Blu-ray Review: The Sound of Music -- 45th Anniversary Edition (1965)

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Having gambled on gaudy excess and nearly brought down the studio with the dismal failure of the Elizabeth Taylor star vehicle Cleopatra, the smart play for Twentieth Century Fox would've been to go for a safe bet to slowly recoup their expenses by avoiding the prospect investing in a film where the budget would run amok.

Yet, Hollywood is known as the dream factory after all and you can't keep a dreamer from clinging to the fact that every once in awhile, gambles do pay off.

So ultimately it took another epic to undo the damage done to Fox by their previous epic as 1965's The Sound of Music went onto become not only the highest grossing and arguably most beloved movie musical of all time but also the historical feature that prevented Fox from closing its doors.

And while in retrospect, it seemed like it should've been a surefire crowd-pleasing hit, intriguingly, the biggest criticism levied at the film to this day was precisely the same concern that kept delaying production in the '60s as directors from George Roy Hill to Gene Kelly and others passed left and right, acknowledging its syrupy, rose-colored depiction of Austrian life just before second world wartime.

Even the man who would eventually take the reigns from Roman Holiday director William Wyler – Robert Wise – had originally turned down the opportunity to helm the picture with the reasoning that it was just too “saccharine.”

What finally changed his mind I'll never know, but I do suspect that it had something to do with not only Fox's fearless attitude towards putting their money where their mouthful of artistic reasons were but also Wyler's extraordinary amount of pre-production preparation.

And indeed, scoping out European locations and talking to the real VonTrapps was critical even despite the fact that – as Wyler's wife revealed – her husband just wasn't as passionate about this project as he was about The Collector, which he ultimately jumped ship to direct before Wise returned for good.

Yet William Wyler's greatest contribution to Music was in the audacious casting of Julie Andrews whom he'd not only seen on Broadway in My Fair Lady but also been enchanted by in the Mary Poppins footage that Walt Disney generously shared with Wyler.

Unlike Cleopatra which was built around Hollywood's most prominent actress, Fox once again gambled by taking the opposite approach by allowing Wyler to contract a woman before any cinematic proof of the Broadway actress' charisma, charm and considerable musical ability had been released in theatres.

When viewing this sumptuously transferred high definition version of the original 70mm epic film on Blu-ray today, from the very moment we see Andrews singing the title tune while twirling around on an Austrian mountaintop, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.

Just like Wyler's impeccable taste led the world to discover Audrey Hepburn in her very first role (that garnered her an Oscar), Music was bolstered by that same understanding of what makes a star. Namely, Wyler's hunch on the Disney lot not only paid off for Wise but also catapulted Music to the top of the box office since like Hepburn, Andrews' first film Poppins had led to Oscar gold.

As the independent, feisty and strong willed nun-in-training Maria, Andrews stole our hearts. Endlessly testing the patience of her sisters in the convent because her inquisitive head's always in the clouds, eventually Maria is assigned by her exasperated Mother Superior to become a governess. Within the first act, Maria's sent to look after seven mischievous children being raised military style at the whistle-blowing beck-and-call by their father, the widower Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer).

However, she holds her own against the rebellious kids determined to send Maria packing as just one in a long line of short-lived governesses by refusing to give into or acknowledge their pranks other than in a hilariously subtle conversation over supper that appeals to their guilty consciences resulting in tears. And predictably Maria quickly becomes fast friends with the affection and artistically starved children.

In the tradition of Jane Eyre and countless other tales, both the handsome von Trapp and sweetly guileless Maria begin to recognize the initial stirrings of attraction toward one another, leading to a multi-layered conflict that sends the romantically naive, inexperienced Maria reeling.

And honestly, the beautiful coming-of-age filled inspirational love story has more than enough charm to have ended there with a requisite Hollywood happy ending as all characters have – as movie storytelling dictates – grown and evolved for the better due to their relationships with each other as a new, large family.

Unfortunately, however, Sound of Music overstays its welcome in an awkwardly clunky final act. Instead of following through on the main plot, the movie suffers when it starts exploring what happens to the adamantly anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist von Trapp and his family as Hitler's hold on Europe begins to spread and friends turn into enemies.

Both the tone and the film's focus are shifted to the point where it feels like the last reel came from an altogether different Hollywood production or one wherein a new screenwriter and director had been called into replace the others, despite having little knowledge of everything that had occurred earlier onscreen.

Likewise, because the war is just brought in like a new hurdle over which the cast must suddenly jump, it's easy to understand why Music has alienated some fans because it seems to trivialize and sanitize the true atrocities of the war.

Had the film done a better job of using the political backdrop of the changing Austria as the subplot of the Music rather than merely forcing it into a movie that up until that point was about a nun at a crossroads between love for God and man, it may have been more effective than it ultimately is onscreen.

For sadly as it plays, Maria is relegated from our heroine to a mere supporting player as Andrews becomes not the breath of fresh air in the children's lives but a slightly passive wife to von Trapp.

