Long Way North (Shout! Factory) is a gorgeous French-Danish animated feature about a 15-year-old girl from an aristocratic family in 1880s Saint Petersburg who flees her palatial home for the far north to search for the lost ship of her explorer grandfather Oloukine. He disappeared in his attempt to conquer the North Pole in the “unsinkable” ice breaker “The Davai” and is assumed by all to have sunk but Sacha, the aristocrat with the heart of an adventurer, finds clues in her grandfather’s papers that suggests he took an alternate route and she seeks out a ship to search for the ship. There’s a handsome reward for its recovery, which is what finally convinces a Captain to take on her search, but she’s driven by her adoration for her grandfather and her desire to rehabilitate his reputation.
First-time director Rémi Chayé was an assistant director and storyboard artist on the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and the lovely French feature The Painting and he brings a strong, sure sense of design and layout to the film. This is traditional hand-drawn animation with an unconventional visual style, less drawn than painted with big, bold fields of color and details suggested in splashes of shadow or small, simple lines.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Walt Disney Signature Collection (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
It’s hard to grasp today how revolutionary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in 1937. The beautiful (and at times a little dark and scary) Grimm Brothers fairy tale of a pathologically narcissistic queen, a beautiful princess, and a lovable troupe of little men who protect her was a grand gamble, an expensive animated feature in Technicolor made a time when animated features were practically nonexistent and Technicolor was Hollywood’s expensive new toy. It was dubbed “Disney’s Folly” by the industry, until it became a massive success. Though technically not the first animated feature, the elaborately painted images and graceful execution of the Technicolor feature redefined the idea of what animation could do, pushed the possibility of color cinema into a new realm, convinced the audiences that animation could tell a story for adults and kids alike and launched the Disney legacy. Delicately shaded and delightfully old fashioned, like a fairy tale come to life from a 19th century illustration, it remains to this day one of the most beautiful animated features ever made and my favorite Disney film of all time.
It was first released on Blu-ray in 2009, a “Diamond Edition” release that has been out of print for years and commanding high prices on the collector’s market. This edition features the same HD restoration and transfer from that release, which preserves the distinctive texture of the painted cels and the thirties-era colors beautifully.
The difference is in the supplements. New to this disc is the four-minute “In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” an audio-only interview with Walt Disney discussing the film set to an image track, the seven-minute featurette “Iconography” that explores the film’s influences on popular culture, art, and fashion, “@DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess” with four contemporary animators discussing the design of Snow White, and an “Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White,” plus the breezy promo-style pieces “The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Facts You May Now Know About Snow White” with Disney Channel star Sofia Carson and the rap retelling “Snow White in Seventy Seconds.”
Also new to this is the Digital HD copy, which you can redeem at Disney Movies Anywhere.
“Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is an expanded version of the featurette “The One That Started It All” from the 2009 “Diamond Edition” release, running just over half an hour, while “Hyperion Studios Tour” is a condensed (30-minute) version of the virtual tour from the 2009 edition.
Carried over from the earlier disc: commentary by Roy E. Disney and animation historian John Cannemaker, two deleted scenes (in pencil animation, sketches and finished soundtrack), sketches and story notes from an unmade sequel “Snow White Returns,” audio of story meetings, “Animation Voice Talent” (on Snow White voice actress Adriana Caselotti), and “Decoding the Exposure Sheet” (on animation innovations from the film). Gone are the interaction activities and set-top games, some of the galleries and featurettes from “Hyperion Studios Tour.”
Which means what really? It’s not so much an upgrade from the 2009 release as an alternate version aimed at new buyers. Which may frustrate collectors (and for good reason—why not carry over all the previous supplements and make the new disc definitive?) but won’t matter to most casual fans. Basically, if you don’t already have the film, you can now own it without dipping into the collector’s market.
Josh Spiegel writes about why the Disney Vault (which keeps films out of circulation on disc for seven years between releases) is no longer relevant in the 21st century at Movie Mezzanine.
Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) – In 1914 Charlie Chaplin, the most famous comic performer in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, was lured away by Essanay Studios with a huge increase in salary and the promise of creative freedom. Chaplin made the most of it and you can watch his evolution over the course of the 14 official shorts (and one unofficial short) of this collection, all produced in 1915. This is the American Blu-ray debut of the films from newly remastered editions, a project undertaken in collaboration with Lobster Films, David Shepard and Blackhawk Films, and the Cineteca Bologna.
Chaplin stars with Ben Turpin in His New Job, set at a movie studio, and A Night Out, where they play a pair of sloppy drunks raising havoc at a posh eatery. Edna Purviance, who co-stars in all subsequent Essanay shorts, joins Chaplin with The Champion, where a hidden horseshoe in a boxing glove promotes the tramp from sparring partner (“This gink wants his face kalsomined,” reads one particularly rich title) to challenger to the boxing title. In the Park, a shapeless gag fest where the tramp crosses paths with a pickpocket (identified as “a biter” in the titles) and a pair of lovers, concludes the tape. This is primitive Chaplin, still very much steeped in the Keystone slapstick tradition of pratfalls and well placed kicks to the rear end. The Tramp an aggressively mischievous character who smokes incessantly, striking matches on the neck of poor bystanders and flicking ashes in everything from tipped hats to open mouths. The Chaplin magic comes through in the timing and the grace.
