DVD Review: TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Vol. 2

Now Available on DVD

Photo Slideshow

Titles Included:
Thrill of a Romance; Fiesta; This Time for Keeps; Pagan Love Song; Million Dollar Mermaid; Easy to Love

“I think the joy that showed through in my swimming movies comes from my lifelong love of the water. No matter what I was doing, the best I've felt all day was when I was swimming.”
– Esther Williams
(As Quoted by Harold Johnson)

Although she may have missed the opportunity to compete in the Olympics when World War II canceled the 1940 games, when three-time national championship swimmer Esther Williams crossed over into Hollywood, her
grace and athleticism inspired a new genre and created a Golden Age of Aquatic Musicals.

Forever changing the way we viewed the sport of swimming and likewise-- mostly subtly due to her stunning and statuesque, tall, muscle-toned physique-- also fostering a genuine respect for female athletes, Williams' breakthrough film Bathing Beauty
was followed by more movies than even Williams herself imagined.

As she explained to Harold Johnson, logically Williams was wise enough to question even back back then just, "How many swimming movies could they make?" going so far as to ask department stores to hold her place as a model, assuming "this movie-making thing wouldn't last." However, her home studio of MGM proved their commitment to Williams in no uncertain terms, building "a special 90-foot square, 20-foot deep pool... complete with hydraulic lifts, hidden air hoses, and special cranes for overhead shots."

Yet admittedly the scripts being churned out by the "Dream Factory" fluctuated in quality as the pleasantly predictable Aqua Musicals primarily centered on light romantic comedy. Usually structuring the "boy meets girl" paradigm by adding in an extra love interest-- one recurring theme that permeates throughout was one of impossible romance as Williams' films evoked a (most likely unconscious) mermaid in love with a land-based man operatic feel that was sometimes enhanced by real live opera. However, despite some of the duds, Williams was always as "Easy to Love" as the song so often sang to her that ultimately resulted in the title of the final film included in the Turner Classic Movies/Warner Brothers Home Video release of the second volume of Esther Williams classics.

Although as a musical addict and classic film lover who had seen every title in the set before, I was a bit dismayed that I was missing out on the opportunity to savor Williams' finest films all in one edition. Nonetheless, this exquisitely designed, space-saving package delivered beautiful discs with vintage movie art and the type of extras that only TCM could find in the MGM archives.

Boasting classic live action and animated shorts (containing MGM's beloved duo Tom & Jerry), outtakes, lost footage and bonus musical sequences that weren't featured in the original films, the set more than makes up for its two biggest disappointments including Fiesta and Pagan Love Song via the above-and-beyond, more than just the requisite trailer bonuses that make the price-tag of the set worth it.

In featuring six "movies [that are] available only in this DVD collection," while the picture and sound quality of the dated prints depends on the title, overall, they still stun especially via the extraordinarily colorful yet downright dangerous aquatic choreography of the iconic Busby Berkeley. This is witnessed most notably in the Annette Kellerman biopic Million Dollar Mermaid, which incidentally is the same title that Williams used for her autobiography co-written with Digby Diehl.

With pyrotechnics, slides, lifts, and countless extras, Williams was an early stunt pioneer, pre-dating Jackie Chan for fearless reality by rarely using a double and spending seven months in a full body cast in Berekley's Mermaid choreographed 115 foot tower dive. Although audiences only saw the perfectly applied waterproof makeup and her megawatt smile beaming at the camera throughout, it's impossible not to applaud her work ethic, courage, and determination. In fact it's even more impressive when you consider that her career that consisted of so much time in the water that she napped in the pool with her feet on the deck throughout the intense productions in which she swam well over one thousand estimated miles, water-skied and dove while pregnant, and bravely returned despite headaches, ruptured eardrums, and several instances of nearly drowning.

Her endurance as both an athlete and especially a pioneering one for women of the time is what makes the lightweight cross-dressing and out-of-the-water film Fiesta bearable as Williams impersonates her twin brother to be a successful bullfighter while he studies music in Mexico.

While at times I couldn't help but wonder if classic movie lover Pedro Almodovar may have been slightly influenced by the gender role questions mildly posed in that film for his Oscar winner Talk to Her, it's otherwise forgettable yet at least more watchable than the scenic but shallow Pagan Love Song.
Strictly run of the mill and barely feature length, Pagan finds Tahitian islander Williams (filming in Hawaii actually) in a South Pacific-lite cringer opposite Howard Keel.

Popular leading man Van Johnson makes a nice romantic partner for Esther Williams in the bookend films included from the sweet comedy Thrill of a Romance wherein he falls for Williams while her husband of a few hours ditches her for a business deal on their honeymoon and when she does the chasing in the picturesque closing work Easy to Love filmed at Cypress Gardens.