Moreover, when you realize that it's quite contrary to what really occurred in the lives of the real von Trapps, taste-wise and for reasons of respect and authenticity, I believe it should've been handled differently or dropped altogether.

Nonetheless, whether you prefer to watch it all the way through each and every time or – as I prefer – imagine that it ends after the wedding of von Trapp and Maria, The Sound of Music remains an unparalleled work of uplifting albeit saccharine fueled entertainment.

Easily one of the most in-demand titles of the year, Music was released just in time for the gift-giving holidays and to help celebrate Fox's 75th birthday as well as Music's 45th anniversary.

Additionally, this museum quality Blu-ray/DVD combo pack complete with bonus features and numerous ways to watch the film with an immersive feature length informative track, Andrews and Plummer commentary and a Glee approved sing-along edition reminds you why you upgraded your home theater system in the first place in a way that's sure to become one of your favorite things in high-definition.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

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

Blu-ray Review: Ramona and Beezus (2010)

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Photo Slideshow

Even though the film's title brings to mind former librarian turned author Beverly Cleary's novel Beezus and Ramona, screenwriters Lori Craig and Nick Pustay ignored that work completely and instead pulled plot points from Ramona Forever, Ramona and Her Father, Ramona and Her Mother, Ramona's World and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

Needless to say, with that many sources adding to the already immense pressure of bringing Cleary's beloved fifty year book series to life in its first major motion picture adaptation, at times director Elizabeth Allen's Ramona and Beezus feels like it's being pulled in numerous directions at the same time.

From abrupt tonal changes to uneven techniques that initially invite viewers inside the bigger-than-life imagination of the mischievous nine year old Ramona Quimby (Joey King) before Allen thankfully abandons most of the fantastical elements altogether to the screenplay's overly episodic nature, it takes awhile for audiences to completely click with this particular interpretation of Portland's Klickitat Street.

And even though the work struggles with the contradiction of perhaps too little going on in terms of the overall plot while at the same time being bogged down by subplots that cull memorable incidents from throughout Cleary's series, overall like its young heroine who often gets in trouble when her ambitious plans turn to chaos, you just can't help but find yourself smiling warmly because Ramona's heart is in the right place.

Admirably resisting the urge to modernize it all out of proportion with the way the timeless depiction of childhood was articulated in Cleary's vivid prose, Ramona and Beezus nonetheless feels quite contemporary as its central plot concerns the family's uncertain future when Ramona's father Robert (John Corbett) loses his job as a number cruncher and her mother Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan) takes on the temporary role of primary breadwinner by working part time at a doctor's office.

Overhearing a financial disagreement between her parents, Ramona soon fears that the bank will literally take her family home away and although big sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) sets her straight about the house not being rooted from its foundation and put on a truck, Ramona decides that it's time she became the family's hero in a race to make money and keep the bills at bay.

From selling lemonade to going door to door offering car washes, Ramona soon realizes that working is much harder than she'd imagined, especially when the jeep belonging to her neighbor's Uncle Hobart (Josh Duhamel) rolls into the garage during a wash and receives a new, haphazard multi-colored paint job.

Likewise in conquering her fears on the playground so that they'll pay off in the real world when she discovers that she won't have Beezus to keep her safe from boogeymen at night after she gets her own room to talking her sweet Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) into taking her to audition for a peanut butter commercial, Ramona refuses to give up on her mission to restore Quimby order, even if it means attempting to make it to school on a day when she should be home in bed.

Filled with delightful performances, most notably by supporting scene-stealers Goodwin and Duhamel who are reunited in Ramona after appearing in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton years earlier, more often than not it's the sheer likability of the cast and the sunny demeanor of Cleary wholesome family fun that keeps you entertained.

Of course some of the problems faced by the relatives are admittedly solved far too rapidly such as in a wedding that is somehow planned and carried out without a hitch (save for the main one!) within a day.

However in the end Allen has crafted a bright, hard-to-fault festive celebration of Ramona's World that's sure to appeal particularly to Cleary graduates turned parents and aunts who can't wait to introduce the characters to their children... hopefully in print as well as onscreen in a double feature of the movie as well as a trip to the Beverly Cleary shelf of your local bookstore or library.

Blu-ray Features: Fox continues to rival Disney with the phenomenal technical quality of their budget-minded Combo Packs that contain the movie in three different formats -- Blu-ray, DVD as well as Digital Copy to help ensure that you'll never have to buy the film in another version.

Sterling picture quality and a spirited soundtrack impress in high definition in this polished transfer of the theatrical release a few months ago. And while the requisite deleted scenes and gag reel aren't worth your time, in addition to a nice but exceptionally brief chat with author Cleary, there are two outstanding creative-minded extras featuring director Elizabeth Allen.