A Jitney Elopement is straight slapstick, an often inspired but otherwise familiar tale of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements ending in a Keystone-like car chase. The Tramp, however, features his most fully formed story to date and injects an element of pathos that will become central to Chaplin’s later films. The Tramp saves a girl from three ruffians and is rewarded with a job from her father (he proceeds to wreak havoc on their family farm), but stays only because he’s fallen in love. By contrast By the Sea feels thrown together, and likely was as Chaplin and company shot the loosely connected series of beachside gags in one day. Work finds Chaplin back in form: a force of pure chaos as a paperhanger’s assistant who turns a cozy home into a glue-spattered disaster area. You can see Chaplin’s story sense improve with The Tramp and Work while his persona becomes less aggressive and more hapless, oblivious to the destruction he’s causing all around.
Chaplin doffed his duds and his ubiquitous mustache for the first time since leaving Keystone and the last time in the silent era for A Woman, a hilarious short in which he disguises himself as an elegant society lady. As he flutters his eyelids and flirts with two leering men, including his sweetheart’s married father, she watches in tickled amusement. In The Bank, one of his best Essanay shorts, he waddles up the bank vault only to pull out a bucket, a mop and a smock. Chaplin smoothly combines pathos and slapstick in this story of a dreamy, lovesick janitor, the first of his Essanay films to approach the level of his later Mutual classics. Shanghaied is classic silent situational comedy involving a boat, a stowaway, a dastardly plot to sink the ship, and a plenty of seaborn humor. Chaplin’s gags flow smoothly through a cohesive narrative, building to an organic climax (as opposed to often arbitrary conclusions of his first Essanay efforts), while his talents as a physical comedian are in full display as he balances a dinner tray on a stormy sea and dances a spontaneous jig.
Chaplin is at the top of his form in the his final three films for Essanay. He takes two roles in A Night at the Show, the drunk dandy that was his music hall specialty and a working class rube with a droopy mustache, to wreak havoc at a vaudeville show. Producer David Shepard’s reconstruction of Chaplin’s original two reel version of Burlesque of Carmen, which was expanded by Essanay to four reels with outtakes and new footage, brings the sprawling parody back down to the concentrated, cohesive, and very funny comedy Chaplin originally created. Police is classic Chaplin, the misadventures of the Tramp who leaves prison for a world of rampant poverty and crime, portrayed with a cynical, satiric eye yet heartened with hope. The edition featured here is newly restored. It’s also his final film for Essanay. Mutual Studios gave Chaplin an offer and Chaplin left in 1916 for complete creative control and an unprecedented contract that made him the highest paid person in the world. Building from his evolution at Essanay, he went on to create a dozen comedy classics that remain, in the eyes of many fans, the most concentrated examples of the Chaplin genius.
The rest of the films are presented as supplements. Triple Trouble was constructed by Essanay in 1918 from an unfinished feature called Life and outtakes from Police and Work. While it lacks the narrative cohesion that Chaplin brought to his late Essanay films, it nonetheless features some excellent comic moments. And the set also features the debut of the newly restored Charlie Butts, a one-reel short assembled from alternate takes from A Night Out and released in 1920.
The set features all of these in both Blu-ray and DVD editions and includes a booklet with an essay by Jeffrey Vance and notes on the films and the restorations.
The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films (Zeitgeist, Blu-ray) – Collaborators and identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay have garnered a cult following for their strange animated shorts, surreal films created in a collision of 19th and 20th century styles and sensibilities. Their figures—mechanical contraptions of thread and wire, springs and coils, aged machine parts and simple tools—quiver and stutter, as if restless with nervous energy, through abstract dramas in doll house abodes in dreamscape worlds.
Directed in a highly stylized manner, with a shallow plain of focus that purposely keeps objects out of focus and a camera that moves with conspicuous mechanical precision (long before it became common practice in stop-motion photography), their works have a dream-like quality about them. This is directly alluded to in the subtitle of one of their most handsome films, The Comb (From the Museum of Sleep) (1990) where scenes of a lattice-work of ladders shooting through an angular construction is intercut with a sleeping woman. Street of Crocodiles (1986), their most famous short work, references turn-of-the-century cinema as a man peers through a Kinetoscope to watch the nightmare-tinged fantasy of a figure overwhelmed by mysterious forces on the deserted streets of city after dark. These are the longest and most accomplished short films in this collection of 16 short films spanning 30 years of filmmaking, but there are other spellbinding works: the early The Cabinet of Jan Svanmajer (1984) a tribute to the great Czech animator and the Quays’ spiritual godfather; the inventive art history documentary De Artificiali Persepctiva, or Animorphosis (1990); the four short works in the Stille Nacht series. These films, along with Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1987) and The Phantom Museum (2003), showcase a vision of quivering objects and surreal narratives in a shadowy, self-contained dream world.
Three recent works make their disc debut in this collection: Maska (2010), Through the Weeping Glass (2011), and Unmistaken Hands (2013), all of which recently toured the U.S. in a program of Quay films curated by Christopher Nolan, a fan of the filmmakers. He contributes an original documentary, the eight-minute appreciation Quay (2015), a profile of the filmmakers at work and in conversation discussing their inspirations. Also features commentaries for six shorts recorded by the Quay Brothers for a previous disc release and a booklet with an introduction by Nolan, a Quay Brothers dictionary, and an essay by Michael Atkinson.