In another love triangle picture that's a few scenes too long to fully hold our attention-- This Time for Keeps--Williams reunites with the renowned "Wagnerian Operatic tenor" Lauritz Melchoir. The singer, who had previously mesmerized with the power of his voice in his debut Thrill of a Romance appears in Time along with Jimmy Durante doing double duty as musical accompaniment and comedic cupids best appreciated in a bit involving a bicycle built for two.

However, easily it's Million Dollar Mermaid which will be considered the set's standout in this gorgeously transferred film that still excites (when you don't think about the injuries!) via the inspirational true-life story of an Australian girl's fight against the limitations of her disability to become a sensation at the Hippodrome.

Yet despite the popularity of Mermaid, you may be surprised to discover just how endearing and charming the others are-- in spite of some weaknesses-- such as my other set favorite, Thrill of a Romance. As enjoyable a way to unwind as backfloating under a moonlit sky in warm water, the medicinal powers of MGM musicals haven't dipped in more than five decades. Moreover, this Williams collection is inviting enough to make you want to turn that backfloat into strokes to retrieve the original volume and collect them both to see the Bathing Beauty in her most iconic roles.

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DVD Review: Fermat's Room (2007)

Now Available on DVD

Barring a fictitious title such as “Who Wants to Be a Nobel Prize Winner,” if you were asked to choose a game show for which a quartet of mathematicians would be ideally suited, no doubt Jeopardy would be near the top of the list. For although they may each have been gifted with A Beautiful Mind, let's just say that nobody looks at the obsessive geniuses on display in Darren Aronofsky's Pi and the Chuck Lorre/Bill Prady sitcom The Big Bang Theory and thinks, “Hey, get these folks on Survivor stat!”

While obviously I realize this isn't a task that would normally fall into your lap (unless you're a TV executive desperate for ratings) and I've never actually met anyone who says “stat” outside of medical melodramas, it's the type of strange hypothetical that flows through your mind in the mesmerizing Spanish puzzler Fermat's Room which pits four mathematicians in a battle to stay alive.

Enticed by the curiosity and exclusivity involved, four mathematicians are lured by a riddle they must solve in order to accept an invitation to a gathering of top minds. And sure enough, the
connection that the group of strangers have to one another is eventually revealed as the engrossing work continues when they find their way to a mysterious dinner party hosted by a man named Fermat.

The journey begins with a Clue style set-up complete with an homage to the comedy film as far as the arrival of guests goes as one character picks up another one on the side of the road (a la Professor Plum and Ms. Scarlett) yet with none of the intentional screwball banter of the '80s classic. Once they've reached the necessary point, the guests must cross water to arrive at a destination where they soon realize is less of a meeting of the minds than a battle of the wits to stay alive.

Instructed to leave all of their cellular phones behind, right after their host Fermat is unexpectedly called away for an emergency, the foursome discover an electronic device that presents them with a variety of riddles, mathematical problems, and brain teasers they must solve in the designated time. However, it's not just a fun new toy as the answers must be submitted or the hydraulic press style walls will move inward, crushing the room and the occupants like Star Wars' trash compacter.

A riveting intellectual near real-time thriller, this film festival import engrosses immediately, despite some obvious twists that seem fairly easy to predict including the fact that the four are given aliases that we realize have much more significance than the colors used in Clue and Reservoir Dogs. However, admittedly I was stumped as to why they didn't try removing the batteries, texting elsewhere, trying to “beat the game” or manipulating the electronic device that made the walls close in on them as a claustrophobic nightmare.

Yet, thankfully just as the clever screenplay begins to reveal more about our leads as it unravels like a perfectly knitted square, the logic of the rest of their actions feels right as they use all of the objects at their disposal including books and furniture while attempting to secure the corners to build a strong fortress. This decision logically buys them some time as they cleverly test their construction by waiting a few extra moments to answer the riddles when the allotted time has run out.

Transferred to DVD in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen and 5.1 surround sound of the original Spanish audio with Spanish and English subtitles, the picture quality of the disc from IFC Films and MPI Media Group is a bit grainy overall with some weak definition and soft flesh tones, which makes the title best viewed in a dark room film on a bigger screen television wherein you can adjust the sharpness and color. Yet, because the film is so satisfying, you'll be quick to overlook the less-than-stellar clarity and absence of a bonus feature aside from the trailer since it's a work that is sure to garner a greater cult film status on DVD, which makes me optimistic we may be treated to another release of Fermat's Room in the future.

Although some have argued that the film features inauthentic and gorgeous individuals along with puzzles that are below the genius level and Fermat is guilty on both accounts, the creative team of former TV scribes Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena are smart enough to understand in their fast-paced, 92 minute feature filmmaking debut as writer-directors that to fully engage the audience, we need to feel as though we're able to understand at least a fraction of the riddles with which they're saddled.

