters from Pixar's Monsters Inc. up as my favorite animated variety offered to families thus far in a wholly satisfying blend of animation and comedy.

Movie Review: The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

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After the film producer Andrew Trapani caught a 2003 televised account of what has become known as “The Haunting in Connecticut” that chronicled the horrifying experience dealing with “paranormal attacks [which] occurred in a span of months to different members of [the] family,” of Carmen Reed he knew he had the makings of not just a movie but the type PG-13 chilling fare Lionsgate has excelled at in recent years.

While Roger Ebert notes that In a Dark Place author Ray Garton-- who chronicled the case within his book-length work-- realized that the family in question “couldn't get their stories straight,” as Wikipedia explained, investigators nonetheless “instructed [him] to make it up and make it scary."

However, this bit of questioning aside-- the film version of The Haunting in Connecticut is going to great lengths in trying to work the fact that it's based on a historically documented case of the forefront of that advertising campaign. And in doing so, Connecticut's cinematic structure follows suit as director Peter Cornwell begins the movie as though it were a docudrama which keeps us hooked for awhile until about midway through we gets the sense that we're not quite buying into the experience as though it was gospel.

Pairing together screenwriters Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe (self-proclaimed “students of Victorian horror and the Spiritualist movement”) along with award-winning short film maker Peter Cornwell (who directed the animated work Ward 13)-- the film which holds audiences at a distance in the dark, ominous, foreboding color scheme, cinematography, and “make you jump” musical cues is given instant credibility with the appearance of Oscar nominated actress Virginia Madsen (Sideways).

The versatile and talented Ms. Madsen-- who admits likewise in the press release to not just a love of movies but especially scary movies (having gained “cult status among the horror fans” after appearing in Candyman)-- portrays the devoted, religious, and selfless mother Sara Campbell in a uniformly terrific characterization.

When her cancer stricken son Matt (Kyle Gallner) is accepted into an experimental, highly risky, exceedingly expensive, and physically draining radical treatment program, Madsen's Sara makes the decision to move her family temporarily to a Victorian rental home closer to the hospital during the duration.

Of course, the house gives viewers the creeps right off the bat as the owner catches sight of Sara as she drives by and tells her hill give her the first month's rent free if he doesn't have to finish pounding the sign in the yard before warning her that the place has “a bit of a history." And within seconds of their arrival we start realizing that the history is one involving death, dismemberment, and gore.

As Matt begins to have visions of ghosts in the house, sealed rooms reveal that it was previously a funeral parlor, photos of corpses are found, and a box of eyelids are discovered—he tries to hide some of the bizarre goings-on and paranormal phenomena from his worried mother, siblings, cousin, along with his overworked recovering alcoholic father (Martin Donovan). His reasoning for doing so is logical and sound since his doctor had warned that if he’d started “seeing things” or experienced behavioral changes, they must stop the treatment immediately.

Unfortunately, it’s this issue precisely that pervades a great majority of the film as for a good bulk of the work, the suffering, incessantly ill, overly medicated, and emaciated Matt is the only one who witnesses the creepy goings-on firsthand and we're unsure if he's the most reliable of witnesses.

When he befriends an equally sick reverend (Elias Koteas) who argues that because they’re walking between life and the shadow of death, they’re able to pick up on ghostly activity that’s trapped between worlds (although they should “fear no evil” he says with a straight face, twenty minutes before he’s doing an exorcism), the movie ventures from ghost story into spiritual, supernatural thriller to mixed effect.

Admittedly, the back-story of the home itself is incredibly squirm-inducing and there were a few audible screams during the press screening-- most notably as we discover its involvement in séances, corpse-tampering, black magic and more in a few horrifyingly intense sequences including the poster’s disgusting “ectoplasm” sequence and one involving the aforementioned eyelids that make the PG-13 rating seem a tad weak.

Despite this, later the movie becomes increasingly dubious as a work of fact as it spirals to a conclusion that one could only call silly wherein characters act in ways that don’t seem to fit their personalities in the slightest as Cornwell’s Connecticut leaves the occult for cheap scares befitting of the genre with the obligatory and laugh-inducing, “heroine in the shower” moment complete with a potentially life-saving phone call bearing an all-important message that’s left on an answering machine.

Likewise, it’s hard not to acknowledge that quite a few scenes would be extremely hard to verify as scientific fact which makes the filmmakers’ decision to bookend it again with Madsen’s voice-over and a wrap-up of post-paranormal events seem like a strange fit. Moreover, the eerie Victorian séance stuff would’ve made one hell of a creepy Lionsgate “seat jumper” if the filmmakers had been given the freedom to move away from the trappings of what they describe as a fiercely “true story” and just focus specifically on the back-story which is more effective ultimately than the one being played out during the film’s setting of the summer of 1987.