The complete line-up is featured below:
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984)
This Unnameable Little Broom (or, The Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987)
Stille Nacht I (Dramolet) (1988)
The Comb (1990)
Stille Nacht II (Are We Still Married?) (1992)
Stille Nacht III (Tales From Vienna Woods) (1993)
Stille Nacht IV (Can’t Go Wrong Without You) (1994)
In Absentia (2000)
The Phantom Museum (2003)
Nocturna Artificialia (1979)
Through the Weeping Glass (2011)
Unmistaken Hands (2013)
Quay (dir: Christopher Nolan)
I took a week off the usual new release pattern for Halloween so I’m catching up on two weeks of disc releases. There’s a lot here, too much to do justice to it all, but here are the highlights of what I received for review.
Inside Out (Disney, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) – In the 15th feature from Pixar, feelings are not just the focus of the story. They are the main characters. The primary emotions of preteen girl Riley get a workout when she’s uprooted from friends and activities in Minnesota, where she’s a devoted member of a hockey team, and dropped into San Francisco, where she doesn’t know a soul and none of her things have arrived to ease the transition. Joy, a pixie of a character voiced as a whirlwind of enthusiasm supercharged on sugar and caffeine by Amy Pohler, tries to focus on the positive and the possibilities but it’s a difficult adjustment. The blue frump Sadness (Phyllis Smith of The Office in a delivery pitched like a non-stop sigh), the outcast of the otherwise hyperactive team, keeps tripping up her increasingly desperate attempts to put a happy face on everything. The internal tug-of-war of the emotional turmoil lands them deep in Riley’s subconscious, along with Riley’s core memories, which they need to save before they’re lost to the graveyard of the forgotten past.
So it’s a journey film—the framework of many a Pixar classic—with two seemingly incompatible characters who learn to appreciate one another along the way. But it’s also a sharply insightful exploration of the complicated feelings of kids, a cartoon brainscan or an extended dream that turns the mind into an epic theme park run from a starship control center by five dominant emotions. Disgust, a green, judgmental mean girl voiced by Mindy Kaling, Fear, a skittish praying mantis of a figure (Bill Hader), and Anger, a literal hothead of a burning ember in a middle-management suit (perfectly pitched on the edge of outrage by Lewis Black), fill out the control room crew and end up panicking when left in charge. The confusion and unchecked impulses lead to some bad decisions.
Director and co-writer Pete Docter has been a part of the Pixar’s brain trust and talent chest since the beginning. He co-wrote Toy Story and Wall-E and directed the Oscar-winning Up, a film that shows just how well he knows his way around emotions. For this film Docter is as much concerned father as master filmmaker. He worked with psychiatrists to understand the inner workings of the emotional world of the growing child (he was inspired by the changed in his own adolescent daughter) and create visual metaphors for the abstract process and theoretical ideas. And what finally came up with is clever and funny and sweet and sad, an ingeniously physical interpretation of the ephemeral that acknowledges the competing impulses driving the growing child (not to mention older kids, adults, and by the coda, even dogs and cats).
There’s nothing Pollyanish about this portrait, even with the hyper upbeat Joy trying to micromanage every situation to a happy ending and banish Sadness to the margins. As she learns, suppressing your emotions doesn’t work. You have move through them. Inside Out reminds us that emotions are very real experiences and they have all have a place in our lives. It’s clever and it’s funny and it’s sweet, and it tells kids that, as Rosie Grier sang decades ago in Free to Be You and Me, it’s all right to cry because it might make you feel better.
Blu-ray and DVD with optional filmmaker commentary (director Pete Docter and co-director Ronnie Del Carmen, with a special guest or two along the way) and the bonus animated short film Lava, which played in front of the film in theaters.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the original Riley’s First Date?, a snappy little short which spends even more time in the heads of Riley’s parents, and all the featurettes. “Mixed Emotions” (7 mins) looks as the design and development of the emotion characters, “Mapping the Mind” (8 mins) looks into the design of the visual film, “Into the Unknown: The Sound of Inside Out” (7 mins) explores the sound design, “The Misunderstood Art of Animation Film Editing” (4 mins) is self-explanatory, and “Paths to Pixar: The Women of Inside Out” (11 mins) looks at the personal stories of the women of the production. There’s also “Our Dads, The Filmmakers” (7 mins), the compilation reel “Mind Candy” (14 mins), and four deleted scenes with introductions from Docter, plus bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.
Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal(Magnolia, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) – In 1968, William F. Buckley was the face of the new Conservative movement: editor of The National Review, host of the public television show Firing Line, a conservative media celebrity with a cool intellect and sharp tongue. Gore Vidal, born and raised as a member of the East Coast American political aristocracy, was a respected novelist, essayist, and outspoken liberal commentator who used his wit to provoke and satirize. The despised one another as much as they hated what the other stood for. ABC, the distant third of three networks going into the political conventions of the election season, hired these men to debate the events of the respective Republican and Democratic conventions over ten nights of network coverage. What they got in those brief minutes at the end of each program was less debate than verbal sparring matches between two erudite intellectuals attacking the political philosophy and public record of the other and they were out for blood. As Christopher Hitchens puts it, “There’s nothing feigned about their mutual animosity. They really do despise each other.”