As nothing is more yawn-inducing than listening to mathematicians rattle on using terminology that most can't begin to grasp, likewise those in charge also knew that presenting an internationally appealing cast instead of stereotypical nerds would also work on another level of getting superficial individuals in the door. Thus, by doing so, they opened up a “math thriller” of life and death to an audience who may not have otherwise attended.

Admirably avoiding overt gore or horror exploitation for the smarter approach of subtly startling scenes including one on a road that reminded me of another overseas stunner With a Friend Like Harry, the highly recommended Fermat's Room should easily appeal to sophisticated viewers looking for a cinematic puzzler. To this end, it will particularly attract devotees of Clue, Tell No One, Gosford Park, drawing room mysteries like Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, Sleuth and David Fincher's The Game in the way that it leads you down a variety of possible final solutions in addition to discovering not just whom the true villain may actually be but furthermore whether or not they have any accomplices in this mathematical death trap.

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Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.

TV on DVD: Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut) -- 40th Anniversary 6-Part Documentary (2009)

Now Available

Despite the fact that I grew up in the same state from which Python member Terry Gilliam hailed before a continental change found him joining up with the rest of the Flying Circus, Monty Python wasn't a big part of my introduction to comedy... at least not directly.

Yet as I discovered in this incredibly thorough six part documentary celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the legendary comedy team, the influence of the men from The Ministry of Silly Walks who brought us a Fish Slapping Dance and "The Lumberjack Song" was everywhere. Although due to the fact that this reviewer was merely a Minnesotan toddler when the Pythons abandoned the Spanish Inquisition to go their own separate ways amidst a trail of Spam-crumbs, it's no wonder that the term Pythonesque wasn't part of my early vocabulary.

Although as my interest in comedy grew, so did my interest in the Pythons, most notably when I stumbled onto John Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda co-starring his Python cast-mate Michael Palin and laughed so hard that my dad kept yelling from the floor below to “keep it down.” Needless to say, with Wanda as my gateway drug, I became hooked on humor-- the more obscure or least-mainstream the better-- and must admit to a certain love of “finding things first” to this day whether it's jumping on a bandwagon before it becomes trendy or the experience of relishing in something from the past that is no longer in popular discussion.

Still, I must confess that my initial encounter with Monty Python via one of their films left me thoroughly confused the first time around. Yet the classic sketches in this set and the group's deep admiration and exploration of the boundaries of humor further analyzed by their fans including Dan Aykroyd, Stephen Merchant, Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg, Tim Roth, Russell Brand, Seth Green and others made me eager to see more of the original series.

Although it recently screened in nightly installments on the Independent Film Channel, which produced the documentary alongside Eagle Rock, viewing all six parts on disc form can be a bit of an exhaustive and daunting venture. However, the format tries to keep things fresh by combining together the one-on-one Python interviews with archival footage and intercutting it with reactions from those whose careers were heavily influenced by the group which is often compared to as the comedy version of The Beatles.

Ironically the fab four who brought viewers The Magical Mystery Tour were fans of The Flying Circus as well, as the documentary cites that Paul McCartney would stop recording sessions when they were on and George Harrison (along with other musicians including Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd) helped fund their cinematic endeavors. Bouncing back from an overly long and poorly edited but vital origins episode that some may actually want to skip just to visit the days of the Circus, the documentary is a must for fans yet a bit repetitive and no doubt could've been restructured and shortened to its advantage.

It begins to unravel once it passed the midway mark as sadly in a few places I wished we were witnessing more vintage Python material and less filler of the surviving members making some remarks about one another that ran the gamut from passive aggressive to bitter as in “___ didn't think it was funny so I kept the original script at the end” or “__ was really difficult at times” or “the reason _____ worked is because of ____ and not ___.” While they're all very professional and justifiably proud of their accomplishments you still get the sense that there's some hard feelings and disagreements regarding what happened and why in their very own “Cheese Shop” in which Cleese reveals his real family name is actually Cheese.

However, the documentary excels when it includes the background of certain sketches and the way they worked from rhythmic pseudo-intellectual approaches to sight gags, the history of censorship battles and Gilliam's need to rescue the tapes of the show from the BBC, along with some wonderful analysis from comedians of our generation. Well worth the viewing is Steve Coogan's near Python audition as he displays his gift for impressions, memorization and obsessive mimicry or being a one-man VCR to reenact skits verbatim complete with stage directions.

Likewise, I enjoyed Simon Pegg's beautiful comment that as a teen he loved a skit wherein two Pythons had to look away from one another to try and keep it together since watching the men enjoy humor while being humorous made it all the more memorable. Further footage finds others discussing the way they poked fun at Upper Class Twits and the reactions alone and subsequent footage could've been its own portion of the set. For in the end, while you need to hear the history of the Pythons from the Pythons, the reason the Pythons are still going strong at forty is because of its groundbreaking effect of outside-the-box thinking of playing with our expectations in a way that's influenced comedy ever since.