In the first featurette, she presents a "Show & Tell Film School" along with star Joey King to encourage, educate and inspire kids with some filmmaking basics before complimenting this bonus video with another great Fox Movie Channel: Life After Film School installment aimed at those about to embark on their own careers in the industry.

Text ©2010, 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 attended a free press screening 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: A Christmas Carol (2009)

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AKA: Disney's A Christmas Carol

Since the emphasis of this joyless and rather dizzying interpretation of Charles Dickens' classic tale of the cranky, stingy curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge is on spectacle over substance, it's only fitting that the sole 3D Blu-ray only bonus feature contained on Disney's holiday timed release of director Robert Zemeckis' 2009's A Christmas Carol is dubbed “Mr. Scrooge's Wild Ride.”

While obviously the featurette's title is a play on the popular Disney Theme Park attraction “Mr. Toad's Wild Ride,” which was inspired by the studio's acclaimed 2D animated short adapted from Kenneth Grahame's beloved book, The Wind in the Willows, the decision to highlight Zemeckis' breathtaking CGI approach used to fly Scrooge through the streets of 1836 London was a wise one indeed.

So awe-inspiring that they'd undoubtedly work well as a “Toad” like ride, the admittedly anachronistic Superman style sequences truly thrilled this reviewer who far too often found herself nearly nodding off during this otherwise sluggish, grim and emotionally distant film.

Moreover, the amount of painstaking attention to detail, care and sense of whimsy infused in the flying Scrooge sequences also made it perfectly clear that just as we witnessed in Forrest Gump and Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis is at his best and when he's free to dazzle us with technical wizardry but at his worst when he lets his love of movie magic and effects overpower the sensitive human elements and character arc of the story.

And technically speaking, the stellar clarity of this razor sharp Blu-ray is especially dazzling, perhaps because it was originally released as a digital movie in theatres last year so that there's absolutely no loss in the translation. However, the true surprise in this Blu-ray combo pack is in the amount of wallop packed in one dynamic high definition surround sound mix that pours from all speakers. In the end, though, I just wish that the film itself lived up to the outrageously impressive presentation on Disney disc.

When looking over the notes I took while watching Christmas Carol, I was shocked by the amount of times I wrote “the camera won't stop moving” in addition to describing the seasickness feeling of taking in the action as though we were on a roller-coaster. And ultimately, this visual perspective is a major part of the movie's problem, particularly when you understand that this was done with computers and every frame was within Zemeckis' control so there was plenty of time to ensure he had the best angles.

Although it was seamless in James Cameron's Avatar, I haven't quite warmed up to Zemeckis' Polar Express style odd, hard-edged animation that seems to give the CGI a near claymation effect due to his interest in “performance capture” to duplicate the expressions of the actors in a given scene.

Consistently and to the immense frustration of fans of the actors involved including Jim Carrey, Robin Wright Penn, Colin Firth and Gary Oldman, Zemeckis steals focus from the players anyway by constantly reminding us of the camera as it wanders away during key speeches.

And despite the fact that it's animated, since Zemeckis is fixating on human characters, it should've worked to his advantage to immediately endear the individuals to the audience since theoretically we should've been able to identify with them. But amazingly, we feel less connected to the people in Carol than we did to the inanimate objects who stole our hearts in Pixar's Toy Story trilogy.

In one of the least effective adaptations of Dickens' heartwarming tale ever captured on screen, over the course of the night before Christmas, Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is led on what would otherwise have been an important coming-of-emotional-age poignant journey by the genuinely creepy ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future that set out to teach the miserable man the true meaning of the holiday season by visiting loved ones and friends.

Yet whether Scrooge is revisiting the end of his romantic engagement or learning more about the gravely ill yet sweet-natured son of his employee Bob Cratchit during moments that drove viewers to tears in productions of the past, writer/director Zemeckis does his adaptation a great disservice with his cinematic technique.

Having sped through the otherwise pivotal events with perfunctory dialogue and swirled the camera so much that we're barely aware of what's transpired, by the time that Scrooge decides to become less of a Grinch and more of a cheery Elf, the evolution of his personality from epitome of evil to darn near saintly doesn't feel legitimate or earned.

In other words, movies that try to move us emotionally by force are never as memorable as the ones in which we're moved all on our own, without the director pushing and pulling us to get from Plot Point A to B.

Having said that, I do applaud Zemeckis' intent and admire his dedication to incorporating Dickens' text where he could, along with of course, livening up the action here and there in the flying Scrooge segments which make me think designing a companion ride might be in his future.

Nonetheless a script rewrite would've been a good start to rectifying some of the problems with the picture, but without reevaluating the entire cinematic approach, even if Dickens himself had written the film, it would've gone to waste.

Whether it would've been fixed by going with live action or adjusting the CGI as well as of course, the framing of shots, overall the work as it remains is overpowered by the obsession with showy spectacle over substance, which tragically goes against the true meaning of the story as well as the holiday season in the first place.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

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