Best of Enemies presents a contrast of two very public intellectuals along with its portrait of an unlikely and unique television event in 1968, an approach to political coverage that ultimately changed the face of political discourse on TV from reporting to punditry and competing voices. Yet there is nothing on contemporary cable news that resembles what these two men gave viewers in 1968. These men took great pride in their vocabulary, their erudition, their intellect, and they dueled with words and ideas and wicked insults in cultivated, patrician mid-Atlantic accents. This was a time when “intellectual” was not an insult but a badge of pride and these men elevated the language of discourse even while engaging in a verbal street brawl.
Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville anchor their documentary with extended clips from their debates, which are unaccountably entertaining in their own right, with backstory and commentary in between. Buckley passed away in 2008, Gore Vidal in 2012, and their respective legacies are in danger of being forgotten. This documentary reminds us of their public presence and their cultural import, but what carries the film is the sheer spectacle of their verbal bloodsport on a national stage. You’ll never see this level of political discourse in the fractured world of cable TV news playing to partisan constituents and punditry reduced to sound bites and shouting matches. The personal hatred that fanned the flames of their duel only makes the spectacle that much more riveting.
Blu-ray and DVD, with a seven-minute interview with the directors and over an hour of additional interviews with the featured commentators, including Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, and James Wolcott, presented as a series short sound bite-sized clips. Also on VOD.
Rebels of the Neon God (Big World Pictures, DVD), the debut feature by Taiwan filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang is a study in urban alienation in the overcrowded city of Tapei. Sad faced, soft-featured young actor Lee Kang-sheng stars as a disconnected Taiwan youth studying to get into college who becomes obsessed with a petty hood (Chen Chao-jung) he witnesses vandalizing his father’s cab. There is very little dialogue in the film and Tsai uses long takes with minimal camera movement to emphasize the boredom and unhappiness of the characters. They seem to be going through the motions of life, especially the student who simply quits his studies, gets a motor bike, and stalks the young thief as he robs and vandalizes his days away.
The 1992 film played in film festivals but did not get a theatrical release in the U.S. until 2015, long after Tsai had made his reputation with films such as The River andGoodbye Dragon Inn, which also explore inchoate longing and human disconnection in the urban world. While his later films are more accomplished, Tsai is very much in command of his art and captures the inarticulate frustrations not just of the young but everyone living in this impersonal, overwhelming city. And for a film that keeps its audience at a distance, he shows a compassion for his characters, especially the confused young protagonist. Lee went on to become Tsai’s onscreen alter ego and the star of all of his subsequent films. A well-mastered disc, no supplements, in Mandarin with English subtitles.
Croupier (Hen’s Tooth, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1998 film that helped elevate the career of Clive Owen, is a low-key drama with Owen as a would-be writer and a gambling addict in denial who takes a high paying job at a casino. “He was a writer looking down on his subject,” he narrates in voice-over. “A detached voyeur.” Soaking in the atmosphere of card sharps and petty thievery and scams, he pours out his observations in a novel about “Jake,” a self-obsessed misanthrope who thrives on the misery of others. Pretty soon honest dealer Jack can’t tell himself apart from the corrupt Jake and takes a payoff in return for playing a part in a planned heist. It’s a mannered performance in a film that blurs fantasy and reality until you’re not sure what exactly you’re seeing, in sharp contrast to Gina McKee, who is so alive she seems to come from another film. Alex Kingston makes an impression in a supporting role. Directed by Mike Hodges, who made the original Get Carter and directed Owen again in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.
I’m not really fond of this film—I find it a little precious—but it has its fans and the Blu-ray debut looks fine indeed. No supplements.
Two freshly-anointed Oscar winners arrive on home video this week: Whiplash, which won awards for Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons and for editing, and sound mixing, and Big Hero 6, this year’s Best Animated Feature, debut on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.
In Whiplash (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, VOD), music competition is a bloodsport and J.K. Simmons’ instructor is as feared as he is respected. His Fletcher is the drill sergeant of Full Metal Jacket in a simple black t-shirt and slacks and head shaved to a hard sheen and his boot camp is the school’s competition stage band: the best of the best. He bullies his students into total obedience and fear and they are desperate to win his approval while he browbeats, humiliates, and even physically assaults them, none more so than the intense and driven Buddy Rich disciple Andrew (Miles Teller). Teller is as fearless as Simmons, giving us an obsessive who is intense, driven, and at times insufferably arrogant and self-absorbed. He’s not very likable, at least not when he puts his drumming ahead of everything else, but he is compelling, taking the sports ethos of pushing past the pain to reach perfection. He literally bleeds for his art. Fletcher demands more through his hyena smile. He may actually believe that such tactics make better musicians (that which doesn’t kill only makes you a stronger player?) but he clearly enjoys the mind-games and emotional warfare. Simmons gives him life by playing it with cagey calculation, as if the very act of teaching is a competitive event.
This is as much psychological thriller as musical drama and it turns on the increasingly toxic chemistry between two clearly damaged people, to the exclusion of pretty much anyone else in the film. The other members of the band fade away as bystanders, object lessons, or seat-fillers and Andrew’s fleeting attempts at romance are all about how Fletcher’s influence infects him with the same emotional brutality. We never really get to know girl left wounded by his insensitivity. Such oversights allow the film to slip out of the real world and into a stylized arena of musical warfare but it works in the scheme of things. Writer / director Damien Chazelle has basically created a two-hander and that collision of ruthless ambition and ferocious control is riveting. The jazz band pieces, especially the title song “Whiplash,” give the film a brittle edge; these tunes aren’t played to express musical joy, they are designed to showcase musical precision, and the percussion-heavy element puts the film on edge as successfully as the drum solos in Birdman define the nervous tension of that film.