So despite some of the gossipy digs, which actually-- in my mind-- took a little of the pleasure away from the idea of celebrating the source, the documentary which includes some cutting room floor footage, more interviews (which were left out for a reason), very few sketches along with Gilliam's photo gallery serves as a gift to enthusiasts as well as comedy buffs who want a far more in-depth definition of Pythonesque than you can find in the dictionary.

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Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.

TV on DVD: Angel and the Badman (2009)

Now Available On DVD
(The Remake & The Original)

Let's face facts, Pilgrim: if you're saddled with an originally-made-for-television remake of a classic John Wayne western starring the dude from La Bamba and Beverly Hills 90210's Luke Perry, it's best to go in with low expectations. Yet, this becomes a much easier task if you haven't seen the John Wayne film in question since as talented as Lou Diamond Phillips may be, there's only one Duke and he hung up his hat a long time ago.

However and much to my surprise, this Canadian filmed take on Duke's 1947 Angel and the Badman centered on the love of a good Quaker woman taming a gun-slinging cowboy is ratcheted up a few gun belt notches by excellent production values and a tender, emotional turn by The Game and 88 Minutes actress Debra Kara Unger.

Wounded near the start of this newly released DVD from Lionsgate Entertainment, the tough legend Quirt Evans (Phillips) is given shelter in the Quaker home occupied by the peace-loving and widowed Temperance (Unger), her parents, and her young son. Nursing him back to health during the delirium following rudimentary, Old West bullet removal surgery, Temperance is thunderstruck with Florence Nightingale syndrome falling irrationally in love with the outlaw while he rambles though two days of fever and chills.

Once Quirt comes to and begins to regain his strength, his attraction to Temperance grows incredibly fast as well to the near Shakespearean style rapid obsession which prevents him from leaving their home once he can physically do so. Despite a couple of longing looks, mild flirtation, and one scene of stolen kisses early on, the intensity of their attraction doesn't feel entirely genuine. This makes it a little tough to fully buy into as Quirt's decision to stay in town hinges more on Temperance than it does to close his business transaction with Luke Perry's dangerous outlaw, Laredo Stevens. Yet this being stated, it's incredibly refreshing to see that they've cast a truly talented, beautiful and age-appropriate romantic lead to match with our hero even if a forced faux love-scene near the finale of the film feels completely out-of-character, context and time period.

Still, all in all, it's a better than average TV time-waster for those not holding it up to Duke's masterpieces, even though it's actually just as watchable as some of his repetitive, lesser fare in his impressive, overflowing filmography. A nice afternoon rental, this Lionsgate release will most likely do even better on cable considering some of its storytelling hurdles like a one-dimensional town marshal whose job essentially consists of entering the scene to deliver a “You don't mess around with Johnny Law or I'll Hang 'em High” like sermon
for 95% of the movie. Equally rushed and poorly conceived is a subplot about the Quakers being just as unwelcome in the community as the gunfighters are which is resolved almost as soon as it's introduced and seems to serve merely as an excuse for Phillips to act tough.

Likewise, it suffers from the lack of a truly unique villain we'd love to hate since I believe Perry receives less screen time than the cameo of John Wayne's grandson Brendan as one of Quirt's friends. However, while it's relatively short on action for the genre, the movie gets the look and feel right in a polished new adaptation of Angel and the Badman where love can stop a bullet.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com

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DVD Review: Criminal Ways (2003)

Available on DVD 10/27

Original Title: The Wannabes

Have you ever wondered just what exactly has come of some of the adorable yet artistically challenged children thrust into the spotlight by fame seeking parents?

In screenwriter/director/star Nick Giannopoulos' 2003 bizarre satire The Wannabes, releasing on DVD this week from Magnolia and Barnholtz Entertainment with the equally forgettable new title Criminal Ways, we're presented with an over-the-top example of where talentless child wannabe stars could go when the dream has died.

Grating on the nerves yet allegedly playing for laughs, Giannopoulos' film acknowledges the old adage that “those who can't do, teach,” as the filmmaker's foolishly ambitious main character Danny teaches routines from the '70s hit Grease to a roomful of senior citizens in his mother's studio.

Yet, aside from his inability to capitalize on the years of lessons he took in artistic areas including acting, singing, dancing and even dressmaking, he remains obsessively bitter about being kicked off the stage of an Aussie like Gong Show when he was a youth performing the same music and choreography he now uses as an adult.

Since Danny isn't the easiest character with whom to sympathize, as soon as a quartet of four intimidating men offer Danny five grand to help fulfill their dream of becoming "the greatest kids' act the world's ever seen," by "rolling" together The Wiggles and Barney, we know something is rotten down under.

And sure enough, audiences quickly uncover that the four men who immediately resembled background actors in a Guy Richie movie are indeed criminals using the children's gig as a cover to snag a diamond necklace worth three million from one of the richest men in their area.

