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Blog, TV
Posted on Nov 05 2011 by Greg
Even though studios other than Disney, who owns Marvel, have their names on the recent hit live action movies based on the characters (Captain America, Thor, etc.), Disney owns the licenses and is now releasing some of most recent animated TV episodes featuring Iron Man, X-Men, and The Avengers.

Volumes 1 and 2, released a few months back, contained episodes that traced the origins of several characters and their assemblage into the powerful, but (in the Marvel tradition) angst-filled, dysfunctional crime fighting Avengers family.

Since the two new DVDs  -- Volume 3: Iron Man Unleased and Volume 4: Thor's Last Stand -- offer 13 additional episodes, all interconnected in some way by story arcs and character relationships, it's tricky business for the uninitiated to start with them "cold," though each set includes one fact-filled "Avengers Unmasked" version of a key episode as a bonus feature.

This information comes in mighty handy, even as a refresher. Part of the fun of the Marvel Avengers is keeping track of who's got a beef with whom, which couples are an "item," and which villains are either bent on controlling the galaxy or just tortured souls who are lashing out.

Therein lies the Marvel charm: the good guys are not perfect, they bicker and even hurt each other, yet united they are the only hope against the total destruction of the entire universe, which is threatened roughly every four episodes.

I know that's a little snide. Actually, the stories are laced with humor, characters are always given opportunities for development between battles, and the animation is staged with the epic scope of a blockbuster Hollywood action movie. This is quality stuff.

But if you don't know the Wasp from the Enchantress, you'll enjoy following the proceedings in Vols. 2 and 3 by either watching 1 and 2 first or catching up with the "Unmasked" features.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Nov 03 2011 by Greg
It wasn't loaded with special effects, blaring music, big splashy stars or explosions. Summer 2011's Disney theatrical release, Winnie the Pooh, was exactly the kind of animated film Walt Disney was making in the late '50s/early '60s -- not sweeping epics, nor pop music short packages, but simple, glowing stories packed with rich characterizations (both in writing and animation), superb voice work and hummable tunes.

Some found this film to be too much of a throwback, but how many modern films can truly rekindle the texture and charm of a classic without succumbing to the present day trappings and trends? Like the TV series Seinfeld was in its deceptively self effacing claim to be "about nothing," Pooh's power shines in his basic plotlines, only without the cynicism. A.A. Milne's books had slim storylines, too, and attempts to clutter them have met with mixed results.

First and foremost, Winnie the Pooh is one of the funniest movies of the year. I don't say this with any hint of irony or sarcasm, it's just true. Without messing around with the characters or updating the humor, you find yourself laughing at the clever "who's on first" wordplay. Pooh and pals may be guileless, a bit deluded and sometimes clueless, but they're not stupid or held to ridicule. This is very, very hard humor to pull off successfully.

The most clueless character of all is Owl, a character never fully realized in past Poohs but brought to scene-stealing fervor by the sharp vocal timing of Craig Ferguson, who with narrator John Cleese and Zooey Deschanel, are as far as the voice casting ventured into celebrity (but with respect to suitability, not just fame). Cheers to the creative team for retaining the seemingly endless talents of Jim Cummings as Pooh and Piglet rather than hiring a marquee name and wrecking the character for an easy marketing hook. Tom Kenny also does a wonderfully neurotic Rabbit, and my kids got a kick out of hearing wisps of his Spongebob voice peeking out within the characterization.

The musical score by Robert Rodriguez and Kristen Anderson-Rodriguez (she also voices Kanga) is a tribute to the Sherman Brothers' art of the deceptively simple and infinitely singable song. I can't help but assume that the chorus singing "hunny, hunny..." was a nod to the Wonderful World of Color theme ("color,  color...").

The Blu-ray looks marvelous, but I was a little let down by the lack of extras. No commentary, not much behind the scenes stuff, pretty lacking all around. Most interesting were the deleted scenes. Charming as they were, the scenes were cut because, it seems from the explanation, to keep the story focused and evenhanded. Although Owl is a scene stealer, he's never the complete focus. Each character gets a sufficient time to shine, even "B'loon." The filmmakers even resisted padding the feature to make it longer, instead adding on The Ballad of Nessie (another film that could have been released in the early Disney/Pooh days). Historically, Dumbo was a short feature too, but it's a gem at its ideal running time.

I can only hope they're saving some additional features for a reissue in the future, because this Pooh should not get lost in a sea of direct-to-video movies. Not to slight them all (many were very nice), but it's pretty crowded out there with Pooh videos. Maybe that's why the title is simply "Winnie the Pooh" with no subtitle, in order to set it apart from the pack.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 29 2011 by Greg
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are all lots of fun, kind of creepy and very funny (mostly due to Captain Johnny/Jack Depp/Sparrow), but of late they've become convoluted and serpentine. I watched the second and third films with a kind of glaze, not really following the storylines at all, but just drifting from set piece to set piece, enjoying the ride but not really keeping track of what was going on.