Blu-ray and DVD both feature commentary by filmmaker Damien Chazelle and co-star J.K. Simmons and a Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival screening with Chazelle, Simmons, and Miles Teller. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the original short film Chazelle shot with Simmons to help fund the film (Simmons’ son plays the role that Teller essays in the feature), the 40-minute drumming documentary “Timekeepers,” and a deleted scene, plus an Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film. Also on Digital HD and cable and web VOD.
Big Hero 6 (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD) is an adaptation of a Marvel Comics title but the filmmakers thoroughly transform it into a Disney feature, complete with issues of loss and family at the center of the creation of a student superhero team, with the spark of Pixar in its visual invention and knowing wit. The comic book was set in Tokyo but this plays out in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, where adolescent robotics prodigy Hiro discovers that his science fair invention has been turned into a weapon and then transforms his engineer brother’s plush medical bot, Baymax, into the cuddliest, sweetest, most protective crimefighter the world has ever seen. Together with his brother’s best friends and fellow engineering students, they form a team of what you might call science heroes, turning their inventions into superhero accessories.
In a stronger year Big Hero 6 might not have won the Oscar—it doesn’t have the timelessness or universality of the best Pixar movies or the elemental fairy tale resonance of Disney’s best—but there is no denying the art and heart of the film. Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock) voices the robot Baymax as a gentle nanny turned inflatable transformer, like a giant plush doll with the instinct of a caregiver and the mind of an overprotective child, a little slow on the uptake but utterly benevolent. That level of compassion is comforting amidst the flashy chaos of a superhero spectacle.
This disc actually offers two Oscar winners: Best Animated Short Feast, which played in front of the film in theaters, is included as a supplement. It also offers two featurettes—”The Origin Story of Big Hero 6: Hiro’s Journey,” which follows the process of adaptation process from comic book to animate feature, and “Big Animator 6: The Characters Behind the Characters,” with the animators discussing the evolution of the characters on the screen—deleted scenes (in rough form, as they were removed in early stages of production; you can see one of them at the end of the post), and Easter Eggs for the kids to hunt for. The Blu-ray also features bonus DVD and Digital HD copies of the film.
The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), nominated in the Animated Feature Film category, is probably not considered a “major” nominee by the mainstream press but this production by Studio Ghibli co-founder and “Grave of the Fireflies” filmmaker Isao Takahata takes an artisanal approach to animation. It’s a 10th-century fairy tale of a magical princess who is born of a bamboo stalk and, raised by a modest old woodcutter and his wife, sprouts to adulthood just as fast as one. As the bamboo grove gives forth with fine clothes and the riches of a royal, her adoptive father takes her from her natural paradise to a palace in the city where she grudgingly masters the arts and social graces of titled society.
Takahata embraces the sketchy, impressionistic, painterly qualities of animation being displaced by CGI. His hand-drawn imagery evokes both the watercolor and ink artworks of ancient Japanese parchment and the charcoal and pastel quality of storybook illustrations and Joe Hisashi’s score has a lyrical simplicity to match. Takahata takes time to play out his ancient fairy tale, getting sidetracked in entertaining yet ultimately inconsequential tales of royal suitors attempting to win the princess. It’s strongest when he celebrates the simple pleasures of her life, working in a modest garden set off from the palace, running through the forest, entranced by the cherry blossoms of the young spring. And the final act is heartbreakingly lovely, a magical spectacle that whisks us through the air with a thrilling rush. With Studio Ghibli ceasing operations as an active producer of animated features (it will continue to license properties and handle the catalog), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is their final gift, a handmade storybook of a film from a filmmaker who is as entranced with the texture of a brushstroke as with character and story.
Blu-ray and DVD, with original Japanese language and English dub versions (Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Lucy Liu are among the voice performers of the English language cast) and the feature-length documentary Isao Takahata and His Tale of The Princess Kaguya, plus a news clip of the announcement of the completion of the film and Japanese and U.S. trailers. Also available via cable VOD.
The films of Studio Ghibli, the animation studio created by Hayao Miyazaki, continue their Blu-ray rollout in the U.S. with three more debuts. Only one of this set, however, is directed by the animation legend himself. All three discs feature both English language and original Japanese soundtracks (with optional English subtitles), the complete film in storyboard form set to the soundtrack, and Japanese trailer, plus a bonus DVD copy of the film.
Porco Rosso (Disney, Blu-ray) is Miyazaki’s fantasy of a loner flying ace, a World War I hero who lives in isolation on an island in the Adriatic Sea and patrols the skies on a personal mission to keep them safe from high-flying sky pirates in an imaginary post-World War I Italy. There’s something else about this aerial knight: he has the face of pig, the result of a magical spell that is referenced but never fully explained. It simply is, and it marks this chivalrous romantic as a tortured hero cursed to be alone (even though there are two women in love him). The title is Italian for “red pig,” perhaps Miyazaki’s fanciful answer to the Red Baron.