Despite the clever premise that takes a Small Time Crooks turn when the robbery fails yet their group aptly named The Wannabes becomes Australia's bestselling and naughty version of The Wiggles, Giannopoulos' screenplay doesn't know where to go for the remainder of the running time.

Nowhere near as enjoyable as the similarly themed and plotted works Lucky Break, Happy, Texas and Safe Men, Criminal Ways becomes a far more peculiar film to pinpoint as it continues with its awkward blend of raunchy adult humor that makes the Death to Smoochy style set-up involving children's entertainment seem like a poorly planned endeavor all around.

While she's given very little to do, Criminal Ways-- complete with the new, illogical tagline of "She'll Steal Your Heart"-- is no doubt making its six year journey to DVD due to the natural beauty and charm of Wedding Crashers, Confessions of a Shopaholic and Definitely, Maybe star Isla Fisher. Playing Kristy, the sister of the criminal head Marcus, Fisher's main job (both in the film and perhaps for the film) is to serve as the gorgeous bait that the group uses to keep Danny from walking out and likewise to try to lure audiences into thinking this will turn into a sharp romantic comedy.

Isla Fisher

Instead, as the movie continues and Kristy is at one point actually referred to as "the love interest" around the same time another individual uses the phrase "third act conflict," the amateur screenplay can't hide behind cute gimmicks or false teases any longer.

Moving unevenly from the dark charm of a satire in the spirit of Everybody's Famous or American Dreamz with a tawdry British bedroom farce cropping up near the end combined with clumsy caper Pink Panther like comedy, the obviously clunky plot-points and forced dialogue try to forge some semblance of a satisfying conclusion for audiences running the gamut in all of those genres.

Despite cheery cinematography and an ambitious premise, the movie which is filled with awkward collisions and half-baked subplots is one
that is sadly-- like the main character on the game show that opens the work-- sure to get "gonged" long before the 92 minutes are up.

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Blu-ray Review: Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure (2009)

Robin: Aren't you one of those guys?
Quinn: What guys?
Robin: Those guy guys, you know, those guys with skills.
Quinn: Skills?
Robin: Yeah. You send them into the wilderness with a pocket knife and a Q-tip and they build you a shopping mall. You can't do that?
-- Dialogue excerpt from Six Days, Seven Nights
(Screenwriter Michael Browning )

Unfortunately, Harrison Ford was not one of those "guy guys" in Ivan Reitman's 1998 screwball comedy adventure that found Indiana Jones and Anne Heche stranded on a desert island. And although eventually he was able to fix the crash-landed plane in the third act, had Tinker Bell been on the scene, she would've had them back in the air and begun building that shopping mall as soon as the plane touched the sky.

Whether she's given a playing card or a rubber band to concoct the motor in her brand new Pixie Dust Express which both floats like a wild power boat and later flies like a hot air balloon in this film, we're quick to realize that this Bell is called Tinker for a reason.

Following up Walt Disney Studio's immensely popular 2008 premiere Tinker Bell which introduced us to the Peter Pan character in her own satisfying spin-off that reached "the year's number one spot as the biggest Direct-To-DVD release of 2008," this hotly anticipated sequel is just the second entry in what Disney has announced will ultimately consist of five fairies installments.

Yet while admittedly the storyline of the original delightful title was a bit uneventful overall, nonetheless it was vital in establishing the background of our blonde, feisty, green dressed heroine who uses her talents in tinkering to help her gifted friends and fairies with whom she resides in Pixie Hollow.

Fortunately, now that the back-story, setting and supporting players have all been established (yet not to the point where you can't watch Lost Treasure before you've seen Tinker Bell), this fast-paced, painstakingly detailed CG feature length work hooks you immediately as a great children's adventure story.

Likewise, because it wasn't transferred from a film print, the CG source material springs to life in a Blu-ray so breathtakingly gorgeous that at times, I simply stared in awe in this nearly 3-D work that not only surpasses the original but sets an amazingly high bar for both Disney and its competitors.

Stunning proof that Direct-to-DVD doesn't have to mean low-quality, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure would've been tremendous viewed in a theatre with digital projection. Even if you haven't seen the first one or swear that Tinker Bell isn't your speed, it's one that Blu-ray owners will definitely want to experience to show you what a difference the format itself makes when the clarity is razor sharp. Likewise it also provide the necessary discovery that not all Blu-rays are alike when it comes to quality.

Needless to say, the film meets all of the child-friendly requirements in its 80 minute running time that consists of Tink's traditionally valuable morality lessons regarding friendship and honesty delivered via original songs and scene-stealing funny sidekicks. As the fairies of Pixie Hollow prepare for the Autumn Revelry that coincides with the rare appearance of the Blue Moon, Tinker Bell is given the important task of creating the Fall Scepter with a precious moonstone to ensure the moon's light will pass through to restore the Pixie Dust Tree which is their lifeline.