Remedying this was among the marching orders of new-to-Pirates director Rob Marshall, a virtuoso musical film director in an era in which such craftsmen are few and far between. He's perhaps the only director capable in recent years of making good, solid musicals that even the non-fan can enjoy - among them the acclaimed TV version of Annie and the Oscar winning Chicago.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is, in effect, a musical without songs. And it works perfectly (unlike 1972's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which was supposed to be a musical, and 1961's Fanny, which should have been but had its song torn out). Like a classic Hollywood or British musical film, it's lavishly mounted with magnificent sets and grand costumes. Even the dirty, filthy settings are meticulously detailed (and all look amazing in Blu-ray). The characters are larger than life, the action scenes are inventively choreographed and the story stays simple to allow for all the elements to take the forefront.

On Stranger Tides has a refreshingly linear plot -- the search for the Fountain of Youth, and it has a staple element of musicals: the dual couples. Oklahoma! had Laurie, Curly, Ado Annie and Will, The Sound of Music had Maria, the Captain, Liesl and Rolf -- and this film has Jack, Angelica, Philip and Syrena. All the elements fall beautifully into place.

On the Blu-ray audio commentary (thank you, bonus feature people!), director Rob Marshall and executive producer John DeLuca express their (and Johnny Depp's) fondness for movies, expressing their excitement of using the very same beach made famous by Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, the remains of a hotel where Elvis appeared in Blue Hawaii and more. It's nice when the movie makers are fond of the genre and the project to which they are assigned. It shows.

Penelope Cruz makes her Pirates debut with panache, power, beauty and even some warmth (deep, expressive eyes), though I would have liked to see her given more humor. She proved to be capable of sparring with Sparrow -- and gets in quite a few good lines -- but for some reason, there is a tendency for modern films to confuse feminine strength with dourness. Behold the perfect combination Diana Rigg in the 60's series The Avengers and you'll see what I mean.

Love to have the commentary included, but otherwise not a ton of extras, which is a bit of a surprise. Overall though, one of the series' best.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 18 2011 by Greg
I know some might not like to hear me admit this, but the character of Simba kind of gets me annoyed in The Lion King. Yes, I know he's young and foolish at the start, but when he brags and taunts Scar, he spurs the villainous lion into his treachery. When he sings "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," he's not realizing what has to happen for him to be king. When Mufasa is killed, only a moron would believe what Scar is able to convince him of. And yes, I know, that's part of the story arc -- that Simba must mature and get a clue before he is worthy of his kingdom.

But the film has never fully convinced me that Simba truly reaches that point. It actually seems that Simba's ascent is more due to the efforts of Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki, Sarabi, Nala and the ghost of Mufasa. Yet he gets to be king anyway. Maybe my perspective is tainted by some real-life business politics, but I've never been able to shake this feeling, at least until The Lion King 1 1/2, when Simba actually acknowledges and thanks Timon and Pumbaa. (The Broadway show also was able to allow Simba's character more introspection that isn't possible in the format of an animated film.)

Don't get me wrong. The Lion King is a masterwork and a landmark Disney animated film, a perfect storm of talent and artistry that continues to command awe from the public, even recently in its 3-D release.

What makes The Lion King even more amazing is how close it came to never happening, or at least faltering along the way. A candid, revelatory bonus feature, which is included on both the Blu-ray and the DVD (unlike the commentary and many other features which are exclusive to the Blu-ray), Producer Don Hahn narrates the story of the film from his perspective. During most of its production, The Lion King was considered "the lesser project" next to Pocahontas, it went through several personnel changes and backstage angst, and the filmmakers were concerned that the public would reject the movie--right up to the first release date.

That's why such bonus material is so valuable and important. This knowledge serves to make me appreciate The Lion King even more, even if Simba gets my goat a little. (Of course, if really he did get my goat, it would little more than a snack, wouldn't it?)


Special offer
Now through 1/31/12, Disney Movie Club is offering a limited edition 3-pin set with the purchase of any Diamond Edition of The Lion King.

Blog, Movies
Posted on Oct 15 2011 by Greg
One of the latter day projects that the late Roy E. Disney was surely most pleased with had to be the Disneynature series. Since he earliest days with the Disney Studios, he was closely involved with the True-Life Adventures series and other animal-related films (he even wrote the script for the Disneyland Records Storyteller vinyl album for Bambi).

Disneynature doesn't just pay lip service to the tradition of combining spectacular animal footage with gripping dramatic narrative, it delivers, thanks to partnerships with some of the best wildlife photographers and documentarists in the world. African Cats is a great example of this level of quality.

Narrated with a combination of familial warmth and grave intensity, Samuel L. Jackson guides us offscreen through the politics between lions and other wild cats, their triumphs and losses. So parents be prepared for some heavy stuff in parts, including real catfights (as opposed to the reality show variety).

There is also some humor, particularly in the end credits. While the genuine film credits appear on the right, at the left appear animals, one after the other, with amusing "behind-the-scenes" credits for fight choreography, etc.

The Blu-ray brings out the already-stunning photography as well. The extras are sparse, though, and I would have loved to see more of how the film was made, as was shown in other DVDs in the series.

This makes a good pairing with The Lion King, to compare and contrast from animated fiction to live action documentary. African Cats is about as close to the real thing as many of us will ever get.

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