The 1992 feature was a huge hit in Japan and a personal project for Miyazaki, whose love of aviation and Italy can also be seen in his more serious final feature The Wind Rises. He fills the film with beautifully-executed aerial dogfights set against the blue Mediterranean skies and seas and constructs a sentimental vision of Italy between the wars as lovingly detailed as his European village in Kiki’s Delivery Service. There are flamboyantly caricatured figures and slapstick sequences to this lighthearted comic swashbuckler but also a wistful sense of loss for the honor and chivalry for the past. Michael Keaton voices Porco for the English language version and Cary Elwes is his nemesis, an American pilot hired by the sky pirates to shoot him down. Also features the voices of Susan Egan, Kimberly Williams, and David Ogden Stiers.
Includes a “Behind the Microphone” featurette with the English language voice cast and an interview with producer Toshio Suzuki (in Japanese with simultaneous English audio translation).
Tales from Earthsea (Disney, Blu-ray), a 2006 productionbased on the “Earthsea” novels by Ursula Le Guin and a concept developed by Hayao Miyazaki, marks the directorial debut of his son, Goro Miyazaki. Miyazaki Pere’s influence is apparent in the themes of nature in balance and the greed of mankind tipping the scales, and the character designs and types are also familiar, with dragons out of Asian culture dropped into a medieval European world of castles and towers. Yet Goro lacks his father’s storytelling richness and narrative sweep, and for all the gorgeous detail of the animation he fails to create much tension or energy.
Fans of Ursula Le Guin will have their own problems with the way the film boils down her mythology to a generic fantasy odyssey tale. But there is a visual grace unique to the Studio Ghibli brand, and the dark powers manifest themselves in a weirdness that bends the natural world in unnatural ways. The American voice cast includes Timothy Dalton, Cheech Marin, Mariska Hargitay and Willem Dafoe.
Features the hour-long documentary “The Birth Story of the Film Soundtrack,” which is in Japanese with English subtitles, and the brief featurette “Behind the Studio: Origins Of The Earthsea.”
Pom Poko (Disney, Blu-ray), directed by Isao Takahata, is an environmental drama about a small community of magical shape-shifting raccoons trying to hold off a development encroaching on their habitat. This is right out of the traditional Studio Ghibli style, complete with lovingly detailed characters and environmental message. The scenes of the raccoons attempting to replicating human form and behavior is often hilarious, but the undercurrent of the comedy is serious, a plea to save the vanishing wilderness of Japan. The voice cast of the English language version includes Jonathan Taylor Thomas, J.K. Simmons, Olivia d’Abo, Clancy Brown, and Maurice LaMarche.
The Wind Rises (Disney, Blu-ray, VOD) – Hayao Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan, the director of beloved animated features and a filmmaker dedicated to preserving the art of hand-drawn animation. The Wind Rises, which was released in 2013 and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Animated Feature, was a passion project for the director and a fitting swan song. The grand old man of Japanese animation has retired and this film, not a fantasy or mythical adventure but a delicate biographical drama about an idealistic engineer devoted to making “beautiful airplanes” for a country he knows will use them as instruments of war, is his final feature. Jiro comes of age in 1920s Japan and through him we experience the 1923 earthquake, the great Tokyo fire, and the crippling depression, as well as the growing militarism that takes hold of the country and the culture; at one point, the pacifist Jiro comes close to becoming a victim of Japan’s version of the communist witch-hunt.
The film was both celebrated and criticized in Japan, where some accused the film of whitewashing the militarism that sent the country into occupying Manchuria and then into World War II. Perhaps they felt that Miyazaki wasn’t more strident in his condemnation of that culture but he does surely confront and criticize it, albeit with a tone of regret and resignation. Jiro, who works in the aviation division of Mitsubishi, is an artist who dreams of flight (his eyesight prevents him from becoming a pilot) and channels his love into creating the next generation of airplanes, but is trapped in a military culture that demands he design a fighter plane. Somehow he never loses his idealism and his humanism.
Is Jiro complicit in the war because he designed one of Japan’s most effective war machines? Is he so driven to become part of the evolution of aviation that he ignores the use to which his designs will be used? Does the beauty of his creation (and Miyazaki does indeed express the beauty of flight that Jiro feels in his imagery) justify the compromises he has made? And are they indeed compromises in a time of war, or are they duty, regardless of one’s personal feelings? These questions hang in the air, suggested but never actually stated or answered. Perhaps he leaves that us to imagine as Jiro surveys the destruction in the aftermath of the war.
There’s a love story here too and it is beautiful and tragic. The beauty who will become his wife is already ill with tuberculosis as they court and their romance is almost disconnected from the world around Jiro, taking him (and us) out of the city to the bucolic, sunny countryside, removed from the politics driving Japan to the destruction of war. The entire film is beautiful—could this be the last masterpiece of old-school hand-drawn animation? I sure hope not—and Miyazake applies his visual imagination to a realistic drama, giving it the romanticized imagery of Jiro’s hopeful perspective with the shadows of war and death around the edges. It has the feeling of remembrance, of memory elevating the experience to romantic ideal and shuttling the rest aside. And when we take flight the experience is exhilarating. Miyazaki is a master of both the delicate and the awesome and applies both to this lovely work.
Features the original Japanese soundtrack and a well-produced English language version featuring the voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Martin Short, Stanley Tucci, Mandy Patinkin, and William H. Macy, plus the short featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), press conference footage of the announcement of the completed film, and Japanese trailers and TV spots.