Working with her best friend Terrence who delivers fairy dust from the depot, Tinker Bell's calculation and design coordinates pay off brilliantly. Yet when disaster strikes both the Scepter and the moonstone, she ventures to Never Never Land to try and fix the mess that has put her Pixie Hollow loved ones in peril.

Moving back into familiar territory for fans of Peter Pan, soon the story becomes a hero's journey paradigm as Tink meets an adorable, protective firefly named Blaze and encounters several more obstacles on her quest. With striking animation on a cinematic level, the film manages to sustain its irresistible momentum via several inventive scenes which easily transport you into feeling as though you're aboard the Pixie Dust Express, which is sure to make an entertaining ride at Disneyland.

Since the review copy I received consisted of the studio's budget friendly combo pack that contains the film and all of its extra features in both Blu-ray and DVD to ensure you won't have to buy it twice, I was granted a unique opportunity to compare the technical details from DVD to Blu-ray. While the digital medium still ensures you receive a striking picture on DVD as that's the way I'd actually viewed the first Tinker Bell when it was released last year, the effect is much flatter on the screen than the visual eye candy of the Blu-ray which as I mentioned earlier, is sure to impress all viewers who want to see what their Blu-players can do.

With a riveting plot line and far more action along with the pathos and emotion Disney effectively blends together repeatedly, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure is sure to convert even more viewers to the fairies franchise than its predecessor. Rated G but of particular interest for early grade school students to fully appreciate some of the film's messages, additionally the emphasis on girl power makes it perfect for young women just starting school since it goes against the gender stereotypes we have regarding math and science.

For, in the Pixie Hollow tales, it's so refreshing to see a young brainy female engineer who employs math, science and an astute knowledge of mechanics regarding "the way things work" that makes it a breath of fresh air for a studio most famous for princesses who aren't typically known for their IQs. Of course, every young girl enjoys the princesses but thanks to the new fairies line, we're realizing there's much more to the previously voiceless Tink than we ever would have imagined.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.


TV on DVD: Midsomer Murders -- Set 13 (2006-2007)

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Obviously one could argue that nobody leaves the deceptively old-fashioned English country village of Midsomer without stumbling onto a corpse in the this beloved long-running TV series. However, in the American debut of the four episodes contained in the newly released thirteenth set of Midsomer Murders, we discover that "nobody leaves this place without singing the blues" either. Yet, we're quick to ascertain that a ditty about Elisabeth Shue's Adventures in Babysitting just isn't going to do the trick.

For in the last standalone mystery included in the slim-packaged set, we learn that even our traditionally wise, soft-spoken and gentlemanly hero Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) hasn't quite outgrown the glory days of hard-drinking guitar hero axe-men who epitomized the rock 'n roll lifestyle. Yet Barnaby has to leave his fandom behind when Barnaby and his sharp, young sidekick, Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) must get involved with the music world in a professional capacity after one member rocks until she drops onstage. Soon Barnaby's favorite musicians quickly begin to see the blues of their ways when their unnatural body count increases now that they're out of tune and in the deadly village of Midsomer.

Although the old mystery cliche has always been that everyone is a suspect, in Midsomer Murders, this is a particularly significant truism as often, one body or disappearance evolves into a deadly spree, usually wrapped up with a few motives and accomplices in each roughly one hundred minute release. In this edition, we're treated to four more twist filled, highly complex and offbeat village mysteries that at times seem to give Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot a run for their money with their epic turns of events one hardly sees coming.

The set consists of the first half of the tenth season which hadn't been previously broadcast in the United States and once again Acorn Media's strikingly cinematic installment comes complete with beautiful transfer quality, a 16x9 widescreen aspect ratio, excellent Dolby Digital sound and SDH subtitles.

Inspired by the novels of the dubbed "modern master of the English village mystery," Ms. Caroline Graham, the perennial hit garners additional fans of all backgrounds with each set release and season as more than ten seasons and sixty-five full-length standalone episodes have been produced. Likewise as Acorn's release cites, Her Majesty, the Queen of England "never misses an episode" and when Johnny Depp was filming Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, he became an ardent fan as well.

Aside from our main detective heroes and Tom Barnaby's loyal family including his wife and grown daughter whose plotlines never significantly change enough so that newcomers would be lost in their initial visit to Midsomer Murders, there's a revolving door of new characters and A-list actors who show up throughout the many ghastly and surprising crimes.

Yet despite a recurring undertone that finds the root or themes behind the crimes stemming from kinky impulses and perverse affairs, the style of the show is always bright, inviting, and addictive without fixating too heavily on gore or the nearly inevitable sordid details of a victim or criminal.

Appealing to audiences of all ages with extensive red-herrings and subplots, Midsomer Murders thrives when it's making your Poirot like "little gray cells" work overtime in assessing which ones simply add to the confusion and which are extremely revealing and may therefore lead to the solution.

The first episode Dance with the Dead cleverly calls up the psychological wounds of World War II during the contemporary investigation of the disappearance of an enigmatic and unlikely femme fatale whose peculiarly alluring existence seems to have deeply impacted the life of every resident.

While in that particular case, we're absolutely flooded with suspects, the set's standout second title The Animal Within is much more subtle and opens with an irresistible set-up as an eccentric old man vanishes on the very same day that his American niece-- whom all the locals believed had been killed three years earlier-- arrives to visit the uncle she's never officially met face-to-face.

Unlike the first episode which pushed you away from a majority of the characters, Animal draws you in as we keep hoping certain endearing individuals aren't somehow involved with the eventual death of the uncle as Barnaby and Jones focus on his circle of family and friends.

Family is at the heart of the overly Hamlet inspired third film King's Crystal which centers on the anger a son has when his mother weds his uncle far too soon after his father's death and malicious behavior ensues when he makes the decision to stage Hamlet, taking Midsomer Murders into an uneven and far too obvious literary homage.

Yet it bounces back with The Axeman Cometh, the strongest offering after Animal as the festival of blues greats morphs into the days the musicians died, however, this one feels like a more natural plot change than the Shakespearean twist, due to our need to once again break down the walls of our leads and be let in a bit as well as suddenly baffled by one truly well-written twisting and turn-filled screenplay.

Although it does ask us to suspend logic a couple of times regarding police procedure (and common sense) in the complicated denouement which moves from one setting to yet another in a handful of times, it's a satisfying finish to another intelligent selection of Midsomer cases.

Still, admittedly I'm unsure just how long the cast and writers will keep this series going since the detectives never really get the chance to have a multi-episode arc and one wonders when the writers will begin running out of surprisingly malevolent characters and motives that often come from the villain and victims' past. Yet luckily the quality is still high for now and Midsomer hasn't started singing the blues yet, even if they must be running out of cemetery space by this-- the tenth season-- and thirteen set.

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.

Blu-ray Review: The Proposal (2009)

Now Available to Own

Photo Slideshow

Something's Gotta Give, North to Alaska
While Guy Friday's Green Card Was Taming Prada's Shrew

Veteran choreographer and Wedding Planner executive producer Anne Fletcher danced her way from her thematically ideal directorial transition in Step Up to kneeling down in the filmmaker's two nuptial obsessed follow-ups 27 Dresses and The Proposal.

Although Step Up spawned a sequel, Fletcher's sophomore effort, 27 Dresses which featured Grey's Anatomy, Ugly Truth and Knocked Up star Katherine Heigl earned a poor reception as just another "chick flick" cliche-riddled offering in the much maligned rom-com genre. Additionally, poor timing hindered Fletcher's Dresses from becoming an ideal fit as it was last year's first spring bride, reaching theatres weeks before other dead-on-arrival titles such as What Happens in Vegas and Made of Honor tried to romance ticket buyers. Yet, despite its benign familiarity, Dresses along with Honor starring Heigl's Anatomy costar Patrick Dempsey, were buoyed by their likable cast's tireless efforts to win us over along with a few unique twists on the predictable paradigm.

It's this same “cast as cheerleader” spirit that thrived to keep us entertained throughout Fletcher's early smash summer hit The Proposal, which was elevated before you even entered the theatre due to the star power of one of America's favorite sweethearts in the form of Sandra Bullock as its poster girl along with a nice unlikely Wolverine boost for Ryan Reynolds' increasing fan base. Likewise, The Proposal most likely drew in audiences seeking frothy, flirty fun and female escapism, which ironically is in stark contrast to the seasonal ATM of major movie studio franchise event movies like Wolverine that sound a bugle call that only fanboys can hear and are undeniably Hollywood's popcorn and butter as opposed to bread and butter.

Still just below the surface, since the films all come from the same "machine," they have much more in common than fanboys and Bullock fans would like to admit. For, typically franchise films try to up the special effects and jaw-dropping “big scene” quotient with every installment and likewise studio made romantic comedies seem to work the same way.

And while some like The Proposal are also guilty of using way too much CGI, traditionally rom-coms don't employ the technology department as much. However, they do follow the same patterns of repeating what's worked before. Remember how many gross-out rip-offs we had after There's Something About Mary became a huge success? They do this from the film's inception by gathering ingredients that have proven successful in the past for a screenplay that's as easy to predict as a good guy verses bad guy showdown in an action movie.

Then when that's in place, they assemble a familiar cast as if recruiting instantly recognizable players for an all-star baseball team by ensuring the audience knows the MVP's curveballs well. By staying within the same talent pool, they present individuals we've seen in variations of the role before and whose confidence we already have in the fact that Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds can hit a rom-com out of the park.