Along with the American debut of The Wind Rises, Disney releases two of Miyazaki’s best on Blu-ray for the first time. Princess Mononoke (Disney, Blu-ray) was the film that introduced most American viewers to Miyazaki when Disney (prompted by Pixar’s John Lasseter, a devoted Miyazaki fan) struck a deal to distribute Studio Ghibli films in the U.S. and create new English language versions to widen the audience. Mononoke was the first film to receive wide distribution and in retrospect it may have been the perfect introduction, at least for the adult audience: an environmentalist epic as and blood and thunder fantasy adventure on an apocalyptic scale. Set in the era of Japan’s Iron Age, it’s a time when the foundries first start to poison the forests and rivers around them and the weapons they produce—from fine samurai swords to primitive cannons and guns—give humans the advantage in conquering the natural world. Grounded in a rich and complex animist mythology, it is painted not as absolutes of good and evil but in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. His figurehead is Mononoke herself, a wolf child as original eco-warrior leading the charge against her blood kin, the humans, in an elemental world of animal tribes and spirits and Gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps. Every frame is filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic, and for all that is lost, he instills the ending with hope and healing.
Features original Japanese and the excellent American dub soundtracks (featuring Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton, and translated script penned by Neil Gaiman), plus storyboards, two featurettes, and original Japanese trailers.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Disney, Blu-ray), which takes place in a magical variation of our own world, is aimed at a younger audience. Strong, plucky young heroine Kiki has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline) if she can only get her flying under control. Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life and Kiki and her flight obsessed pal Tombo are marvelous models of courage, drive and self-confidence. Their adventures have as much to do with real world situations, such as fear of failure and blows to her self-esteem, as with the lyrical flights among the birds and over the forests and city streets. It is a wonder to look at and a joy to experience and it doesn’t speak down to kids or up to adults.
Features original Japanese and American dub soundtracks (with Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, and Phil Hartman), an introduction by Pixar director and English language producer John Lasseter, a short “Behind the Microphone” featurette on the voice cast, Miyazaki’s complete original storyboards (set to the movie soundtrack), and original Japanese trailers.
The Long Day Closes (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Dual Format) brings Terence Davies autobiographical films to close with the glow of the happiest days of his life. Set in mid-fifties Liverpool, this film covers a year or so in the life of Davies stand-in Bud (Leigh McCormack) a gentle, quiet schoolboy and the youngest in a loving family looked over by an affectionate widowed mother. There’s no traditional story to speak of. Rather, Davies offers snapshots of moments in his life at home, at school (where he is increasingly teased and bullied by bigger boys), at holiday celebrations (with neighbors singing and joking), and at the movies, where the camera lingers on his face, captivated by the screen, and we hear the soundtracks of such films as “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Great Expectations.” Though they clearly have little money, it’s a happy time of life for them and Davies presents it through the glow of warm memory, as if reliving it in his mind. This is a film of exacting textures and delicate moods, sustained in heavenly beams of light and the reflection of warm memories, and this edition, mastered from a restored 2K film transfer supervised by Davies and director of photography Michael Coulter, is astoundingly beautiful.
Features commentary by Davies and Coulter recorded in 2007, a 1992 episode of The South Bank Show profiling Davies and The Long Day Closes, and new interviews with executive producer Colin MacCabe and production designer Christopher Hobbs, plus a booklet with an essay by Criterion’s house writer Michael Koresky (who is also finishing a book on Terence Davies).
Also from Criterion is their Blu-ray upgrade of Jules and Jim (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Dual-Format), François Truffaut’s tale of friendship and love with and intense and reckless Jeanne Moreau between best friends Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, arriving the week that Truffaut would have turned 78. Criterion adds some new supplements to this newly-remastered release.
Million Dollar Baby: 10th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray) earned Clint Eastwood his second round of Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture (his first was for Unforgiven, of course), as well as Oscars for Best Actress Hilary Swank and Best Supporting Actor Morgan Freeman. Eastwood stars as Frankie, a craggy old boxing trainer and gym owner who lost his family years ago and now loses his best fighter out of paternal caution. Swank is 31-year-old boxing hopeful Maggie, a dreamer who was lost by her sorry family a long ago. He reluctantly takes her on as a pupil and they slowly become one another’s family, creating a father-daughter bond far stronger than any blood ties. Freeman, who also narrates, is the gym’s caretaker Scrap, a retired boxer who has no regrets. This understated, unpretentious, powerfully told drama is compassionate and affecting but it became the center of a controversy which distracted from the film’s real message: the power of the families we create when blood abandons us, and the sacrifices we make for that love.
The anniversary edition features the same HD video master but upgrades the soundtrack to DTS-HD MA 5.1 and adds two new supplements to the package: commentary by producer Albert Ruddy and “Million Dollar Baby: On the Ropes,” a 26-minute featurette with cast and filmmaker interviews (including Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and screenwriter Paul Haggis). Three featurettes from the previous release (including “James Lipton Takes on Three” with Eastwood, Swank and Freeman, interviewed the day after the 2004 Academy Awards) are carried over.
Justice League: War (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), based on “Justice League: Origins” by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee (which helped kick off the “New 52″ reboot of the DC comic book heroes), reimagines the first meeting of the DC superhero stars: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and less obviously Shazam (aka Captain Marvel) and Cyborg. They fight the nihilistic Darkseid here, the most powerful of DC’s villains, but otherwise it follows the familiar “making of the super band” formula: a bunch of solo heroes have to get over themselves and their suspicions of those other guys and work like a team to save the world (and, in the process, their own public image). Quips are crammed in between the spats and battles (voice cast includes Alan Tudyk, Jason O’Mara, Michelle Monaghan, and Justin Kirk), but there’s not much resonance this time around, not after such superior, darker productions as “Batman: Year One,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox,” or the silver age rethink “Justice League: The New Frontier.” It works better as a prologue than an opening act. It’s the first of the DC Animated Universe originals to come from the reboot but likely not the last. In fact, this looks like the launch of a new, integrated DC Universe, just like in the Marvel live action series.
The pleasures of Pixar films are both big and small.
The big picture of “Brave” (Disney) is centered on the generationally-charged relationship between a headstrong young woman and her protective but loving mother. Queen Elinor (voiced with great dignity by Emma Thompson) is a monarch with traditional values trying tame tomboy princess Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald, with stubborn streak in her lilting accent) with lessons in royal responsibility and roles. It’s a story long overdue from the Disney/Pixar animation giant, and its beautifully done, even as it detours into a bizarre fantasy of magic gone wrong and the Queen transformed into a mama bear.
The small pleasures are myriad, from the playfulness of the storytelling and characters to the imaginative details that fill every scene to the wild, curly tangle of red hair that explodes from the head of young Merida, as unruly and untamable as Merida herself.
The character creations are as marvelous as anything Pixar has done, with special kudos to mama bear: the body of a burly, lumbering woodland giant inhabited by the struggling spirit of an elegant queen determined to force grace and regal bearing into the brawny body and meaty paws of this giant beast. At least until her human cub is threatened by the real beast of the forest and she turns fierce den mother to protect her own.
The film was developed, written, and initially directed by Brenda Chapman, the first female director of a Pixar feature, but she was removed and replaced by Pixar with Mark Andrews. (The two share director credit on the film.) Despite the change in vision, the storytelling is fine and the sensibility consistent. It is surely Chapman’s heart that drives the poignant struggle between mother and daughter and the devotion that anchors even their most fraught moments.
Max Fleischer was the only real challenger to Walt Disney’s supremacy in the field of animation in the 1930s. As the head of Fleischer Studios, Max had (with his brother Dave, the director) created Ko-Ko the Clown and Betty Boop, incorporated the music and personalities of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong into their cartoons, and brought Popeye to life in some of the most popular animated shorts of the era (vying with Mickey as the most popular animated character of the day). With an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, one of the powerhouse studios in Hollywood, to distribute their shorts, they were seen everywhere.
Max Fleischer had long wanted to make an animated feature — he was already making extended animated shorts with Popeye and Betty Boop and saw great potential in a Popeye feature — but Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, didn’t see any future in feature-length cartoons. The remarkable success of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 changed his mind and he gave the green light to Fleischer to begin developing a feature for Paramount. He also gave him a deadline: Christmas 1939. A mere year and a half to develop, write, animate, and finish his first ever feature (Disney worked for over three years on Snow White).
Fleischer turned to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Lilliputian section in particular, for his story. “I knew it was my father’s favorite book since he used to read it to me as a bedtime story when I was a child,” remembers Richard Fleischer, Max’s son, in his 2005 book Out of the Inkwell. He even briefly considered using Popeye as his Gulliver before rejecting the idea in pre-production.
Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Volume Two (Warner) follows up Volume One with the HD debut some of the best Warner Bros. cartoons in a creatively curated set.
Disc One is dedicated to the Looney Tunes stars — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales — with some of their earliest and most memorable appearances, including the 1940 Tex Avery-directed “A Wild Hare” (the film that really established the personality of Bugs Bunny), the 1938 Fleischer-esque “Porky in Wackyland” from Bob Clampett, and the Chuck Jones classics “Long-Haired Hare” (going to war with opera tenor Giovanni Jones). “Ali Baba Bunny,” and “Show Biz Bugs” (with Daffy).
Disc Two features fan favorites, off-beat co-stars, and one-shots. “Wabbit Twouble” (1941) was voted the favorite cartoon in an online poll, but my personal favorites are also included as “The Hunting Trilogy” – three cartoons with Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, verbal gymnastics, and surreal zigzags, all written by Michael Maltese (the wordplay champ of the Looney Tunes staff) and directed by Chuck Jones. The verbal byplay of these three films, combined with Jones’ facility for whiplash turns and quick-change role-playing gags, make them among my all-time favorite cartoons. Also includes every appearance of western bad guy Nasty Canasta, sleepy Beaky Buzzard, and hillbilly hobo A. Flea, the complete “Bug Bunny vs. Cecil Turtle” trilogy, and five stand-out one-shots, including the celebrity caricature-stuffed “Hollywood Steps Out” and Chukc Jones’ sweetly surreal “Rocket-Bye Baby” with human parents raising a miss-delivered Martian Baby.
The Blu-ray and DVD editions both feature 25 cartoons per disc. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the collection of commentary tracks on many of the animated shorts and featurettes on the creators, characters, and genres represented in the collection, plus a third disc devoted to special content and rarities from the vault, including 11 of the best cartoons Tex Avery made for MGM after leaving Warner Bros. This collection includes the Oscar-winning “Blitz Wolf” (a wartime reworking of “The Three Little Pigs”), “Red Hot Riding Hood,” “Swing Shift Cinderella” (all with Avery’s magnificent, eyes-a-popping, woman-hungry Wolf), “Screwball Squirrel” and “King-Size Canary” (two of his most wild and crazy cartoons).