Although Julia Roberts was the first choice for the leading lady but as IMDb reveals would not take a pay-cut, Bullock has fun playing her serious, dominating and humorless wicked witch, hell on heels Devil Wears Prada like boss trapped in a typical Sandra Bullock rom-com such as Miss Congeniality, Practical Magic, Forces of Nature, Love Potion No. 9, Two Weeks Notice, While You Were Sleeping and Hope Floats.

Yet this time around, Sandra Bullock doesn't become the lovable free-spirited Sandra Bullock we were first enchanted by in Speed until nearly an hour into the movie. For her role as Margaret Tate, she plays the stereotypically gender like “male” to Ryan Reynolds' more sensitive, loyal, Two Weeks Notice meets His Girl Friday like "female."

A stiletto wearing dominatrix book publisher (a chick flick mandate!), Sandra Bullock's hotshot editor raises the blood pressure of the entire instant-message based office who pings her every move to one another in constant fear. Yet instead of the warnings flying around the floor's computer screens, it's Margaret who is struck with a warning early into the film that as a Canadian citizen, she will soon be deported unless she solidifies her citizenship in America.

And since Reynolds' loyal assistant Andrew is wrapped around her finger anyway, out of desperation to stay in the country she blackmails him with an Indecent Workplace Proposal of a quickie marriage and quickie divorce in exchange for his added demand that he finally gets the chance to become an actual editor.

Equally ambitious and risking jail time if he doesn't sell the relationship to the authorities, the muscular Wolverine star makes us swoon in obligatory shirtless moments while also reminding us why we fell in love with him in Definitely, Maybe as the American version of a young Hugh Grant. Yet although he agrees to Bullock's plan, he's the opposite of chivalrous for the first half of the film by testing her mettle via a public on-the-street proposal and bringing her to his grandmother Betty White's 90th birthday in his native small town Alaskan home.

Predictably the two go from loathe to love but the movie never fully convinces us of the chemistry between the leads other than the fact that they're both so darn likable as actors. Aside from the kiss that moves from acting to passion (again unconvincingly and blink-and-you-miss-it quickly) and one morning of tangible sexual tension, they never connect on the most basic conversational level.

Still, to its credit, The Proposal nicely sidesteps our internal questions about the easily spotted age difference between the much younger Reynolds and older Bullock since their roles not only swap “gender” tradition but “age” and “power” statuses as well. Most films would've thrown in a few lines about unease that likely Margaret would've had dating a young hottie. Yet perhaps realizing that if the situation had been reversed and we'd think nothing of a silly, mean-spirited middle aged male boss given a lesson in humanity by his younger female secretary as they fell in love, it is simply ignored.

Despite this one refreshing commitment, The Proposal garnered just passive smiles when it should've gone for laughs as though it was a background in-flight entertainment feature. Ultimately, the motivation of Pete Chiarelli's weak screenplay seems to have been to give Taming of the Shrew a While You Were Sleeping makeover with a Green Card premise. Yet throughout the film and in order to pad the running time, it's filled with moments inspired by dozens of other films, making The Proposal an unintentional "Scene It" rom-com game wherein you can guess the influence you're viewing onscreen whether it's Picture Perfect or Something's Gotta Give.

As a fan of Bullock, it's hard to look past the film's many, many missteps involving the star including a ludicrous strip sequence, a CGI eagle flying off with a dog and a downright embarrassing hip-hop dance in the woods with Betty White which made me recall Forces of Nature rather than While You Were Sleeping. Sadly, it's a part she's played so many times that-- without any respect for the characters or audience and with nothing new to work with from an inept screenwriter-- the undeniable talent of Sandra Bullock disappears to the point that she's just repeating herself like “Sandra Bullock” has become an interchangeable character instead of a gifted actress in need of better material.

Although it's hard not to smile during the movie, I was startled to realize that I hadn't genuinely chuckled during the entire film. And despite another superlative Disney Touchstone Pictures Blu-ray transfer that duplicates a theatrical level of quality in picture and sound, sadly I can only recommend The Proposal as a benign time-waster for a sick day. Along with the terrific high definition transition, the Blu-ray boasts an extra disc including a digital copy that's compatible on both Mac and PC computer. It's easily the only extra worth investigating as it comes with a laughless outtake reel and an alternate ending that again pulls from more rom-coms including Six Days, Seven Nights and The Wedding Singer.

Needless to say, my favorite feel good genre of the romantic comedy is in desperate need of resuscitation as far as original screenplays are concerned. However, until more great scripts get not only written but sold and produced as well, one temporary fix would be to cast actors you wouldn't immediately expect to find in the interchangeable films such as Charlize Theron, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly and Naomi Watts whose very presence would make the film feel infinitely fresher since it's against their type. And likewise, this would free up actresses like Sandra Bullock to show their range in something that doesn't have her tripping, slipping or playing second fiddle to a really bad male stripper.

Sandra Bullock

Text ©2009, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited.